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Project crowdsourcing Alexandria history aims to go nationwide next year

Postcard for the Beachcomber restaurant in Alexandria (photo via Ken Lopez/OurHistoryMuseum)

A photo of a horse dead on the street, missives between sweethearts during the Civil War, a 1909 postcard for a local drugstore: OurHistoryMuseum is a digital gallery of local oddities from private collectors around town. It’s a love letter to the kinds of small local history that don’t make it into physical museums but might go unknown to the public as they gather dust on a local shelf.

Now, OurHistoryMuseum founder Ken Lopez is hoping to take his local project nationwide.

The project started last year after a stroke forced Lopez to reevaluate his priorities. Until March 2020, Lopez had been running a litigation consultant company. Lopez had a small museum set up in his office devoted to all-things-Alexandria, and most of what’s on the site today are items pulled from his own private collection.

“I’ve been in Alexandria my whole life and I’ve been collecting my whole life,” Lopez said.

But in March, right as things started to shut down from the pandemic, he suffered a stroke. It was a perilous moment, but Lopez has tried to stay upbeat about it.

“It was kind of the perfect time to have a stroke,” Lopez said. “I would have been so worried in a week anyway. I kind of got to skip the first few months of that… I ran another company for 25 years, and then I had a stroke. This started from a hospital bed. It’s something I thought about for a long time. I had a prototype ten years ago but the technology wasn’t ready yet, but I’d been thinking about it for a long time.”

Lopez says the project’s goal is to “save history.” His hope is for the site to be a protection for artifacts in homes that might be dumped when the owner dies and the collection passes to someone who doesn’t have the same vested interest in that history. The idea is that people will be able to upload pictures or scans of items, documents, and other assorted relics of the past and tap into a network of local history buffs who can help identify, explain, or catalog what the item is.

There have already been some results to this end on the site. Lopez had a difficult time deciphering a letter between merchants in Alexandria and Philadelphia, and Lopez said contributors helped fill out the nine words he couldn’t parse out. That crowdsourcing led to the letter being decoded and completing an understanding of what the letter was about.

“I’ve been going to people’s houses in Old Town my whole life,” Lopez said. “One of the things I’ve noted is everybody seems to have one or two items related to Alexandria history, whether that’s a newspaper clipping or an old letter or photo. Those things are at risk. I look at them and I see those things at risk. I have a collection that almost got scattered to the wind because I would have died and potentially no one would have had an interest in the 500 items in my collection.”

The idea, Lopez said, is that even items that can’t be saved will at least have some type of preservation.

“Saving a photo of a photo is not so bad, or a photo of an old letter,” Lopez said. “It’s not ideal, but if it’s going to get thrown away, I’d rather have a record.”

OurHistoryMuseum is filled with pages and pages of small relics like an Alexandria arrest warrant for assault and battery from 1794 and a list of patients at L’Ouverture Hospital, a local hospital for Black soldiers during the mid-19th century. Lopez said his favorite item in the collection is a Civil War photo of a local hospital. He suspects is from renowned photographer Matthew Brady, but he can’t say for sure.

“It’s a serious adrenaline hit as you’re finding some of this stuff out, that you’re finding these things out for the first time,” Lopez said. “I find that to be incredible. It’s that feeling that drove me to start this company. I want to give other people a chance to have that feeling.”

The most popular post on the site has been an article posted last month about the history of 1315 Duke Street, a former epicenter of America’s slave trade that’s in the process of being overhauled into a new museum dedicated to telling the stories of those trafficked through the site. Lopez said the topic is particularly important to Alexandria’s history, both to recognize the prominence of slavery and the suffering of Black Alexandrians in the city’s past and as recognition of the struggle to end slavery.

Lopez has put together an app he’s currently tinkering with, but he’s planning to release it to the public early next year. On release, the app will be free. His goal is for towns like Alexandria across the country to have their own little communities of local historians helping to catalog pieces of their history.

“I think there are a lot of cities and towns just like this one,” Lopez said. “Then, when you look at the whole world, there’s an awful lot of cities and towns. My hope is to start getting people to snap a photo of what they have, upload it to an app, and thus: save a piece of history.”

When he got started with developing the app, Lopez said he worried a lot about the business side of it and how it could be monetized, but in recent months Lopez says he’s learned to let go of those concerns and just let the app out into the world to try and do some good and worry about the rest later.

“Over my 30 years in business, I’ve made a lot of healthy, smart business contacts,” Lopez said. “In six months, switched from ‘here’s all the ways we’re going to make money off of this’ to “let’s figure it out later.’ I think that’s the right idea, to put something out there for free and see what we can do, see what people are interested in. It’s much easier to raise interest from investors than it is to recover from a bad start with the public. That’s kind of the direction I’m going with it.”

Photo via Ken Lopez/OurHistoryMuseum

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