Group hopes to unshelve history

Sunday, February 17, 2008 | 8:44 p.m. CST; updated 3:44 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Works of art are held in storage bins at the Missouri State Historical Society, which is housed in Ellis Library at MU.

COLUMBIA — Hidden in the State Historical Society of Missouri is a world that visitors never see.

A crowded storage room adjacent to the art gallery is full to the brim with art stacked on ceiling-high wooden shelves in slim black cases. Prints of works by John James Audubon, 200 drawings by Thomas Hart Benton, thousands of editorial cartoons and a larger than life painting by Benton make up a handful of the works. The room is also a space for framing and planning new exhibits: There’s a scale model of the gallery on a table with the plan for an exhibit of Benton drawings from the 1930s. Room to move, to put it lightly, is limited.


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In the small annex of MU’s Ellis Library, the society’s current home, there is simply no space to display all this art. If growth continues at the current rate, there won’t even be space to store it.

“We have enough space that we can continue to acquire art for a few more years,” Joan Stack, art curator, said. “But it’s time to move on to a facility where we could have room to continue to grow.”

One sentence in Gov. Matt Blunt’s proposed 2009 budget, if approved, would give the society that opportunity. Blunt proposes $600,000 for planning and development of a new building for the society. It’s one sentence, but its impact would be huge.

To Gary Kremer, the society’s executive director, it means being able to hire a consultant to begin basic designs for a new building.

To Stack, it means a chance to make the gallery the society’s main attraction.

To Seth Smith, a reference specialist in the newspaper library, it means the prospect of enough space to store microfilm of newspapers that date back as far as two centuries.

But legislators first must approve Blunt’s proposal.

Kremer said the outlook is good. He’s been working with lawmakers regularly to ensure the $600,000 remains in the budget when it’s approved later this session.

“We have support at the leadership level of the legislature, but we’re certainly monitoring it,” Kremer said.

Society staff have already completed a wish list of sorts. Associate Director Lynn Wolf Gentzler said each department put together a preliminary estimate of the space it will need.

By initial estimates, the society’s new building would be 172,989 square feet, about 140,000 feet larger than its current home.

Katie Essing, the general manager of Columbia Mall, said a building that size would be comparable to combining Columbia’s JC Penney and Sears.

“It took four to six weeks of people doing measuring and thinking about the direction their departments were moving,” Gentzler said. “It’s hard to know.”

What society workers do know is that $600,000 would open a wealth of possibilities.

Possibility One:

More Storage Space

Currently, about 1 percent of the society’s art collection is on display. The rest, including four Benton paintings, is crammed in the storage room. Stack wants separate rooms for planning exhibits, preparing art for display and preserving the collection.

“I worked at the Museum of Art and Archaeology, and they have an area for preparation and conservation alone that is as big as (the society’s storage room),” Stack said. “They have an area for carpentry, too. It’s all separate from storage.”

Stack said storage space also is too limited now, which is not surprising as art occupies every available nook and cranny.

Smith, the newspaper specialist, said he also needs more space to store 200 years worth of newspaper microfilm. In the library, 54,000 reels of microfilm are stored in metal cabinets. Most are arranged by newspaper and date of publication, but limited space causes cabinets to overflow and destroys the filing system.

There is also little to no room for growth. The library subscribes to 300 daily and weekly Missouri newspapers, Smith said. The staff converts these to microfilm every two years. Last year, it produced 590 new reels and somehow found the space to file them with the older reels. Along with storage, Smith said more work space is needed for tasks such as preparing newspapers for microfilm.

“This space crunch has been happening for at least a decade,” Smith said. “We’ll need about two or two and half times more storage space.”

Possibility Two:

More Welcoming Space

A new building also would alleviate patrons’ frustrations. Regular visitors complain that recommended parking lots are blocks away from the society and require them to put money in parking meters.

“If we had a parking lot, I think attendance would shoot up,” Smith said.

Society staff members think attendance would increase if a large welcoming station and lobby were incorporated into the new building plan.

“One main lobby would give the society greater presence,” the society’s expansion prospectus says. “A centralized main lobby of adequate size could also be used for traveling exhibitions, receptions and fundraising events.”

The newspaper library staff also hopes to create better reading space for patrons, rather than cramming 30 microfilm readers into the over-illuminated room full of cabinets.

“Ideally, we’d have much less lighting in the reading room,” reference specialist Lauren Leeman said. “We’d have footlights and lamps next to the microfilm readers, but not the overhead lighting we have now.”

Stack’s hopes are centered on a larger gallery in a more prominent location of the museum.

“The way it is now you have to walk all the way down the hallway,” she said. “Some people may not know the gallery exists.”

Stack said she would like a place to display some of the society’s permanent collection, particularly its works by Benton and George Caleb Bingham, as well as space for smaller galleries that would have rotating exhibits from the permanent collection and traveling exhibitions.

“We would like higher ceilings and space that shows off the art,” Stack said. “The idea is that the art gallery would be the public face of the society. It would be what attracts people.”

Possibility Three:

More Prominent Space

Staff members hope the move would mean a more prominent position in the city of Columbia. A downtown vision produced by Sasaki Associates for the city, MU and Stephens College mentions the MU parking lot at Seventh and Elm streets as a prime location that would strengthen the link between MU and downtown.

Stack said a new location would give the society the ability to reach more people, giving more patrons a better idea of Missouri’s history.

“A lot of people don’t realize how much art can tell you about history,” Stack said. “We have a lot of interesting art that can bring history alive.”

Smith said he looks forward to showcasing the newspaper library’s collection through greater visibility.

“It’s great to see how people were writing at that time, what they were thinking,” Smith said. “It’s a gem. It’s one of the great newspaper collections of the world in terms of completeness.”

Kremer recognizes that the $600,000 Blunt suggests would represent only the beginning of an eventual relocation. After the consultant’s estimate, there would still be plans to draw, models to make and ground to break.

“It’s still years before a move into a new building,” Kremer said, “but we’re closer than ever.”

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