By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Abby Powell has been busy removing vintage bridal gowns from their storage bags, placing them on mannequins and touching them up with a professional steam cleaner.
The collection of more than 20 gowns, along with thousands of other artifacts and memorabilia, had been locked away for months while the Sea Isle City Historical Museum remained closed during the pandemic.
But in yet another hopeful sign that things are gradually returning to normal with the emergence of the COVID-19 vaccines, the museum has reopened and is welcoming back visitors.
“It’s absolutely fabulous being back in the museum and being able to talk to people again,” said Powell, the president of the Sea Isle City Historical Society and Museum.
For now, the museum is operating with limited hours on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays as it slowly works its way back from the extended closure. Admission is free. More information is available by visiting www.seaislemuseum.com or calling the museum at (609) 263-2992.
Powell explained that some of the museum’s volunteers have decided not to return amid the pandemic, causing a staff shortage that limits the operating hours.
“It’s for the best. They have to take care of themselves. It was mentally exhausting for them, too,” she said.
Powell is planning at some point to formally recognize the former volunteers for all of their years of service.
In the meantime, Powell and the remaining volunteers have been getting the building ready for the public. The museum was closed for most of 2020 during the pandemic, then briefly reopened in September before shutting down again in October during a resurgence in COVID-19 nationwide.
The quaint museum is tucked away on the first floor of the Sea Isle branch of the Cape May County Library at 4800 Central Ave. When the library reopened on Feb. 22, the museum was able to throw open its doors, too.
Since reopening, the museum has taken down what had been its centerpiece exhibit for the last two years. Called “Home for the Holidays,” the display featured military uniforms and other memorabilia from World War II in a tribute to local servicemen and women.
Now, the centerpiece exhibit will showcase 26 vintage wedding gowns, the oldest dating to 1880. Preserved in pristine condition, the gowns were worn by Sea Isle brides.
“We’re getting the gowns out of the bags, refreshing them and getting them steamed,” Powell said, adding that the bridal display will be completely ready in about a week.
The museum brims with thousands of historic keepsakes, some of them predating Sea Isle’s founding in 1882 by visionary real estate magnate Charles K. Landis.
Some of the treasures on display from the 19th century include a 2-foot-high school bell, a baby’s wooden cradle crib, and an old firefighter’s helmet.
Parts of the museum are devoted to the monstrous 1944 hurricane that obliterated large swaths of the seashore, as well as the infamous 1962 nor’easter that devastated Sea Isle.
Research material includes thousands of photographs, maps, books, pamphlets, and personal remembrances, plus collections on specialized subjects such as the 1962 storm and the history of Sea Isle’s railroads, which played a critical role in the development of the city, according to the museum’s website.
The museum has added to its collection recently with new donations from the public of Sea Isle artifacts, including a decorative piece embossed with an image of the old Ocean Pier, a 75-foot-wide structure that extended out over the waves between 41st and 42nd streets.
Scammers, though, hacked into the museum’s email account and sent out a fake email in an attempt to con donors out of money, Powell said.
The spurious email has the subject line “greetings” and includes Powell’s name and museum title at the end to make it appear it actually came from her. It says, “Let me know if you received my mail, I need you to do something urgent for me,” as if Powell is asking museum members for donations.
“The museum got hacked. But we’ve fixed it now. It literally went out to every member,” Powell said of the fake email.
She knows of two museum members who responded to the email. When they did, the hackers said that they needed money. The museum members realized it was a scam, Powell said.
“I would never send out an email like that. If there’s something urgent, I would just pick up the phone,” she said.
Powell and the volunteers hardly need distractions like fake emails as they go through the process of reopening the museum and freshening up the exhibits after a lengthy closing.
“It’s sad, so sad,” Powell said of the hackers.
Meanwhile, Powell is looking ahead to see what special events the museum may or may not be able to offer during the pandemic. The summer open house and a museum art show will not be held this year, she said.
Powell hopes that the annual holiday open house in December is still possible, but she noted the museum will have to take COVID-related safety precautions if it is held this year.
“I want to stay optimistic and think that we will soon get back to normal,” she said.
But for now, Powell is concentrating on getting the word out that the museum is welcoming back the public.
“I feel all I can do is to let people know that we’re open,” she said.