Water Mill Museum Looks To Future, Plans For Next Season

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For the last two decades, and then some, the Water Mill Museum has worked to preserve the history of the hamlet with exhibits, educational workshops and shows. Looking ahead, volunteers and workers with the museum said it may see some changes that will enhance its importance to the community.Through preserving the building, implementing new interactive exhibits, and garnering more volunteers to help it carry out its mission, the Water Mill Museum hopes to slowly introduce these new features to its patrons as early as next year after it closes its doors for the season on Monday, October 13.

Currently, the museum hosts myriad displays on all different aspects of Water Mill history, from ice harvesting and farming to fishing and old-style businesses. There is also a series of displays on how the museum’s building came to be, as it is one of the oldest structures in the hamlet. But Ann Lombardo, a volunteer who handles public relations for the museum, said there are plans to acquire different kinds of electronic devices to make exhibits pop—videos with sound that bring pictures to life and explain things more in depth, and hands-on activities for children to help them learn about history in an innovative way.

Recently, the organization received a grant which it invested in a small plasma television installed on the ground floor that plays a looped video about some of the features at the museum.

“We’re already moving into today’s world with video. You can’t be in a modern world with old technology,” Ms. Lombardo said. “People want to see interactive. They want to see color, action, sound. The content is old, but the way we have to tell it is new.

“The millennials, they were born with an iPad in their hands,” she continued, referring to the younger generation of museum patrons, those who most likely visit the museum with their parents or with their school.

As has been the case for many years, preserving the actual building that the museum sits in on Old Mill Road is the main priority of the organization. Built in the late 1600s, the structure still has most of its original woodwork in place, although some of it fell victim to the powderpost beetle and needed to be replaced or refurbished. The foundation also has to be secured, and workers and volunteers said they need to keep their eyes on the central beams, among other things. Maintaining the grist mill the museum is known for is another primary focus, as replacing the wheel, which has been done several times, can cost up to $165,000.

“I think the most important thing is this building,” said Ms. Lombardo. “We’re all about this building … and the people who have volunteered and served the community so richly.”

And while technology appears to be a must for the museum if it wants to keep going for many years to come, it certainly is out of place in the centuries-old building. The grist mill was built in 1644 by Edward Howell, who helped settle the English colony of Southampton in 1640. Mr. Howell moved the mill to its current location on Mill Creek in the 1700s; to this day, water from Seven Ponds flows into Mill Pond through Mill Creek, and that feeds into Mecox Bay.

Following the permanent placement of the mill, it continued to grind corn for animal food well into the 1900s. It wasn’t until the 1920s that a local woman’s group began to lease the building and make repairs. Four decades later they owned it, and by 1976 it had been restored as a museum and the mill was grinding again.

Janet Lavinio, one of the earlier members of the Water Mill Museum who served as its corresponding secretary for 25 years—and who recently received a lifetime membership honor—was instrumental in cleaning the building up. What once was a dark, dirty and dilapidated place is now fresh and tidy, and Ms. Lavinio said she hopes the museum can stay that way well into the future.

“It was dusty and had no personality. It was sad,” she said. “And now you look at it, and it’s wonderful. It’s so clean. It looks vibrant, it looks full of life. Now it shows its best side. It’s really important we don’t let it go.

“If it’s been carried along this long, it can certainly keep going,” she continued. “I just hope it’s always kept in existence.”

In order for that to happen, Ms. Lavinio said, more volunteers are needed. Right now, about 20 people serve on the museum’s board of directors, with Jeanne White and Marlene Haresign serving as co-presidents, but more brains and bodies would help the organization tackle many of the tasks that are on its to-do list. For one thing, Ms. Lombardo said the museum would like to improve its online database and create an electronic archive and catalog of all its items, and to do that, it could use the minds of younger people who are better versed in computers. Younger volunteers would also carry on the legacy of the Water Mill Museum and bring unique perspectives to the board, she said.

Lastly, Ms. Lombardo said more foot traffic in the museum is the key to keeping it going. When people see what the museum has to offer the community, it is more likely that they will be inclined to make donations, and that is one other thing that the museum needs to stay alive. Although it does receive money from Park District funds through Southampton Town, Ms. Lombardo said the museum raises anywhere between $50,000 and $60,000 every year.

Ms. Lombardo said the museum’s ultimate goal—above anything else—is to continue to bring the history of Water Mill to life so that residents and visitors can understand how their ancestors and their neighbors established a community that has become vital to the East End of Long Island.

“This was pivotal to any colonial success,” she said. “We would love to see more foot traffic, more people here. It would be so wonderful to have young people come in and be interested in the mill.”

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