Museum history resulting in a new Museum facility
The MMAF is unlike most city museums, whose roots are formed of citizens’ desires to preserve their history and tell their stories. The City and College first began their collaborative museum efforts based more upon meeting the needs of the two organizations than upon meeting the needs of the community.
In the late 1960s, the City of McPherson was gifted, through an estate, a collection of historic artifacts from the pioneer period. The will stated that the artifacts were to be used to create a museum. The City cast about to find a way to honor these wishes.
McPherson College had been collecting scientific specimens since their inception in 1890, and had built a fairly healthy amount of inventory by this time, taking up most of one floor of a campus classroom building. The City contacted the College to determine whether or not a collaboration could be struck, uniting all of the artifacts under one roof. It’s likely that they hoped to take the pioneer artifacts to the College.
However, the College had another plan. In the 1950s, the College received as a donation the Vaniman House, a 6,000 square foot home about four blocks from the College. After using it as dorm space, professor quarters, and classroom space, the College had determined that it was a white elephant: too far from campus to be readily accessible, and high on upkeep. Far better, they thought, to move their artifacts to the Vaniman, thus redeeming usable on-campus classroom space. They struck a deal: the College would provide the space – - the Vaniman House – - and a small annual stipend. The City would pay for maintenance and staffing. Thus began the McPherson City/College Museum.
In the first couple of decades, a former professor directed the Museum. He focused his attention upon collecting. Without any museum training, he accepted whatever people brought in. By the time he retired, the Museum was full of artifacts of an eclectic nature. Few McPherson stories were being told. The next few directors, all well-meaning and untrained, mostly maintained the status quo.
After a time, the College sold the Vaniman House to the City and withdrew from the arrangement, creating the McPherson City Museum. Many of their artifacts, however, remained on a loan basis.
In 1984, Leland Abel returned to McPherson, his hometown, after a lifelong career in museum work. He recognized the many issues set forth in this narrative and made an initial attempt to create interest in building a new facility. He spent his few months as director filling out all of the necessary forms to create the McPherson Museum and Arts Foundation’s by-laws and secure its 501 (c) 3 status. However, after mere months at the job, and with little success in developing interest in his plans, he quit and moved away.
After his departure, more caretaker staff and board members maintained the status quo, until in 1997, Leland Abel passed away, leaving a trust to benefit the MMAF. This resulted in the withdrawal of maintenance by the City in 1999. The MMAF would now exist as a stand-alone Museum, leasing the Vaniman House and with a stipend of support from the City.
Only a few years later, in 2002, the Cedars Nursing Home, whose facility resided on more than a city block of land on Kansas Avenue, a main thoroughfare, moved their operations to a larger site. Their property on Kansas Avenue partially bordered that of the Vaniman House at the rear. The Cedars donated the vast, sprawling building, the property, and the original 1920s home, called the Fields House, to the MMAF.
At this point, the board and staff began again to consider plans for a new facility. However, in addition to plans in which the old nursing home building would be partly renovated and partly demolished to create newly built areas, the director pushed to create a campus to include both the Vaniman House and the Fields House, which would be maintained as period homes.
Feasibility studies were done, architectural plans drawn up, and there was some verbal support for the plan, but many felt it was unsupportable for a city McPherson’s size. The idea never really took off, and died when the director quit in 2004.
In 2005, the MMAF board hired its first director with extensive previous experience in the museum field, with the exception of Leland Abel. This director invested time in discovering what the community wanted from its Museum, and what types of services were lacking within the community that the Museum could provide. The years since 2005 have been spent implementing those services, as well as building a constituency of membership and sponsors.
Meanwhile, the board took a step back from the previous building plans, spending nearly two years creating and implementing a strategic plan. The MMAF board of directors entered into their strategic planning with essential questions: Does McPherson need or want a museum? If so, what does the community need from its museum? What form should it take? Community leaders, stakeholders, and interested parties met to discuss their views.
This information was used by the board as the key to its planning and revised mission statement.
Of course, revamping the current Museum building was addressed. Architectural plans were drawn. To turn the Vaniman House into a proper, state of the art museum, additions would need to be built, elevators added, walls knocked down, windows and doors replaced, walls and attic insulated. Costs to bring the building up to code, add additional parking, fix the grade of the drive, and create the appropriate HVAC system would be extensive. Meanwhile, visibility issues and vandalism problems (such as repeated sign theft) could not be overcome.
Ultimately, the consensus was that it would be unfair to the Vaniman House, one of the largest and most elegant older homes in the city, to strip it of its current charm, especially when, after making all of the changes, the building still could not completely address all of the Museum’s needs.
Although the MMAF owned the Cedars property, many other sites were considered, as the property could be sold. Pro and Con lists were written for each site possibility. The Cedars site consistently came out on top. One by one, the other sites were dismissed for various reasons: visibility, limited space/room to expand, parking issues, distance from the heart of the community (where the consensus was that the MMAF should be located), and in one case, inability to acquire the property.
Among the pluses for the Cedars site were access and visibility. Because a museum’s target audience includes anyone interested in life-long learning, it is especially helpful to have an easily findable facility. East Kansas Avenue, the Cedars site street, also known as Highway 56 and Business Route 81, is a main thoroughfare through the community, and the Cedars location is situated about midway between Main Street, the downtown business area, to the west, and Interstate 135 to the east. According to McPherson Public Works director Doug Whitacre, East Kansas Avenue, a four-lane state highway arterial, was checked for traffic flow on November 30, 2010. The number of vehicles passing on Kansas Avenue altogether (both east and west bound) in a 24-hour period was 11,908. His last collection of traffic flow information for Euclid, the MMAF’s current street, a residential collector, was in October of 2004. The total traffic going both directions in one day was 150.
In addition to visibility, the greater amount of parking availability, bus accessibility, and physical accessibility for guests will make the new facility much more user-friendly.
Thus it was decided: the new Museum facility would be built at 1111 East Kansas Avenue in McPherson.
The board spent additional time working with the director and staff to develop a workable, feasible, and supportable plan for a new Museum facility. The strategic plan was followed. A vision statement was created. A museum-friendly architectural firm was engaged. They followed the narrative and worked with the director to arrive at the current plans.
By 2008, the plans were ready. However, the economy was not. In addition to a recession, three other local capital building endeavors were in mid-completion. The timing wasn’t right. Also, the fundraising consultant the MMAF sought was completely booked with local projects. The Museum bided its time, developing new friends and increasing its membership and funders. A key board member retired from his job, allowing him time to be available to chair the capital campaign.
By mid-2010, with all three community building projects complete, the local economy cautiously optimistic, and the desired fundraising consultant now available, the MMAF hit the ground running with a $1 million matching challenge grant from an anonymous donor.
Many city stakeholders perceive the building of the new facility on a main thoroughfare as an important and timely project. McPherson, with its extensive corporate and financial base, is actively seeking to recruit the best and brightest new talent to live here. Offering a wide variety of things to do and places to go, such as the new water park, the recently updated and enlarged physical fitness center, the restored historic opera house, and the enlarged and modernized public library, provides the atmosphere of a community in which there are the physical and cultural amenities required for a full and active life. City stakeholders view the new Museum facility, with all that it has to offer for all generations, as another important part of that atmosphere.
Support for the new facility project is strong within the community. Among the stakeholders are the City of McPherson, including the Convention and Visitors Bureau; the McPherson Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC); USD # 418; and many corporations, businesses, clubs and organizations.
And the story is continuing.
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