On December 18, the Orange County Historical Museum closed—and its three employees were laid off—with no immediate plans to reopen.
Chartered in 1956, the small nonprofit museum, which and sits in a modest, two-story stone building on North Churton Street in Hillsborough, has long faced financial struggles and internal unrest. But executive director Stephanie Pryor nonetheless says she was “blindsided” by the decision from the board of directors.
The museum temporarily closed on November 30 following a water leak that led to extensive water and mold damage, jeopardizing a permanent collection that includes artifacts dating back to the Civil War. While no date was set for the museum to reopen, Pryor says she believed it would happen next year. She was in the midst of writing grants and planning the event schedule when she found out that she’d been let go.
The museum has been the subject of other recent controversies and difficulties. In 2015, the town voted to remove the words “Confederate Memorial” from the front of the building—the words were a carryover from the building’s previous use as a library, which had once received a donation from the Hillsborough United Daughters of the Confederacy—causing protests.
Then, in 2016, the ceiling collapsed, causing the museum to shutter for eighteen weeks.
And, according to Pryor, the museum received little support and was not financially transparent during her time as executive director, though it had run a deficit for several years and did not pay a living wage. Pryor was paid a $29,990 salary for a thirty-hour work week, while part-time employees Anna Boyer and William Ragland made $12 and $10 an hour, respectively.
Much of the museum’s funding comes from the Hillsborough Tourism Board’s trust fund, which is split between the Hillsborough Visitors Center—which receives the bulk of the funding—and local arts organizations, including the museum, the Hillsborough Arts Council, and the Burwell School Historic Site. (In October, the Burwell School’s executive director was charged with felony embezzlement.)
Pryor also believes she was laid off as retaliation for her complaints earlier this year about a former board member’s allegedly inappropriate remarks.
Sherry Appel, who chairs the museum’s board, says the closure and layoffs are only due to the water damage and the mold, which could put visitors, artifacts, and employees at risk. The board voted unanimously on the close.
“This layoff has nothing to do with retaliation,” Appel says. Like the other employees, she adds, Pryor will receive severance through January.
In a press release, the museum added: “The Board regrets losing these valuable employees, but it determined that the nature of an indefinite closing period coupled with a change in organizational direction warranted this action.”
Contact associate arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at email@example.com.
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Appel told a half truth. The employees were only given their severance if they signed a non-disclosure agreement. None of them did.
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