Historical society eyes museum

City manager hopes a museum district will attract new visitors.
Thursday, December 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:32 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Downtown Columbia could get another infusion of culture as talks for a new museum in the area continue.

The State Historical Society of Missouri recently asked the city and MU if they would consider allowing it to become a tenant of a proposed archaeology museum on city-owned land in the Flat Branch area.

“The continued expansion of the State Historical Society and the Western Manuscript Collection dictate that we plan for a tripling of our space over the next 10 to 15 years,” historical society director Gary Kremer said.

The historical society’s manuscript collection, which contains historical documents on the American West and the state of Missouri, occupy about 34,000 square feet in MU’s Ellis Library. More than 20,000 visitors and researchers come to this location each year.

Kremer said that by moving downtown the historical society hopes to attract more visitors and provide better parking.

“Locating the State Historical Society in a downtown museum district would bring a tremendous amount of visitor traffic to the location,” Kremer said.

Although the historical society is located at MU, it is a separate state operation. Kremer, however, said that if the historical society decides to seek funding for a new facility, it will likely turn to both private and public sources, including MU.

Kremer said the historical society first started looking to expand during the late 1980s. In 1997, the search focused on MU’s McKee Gymnasium on Hitt Street. Three years later, the state allocated $1 million to renovate that facility but ultimately put the project on hold because of budget problems.

Kremer could not estimate the costs of a new facility, though he said the projected cost of renovating McKee Gymnasium was more than $16 million.

City Manager Ray Beck said he has been working with the Columbia City Council to connect the Flat Branch area in the southwest section of downtown to the MU campus in hopes of bringing diversity to the area. Talks have centered on vacant city-owned property on Fifth Street between Locust and Cherry streets.

The area is already designated for a health adventure center, which would occupy the Federal Building, and a museum dedicated to ragtime pioneer J.W. “Blind” Boone, which is taking shape at Boone’s former home on Fourth Street. Beck hopes to establish a museum district strong enough to attract tourists to downtown.

Beck said he set aside $300,000 in the city’s fiscal 2005 budget, suggesting part of that money be used to help MU build an archaeology or historical museum. He said the bulk of the fund raising, however, will have to come from MU.

Beck said most of the project’s details — building size, precise site location and who will occupy the space — have not been determined.

“It’s in the concept stage right now, but it’s moving forward, which I think is great,” he said.

Jane Biers, interim director of the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology, said there has been no discussion with the historical society about sharing space. She said a partnership could have several benefits.

MU and city officials are considering several sites for the museum. Wherever the location, Biers said the MU museum needs more than double the 13,900 square feet it has now.

“We have needed more space for many years,” Biers said. “Storage space is very crowded, and some parts of the permanent collection, notably the Southeast Asian collection, are not on permanent exhibition because galleries where those collections could be displayed are needed for temporary exhibitions.”

The MU museum’s permanent collection includes Greek, Roman and Near Eastern artwork and artifacts, as well as paintings, prints and drawings from European and American art from the 15th century to the present. It also includes work from East Asian, African and pre-Columbian cultures.

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