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Whatever Happens, History is Priority for Center

Martha Aldridge

The Gazette

February 26, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

    On Feb. 1, when The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center announced that it was closing to the public for ‘‘retooling,’’
the news came as a surprise to most people. Many believed that when the community retired the debt on the building, our financial concerns would be behind us, even though, as board member Al Ruffalo said at the mortgage-burning press conference, the History Center would need ongoing community support. Though we have received financial support, our largest gifts have been for the future. They do not give us cash today. Even popular exhibits, such as the Lebanese exhibit that drew 10,000 people, are offered at a price low enough to allow everyone to enjoy them but not enough to strengthen our operational base.

    More than a year ago, a gap began to grow between our income and expenses. To address this gap, we 1) reduced staff, 2) cut overhead as much as possible and 3) began phasing out every unprofitable operation.

    When making each of these decisions, the board held constant to its responsibility to protect the collection. It is adamant that the letters, papers, photographs, furniture, clothing — every piece we have that tells the story of Linn County’s history — is safe and will be for generations to come.

    After our corporate membership campaign and year-end solicitation failed to meet our budget goals, the leadership began to look at alternatives. We gave ourselves until February to generate enough money to do business as usual. When February came and our cash situation had not improved, the board made the decision to shut the doors and take time to investigate all options of operating within the level of support that is realistic to expect. Such a major shift will require drastic changes that cannot be implemented while providing the previous level of services.

    Financial stress for museums is not unique. In its Feb. 14 cover story, the Des Moines Register described the drop in attendance at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum-Library. In announcing that a trustee of the Davenport’s Putnam Museum was taking over as CEO, the Quad-City Times on Jan. 17 linked the postponement in seeking a new director to the need to first retire a $3 million debt. The Milwaukee Public Museum suffers from ‘‘stagnating attendance’’ according to the Jan. 28 New York Times.

    Sharing a common problem with such venerable institutions forces the leadership of the History Center to admit that it is time for a shift in how services are offered and to pursue innovative options for long-term stability.

    What are the options we are investigating? One alternative is to merge with other museums in the area, if by doing so we can cut costs and create new, exciting experiences. Other options involve the possibilities of using some of the existing museum space to generate income, while condensing programs and exhibits. Taking history out to people through tours, talks and workshops is yet another option. We are investigating public/private collaborations and partnerships with the forprofit community.

    Whatever we do, we will remain dedicated to three tenets: 1) The collection will be protected, 2) the operating budget will be smaller and 3) our commitment to interpreting Linn County history will remain strong.

    We want to do this while our situation remains viable, so that we can continue our mission of engaging the public in local history and its place in the world. This is why the board decided to close the building and focus on creating a plan for our future.

    When we reopen, you will have a more exciting way to become engaged in the history of your community. Until then, thank you for your patience.

    Martha Aldridge is executive director of The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center.