Advocates plotting future for Joplin museum

Monday, December 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

JOPLIN — When fugitives Bonnie and Clyde were confronted by lawmen at a Joplin garage bungalow, they blasted their way out without time to gather their things.

Left behind was a roll of Kodak film and a multicolored chain necklace that would document the notorious couple's bloody escape from Joplin.

Twenty-four years after Joplin-born actor Dennis Weaver loped his way into national stardom as Marshal Matt Dillon's sidekick Chester on the television show "Gunsmoke," his work was recognized with a statue awarded by the then-called National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center.

When Byron Ash and some other miners sunk a mine shaft more than 100 years ago in the booming Tri-State Mineral District, they found more than zinc. They also dug up the tooth of a mammoth, the only evidence on display in the state of Missouri that shows proboscideans roamed the state in prehistoric times.

What do that necklace, statue and mammoth fossil have in common? They're among the artifacts displayed at the Joplin Museum Complex at Schifferdecker Park.

Selections from Joplin's history are accompanied by what observers say is a world-class collection of minerals — examples of the rich geology that underpins the city's development as well as that of area cities such as Carthage, Galena, Kan., and Picher, Okla. Mining started in 1885, and through 1950, the area generated half the U.S. production of zinc and its concentrates.

"We have wonderful collections," says Brad Belk, museum director. "The mineral wing specimens are of Smithsonian-type quality."

On the history side of the museum, "nearly every single item on display or in storage was brought by gracious individuals or local citizens, so we have the involvement of the public. So they have entrusted their belongings, some of their personal history, along with the city's history and the region's history, and we take that very serious. We've done the best that we can with the circumstances we have."

In that statement, Belk hints at the question that has occupied his thoughts, and the thoughts of several others, for a decade now: What will be the museum's future?

Belk and several members of the museum's board of directors and its foundation, "Friends of the Museum," are launching a public appeal for an expansion they say the museum needs to thrive.

They'll go first to the Joplin City Council. Belk said he doesn't want to discuss specifically what he and the board representatives have in mind for that expansion or possibly even relocation until he speaks with city leaders. He feels the council should be the first to know — beyond those intimately involved in the planning — because the museum needs the city's help and cooperation to achieve a new plan.

Without a chance to spread out, offer more displays and have better spaces for public education, Belk says the museum can't achieve its potential as a city attraction.

Joplin Museum Complex to unveil plan for future

With the work of the late Everett Ritchie, who cataloged and curated the mineral museum in its early years and established a reputation for the collection, "we got put on the map worldwide," Belk said. This year alone, scientists from Great Britain and Australia have traveled here to view specimens.

"The scientific world knows" the importance of the collection, Belk said. "The intellectual property here is unbelievable."

Amy Lane, assistant director of community services at Lafayette House, said that although she is a Joplin native, she had not visited the museum until she attended Leadership Joplin, a professional development class offered by the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.

"It's beneficial because there are a lot of people in the business community who aren't from Joplin. It gives them a chance to see where Joplin came from," Lane said. She said she learned things about Joplin she didn't know, such as the existence of Crystal Cave, which was once open to visitors at Fourth Street and Gray Avenue. "I was born and raised here and I didn't know all these things," she said.

The museum also serves as an inexpensive experience for children. While school districts bring classes to visit, Lane says Lafayette House takes its preschool classes there for an outing.

"It's difficult for us, being a nonprofit, to be able to take our kids to bigger events or parks moneywise," Lane said. "The museum is such a low cost. A lot of times they have allowed us to bring our kids at no cost. It's very educational. We couldn't afford to go somewhere else."

Admission at the museum is free to all on Tuesdays and Fridays, free to children younger than 5 years old any day, and $2 per person or $5 per family on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

Larry Hickey is a former mayor of Joplin and a new board member of the museum. He was the city's mayor when the council agreed to remodel the mineral museum in 1976 and add a wing for history exhibits that put the museum building in its current configuration.

He had not been to the museum in years, he said, and added: "I was just appalled at how crowded it is with artifacts that could be properly displayed" if there was more room.

"What I could see was a dire need for space. It's such a needed attraction for this town and this district because it is an unusual situation, starting with the mines," he said.

For all the 7,000 pieces that are on display, the museum has at least that much in storage that there's no room to exhibit. Belk said the museum has about 8,000 square feet and it needs three times that.

"Why is because we want the visitor to spend more time here. The most fulfilling job we do is sharing our pieces of history and our artifacts. There's no value to have those locked up where nobody can see them."

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