The life of a Hollywood starlet may be full of glitz and glamor, but even diamonds can lose their shine after decades, satin and silk can unravel, letters and photos could become just so much dust.
Since the 1980s, Smithfield has been home to an unparalleled collection of costumes, photos, films, jewelry, letters and other artifacts belonging to Hollywood actress and Smithfield native Ava Gardner.
To keep Gardner’s treasures from the danger of fire, smoke and heat, the Smithfield Ava Gardner Museum on Market Street is seeking help to raise money for a fire suppression system that would protect more than 150,000 artifacts in its collection. Most of those materials are documents, photos, film and clothing which could be irreparably damaged by heat or smoke, let alone fire.
The 100-year-old building that houses the museum is in disrepair in places and needs constant upkeep. The risk for fire already has been felt, Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger said.
“We had a small electrical fire in the back in October,” she said. “But our fear – what keeps me up at night – is that something that small could spread so quickly in a building like this, and there would be nothing we could do about it.”
The fire did minimal damage and had no effect on any artifacts, Brandenberger said, and the museum is inspected regularly for fire and other risks. But with artifacts as precious as those in the museum, Brandenberger worries it’s only a matter of time until something worse happens.
The museum contains material from almost every point of Gardner’s life until her death in 1990, including costumes, jewelry, her marriage license and love notes from husband Frank Sinatra. There are letters from Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco, original film reels and scripts more than 60 years old, and Gardner’s childhood Bible, now nearly 100 years old.
Museums face many challenges, Brandenberger said, from humidity to pests, but the most worrisome is threat of fire “to an irreplaceable collection.” Because of the age of the museum’s building, constant upgrades are necessary to ensure the safety and preservation of the collection and visiting collections.
More than 15 years after its most recent remodel and still without a fire suppression system, the museum and its contents are at risk, Brandenberger said. The museum is seeking help from the community and from Gardner’s fans to make certain its collection remains in good condition for generations to come.
The project is estimated to cost as much as $100,000 to outfit the building with a fire suppression system, which can control and extinguish fires without human intervention. Examples of automatic systems include sprinkler systems, gaseous fire suppression and condensed aerosol fire suppression.
The museum has begun a GoFundMe campaign aimed at raising $96,000, but Brandenberger said the website keeps a portion of that money.
The museum is open to any aid the community is willing to provide, since it depends on admission, membership, gift shop sales, grants and donations to operate.
“No amount is too small,” she said. “We don’t want to keep putting the artifacts at risk, but we don’t want to bother people either. But at a certain point, especially after the small fire, we knew we needed to do something.”
As of April 4, the campaign launched last year had raised just $850 – far from the necessary amount. But Brandenberger remained hopeful that Gardner’s hometown and her fans will pitch in.
“People love Ava, and we hope that they will come through for us,” she said. “This museum is such a treasure for Smithfield and for North Carolina. So many towns, so many other countries, would love to have what we have here. Ava was loved all over the world. We want to make sure her legacy, this part of American history, is kept safe for many, many years. But we need help to do that.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett
Want to know more?
Museum website: www.avagardner.org.
To contribute: www.gofundme.com/avagardnermuseumFF.