In Lawnside, a little museum is in danger of becoming history

"My father wanted us to know where we came from," says Bethany King, with her daughter Shelby, and her mother, Ellen Benson, in the museum that her father, the Rev. James A. Benson, created in Lawnside.
"My father wanted us to know where we came from," says Bethany King, with her daughter Shelby, and her mother, Ellen Benson, in the museum that her father, the Rev. James A. Benson, created in Lawnside. (COURTNEY MARABELLA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 14, 2014

In the months before his death, the Rev. James A. Benson kept working on exhibits for his museum in Lawnside.

"He was sick in the hospital, cutting things out of the newspaper and using the nurses' tape," Benson's widow, Ellen, recalls. "He was always asking, 'What's going on at the museum?' "

A retired Lawnside postmaster, she's grateful that her husband - who was 81 when he died of leukemia Dec. 8 - doesn't have to hear the answer to his frequent question.

The Benson History Museum he founded, owned, and operated (at no charge to visitors) is closed. The two-story, wood-frame building that houses his eclectic collection of memorabilia is buckling, and must be demolished.

The family of the gentlemanly pastor, teacher, and curator is scrambling to preserve his life's work. They hope to ensure that thousands of books, photographs, news clippings, artifacts, and antiques will be exhibited in a new home.

"It feels like I'm losing part of my father all over again," says Bethany King, 50. "I know how much he put into this - his time, his creativity, his money. It meant a great deal to him."

King, her daughter Shelby, 19, and her mother offer me a final tour of the Camden County museum, which is on the second floor of Benson's nondenominational Valley Bible Church, on Pine Street. I first wrote about Benson a decade ago and last visited the museum in 2011.

The handcrafted displays reflect the curator's desire to celebrate local and national African American history in a multicultural context.

Here's the Lawnside Room, with its wall-to-wall photos and front pages, all laminated or shrink-wrapped by Benson himself. "He copied some of the photos from the person's funeral program," King notes.

A visitor feels surrounded by faces - students, athletes, soldiers, politicians, church ladies. Common folks and notables, smiling side by side.

"People come in and say, 'I remember him, I remember her,' " King says. "People have their own stories about people they see on the wall."

A portion of an adjacent room is dedicated to African Methodist Episcopal church history. Another wall holds an exquisite array of fabrics from Ghana.

Here are glass cases of vintage tools, farm implements, household items and musical instruments (in an earlier life, Benson was a jazz bassist). Over there stands a display about the Buffalo Soldiers (among the last exhibits he crafted).

And everywhere are charming curiosities: a hand-cranked pump organ, a curlicue of a baby carriage, a burnished wooden kit with which a youthful Benson shined shoes at the Philadelphia airport.

"The heart of the collection is that documentation of the life of this community," says Linda Shockley, president of the Lawnside Historical Society. "It's very important that we do everything we can to preserve it."

Her 20-member organization does not have the wherewithal to do so, however. Neither does the Camden County Historical Society.

"If I could scoop up the Benson and bring it here, I would. The problem is money," says Jason Allen, the county society's executive director.

"The Benson Museum is a giant memory," he adds. "Letting it die would be letting these memories die."

Shockley and Allen agree that while the needs are many, so are the possibilities.

The walls of the museum could be photographed, with those images later projected to re-create the visitor experience. Interns from local colleges and universities could catalog the materials, help craft a narrative, write applications for grants.

King is renting storage units and reaching out for help. But time is running out.

"My father wanted us to know where we came from, and whose shoulders we are standing on," she says. "We want to ensure that my father's work - his labor of love - was not in vain."

Want to help? Call the family at 856-547-5189.

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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