Off the Clock - Lack of Public Interest Equals Lack of Funds for Pettis County Museum

Oct 21, 2016

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, Head Curator Timothy Riley walks through the WWII exhibit where evidence is shown that Winston Churchill warned against the danger of Hitler from the very beginning. National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, houses over 10,000 objects and boasts one of the largest privately owned collections of memorabilia.

The Pettis County Museum in Sedalia holds records of all the schools and railroads that have existed in the area. Its collection contains records of Pettis County’s residents who have fought in wars.

The museum also houses Native American artifacts. It’s home to objects that have traveled from Angola to mid-Missouri, given to the museum by a Pettis County woman who was a missionary in Angola.

The museum is free and open to members of the public to see the historic items, but there’s a chance that these objects won’t be available for display any longer as a result of the museum’s relocation. The museum closed its doors for the season at the end of September. Its collection won’t be available to the public, unless it finds adequate funding to reopen.

Pettis County Courthouse used to house the Pettis County Museum, but the courthouse needed more space, according to Rhonda Chalfant, president of the Pettis County Historical Society. The local Jewish congregation, Temple Beth El, gave its synagogue building to the museum, but the cost to keep the lights on is too high.

The museum relies entirely on funding from people in the community to maintain its livelihood—support that Chalfant says is generally lacking.

“We have received large donations from a small number of people and some smaller donations. Several people have made anonymous donations,” Chalfant said. “But in terms of large public support? No.”

Other than donations, museum membership and fundraisers help fund the museum. It receives no monetary help from the city or county. The annual membership fee is currently $15 each, but in order to fully fund the museum the 77 paying members would have to pay $88 each.

The public plays an integral role in keeping smaller museums such as the Pettis County Museum open, especially if they don’t have “a core financial support,” according to Michele Hansford, former executive director of the Missouri Humanities Council.  For this reason, Hansford says, museums must “cobble together” different methods of funding.

With some sort of core financial support, keeping doors open for some museums is a much easier task.

Vacuum manufacturer Tacony Corporation funds the Vacuum Cleaner Museum and Factory in St. James, according to Tom Gasko, the head curator of the museum.

“Our salaries are paid by the corporation because we don’t charge to get in,” Gasko said. “So the cost of all of the upkeep for the museum—the cost of the electricity, water, all of that, and our salaries—are all paid by the company through the company’s funds.”

The museum doesn’t have an entry fee, and Gasko said the museum gets thousands of visitors in a year as a result of seeing billboards on the highway and from hearing about its existence by word-of-mouth.

For Lewis Miller in Boonville, sheer will and genuine desire to share his collection with the community drives him to pay out of pocket to keep the Lewis Miller’s Mitchell Collection available to the public.

“When you stop to think about it, the cars like this that are so rare, they’re so collectable,” Miller said. “I want to protect this collection and share it with many, many, many generations, as long as possible, and it’ll stay in the family.”

Though Miller charges for admission, none of the money from the ticket sales go into his own pocket.

“I give the ticket sales revenue to the Boonville Tourism Committee to help my community, so I don't get a dime,” Miller said. “Don't want a dime. I'm happy to share and help my community.”

The future of other museums isn’t as sound as those with secure funding, though, because their funding isn’t as stable.

Timothy Riley, director and chief curator of the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, said the museum receives funding from a variety of sources: membership dues, federal grants and grants from private and public foundations.

“We rely on the generosity of individuals and foundations for support, not public funding,” Riley said.

Riley said the museum has between 500 and 550 active members every year. The museum has membership options ranging from $50 to $5,000. Members, Westminster faculty, staff and students, Callaway County public and private school field trips and children under the age of 5 visit for free. All other visitors pay an admission fee between $4.50 and $7.50.

While the National Churchill Museum has received some funding from grants, the Westphalia Historical Society Museum, much like Pettis County, has to rely heavily on its community for support. Their funding comes out of membership dues and donations, but Westphalia also uses other public outreach methods like historic home tours, events and raffles with big-ticket items.

For smaller, historical museums like those in Sedalia and Westphalia, Hansford says funding is especially difficult for small and medium sized communities because they reach a “saturation point.”

“So many people are asking for help. It’s not just history organizations,” Hansford said. “Any public community service, social needs organization—we’re all out there battling for extra public dollars through donations or fundraisers or memberships.”

The battle for public support is one that Pettis County Museum is willing to fight.

“We do not want it to close,” Chalfant said. “We are exploring some possibilities for being able to raise the money that would allow us to stay open.”

Chalfant says the museum doesn’t have plans for what to do with their collection if it closes. Until the museum can secure funding to reopen, its exhibits will be kept in storage.

Hansford said with the closure of museums like Pettis County’s, the community loses a gathering space for them to enjoy. But even more, it suffers a loss in the preservation of its local history.

“If somebody isn’t responsible for preserving some representative sampling of the past, it’s just not going to be here for people to research, to enjoy,” Hansford said. “It’s another community outlet for interaction and education, and it just won’t exist.”

Riley said without museums, history is subject to potential erasure, and it is the public’s duty to help prevent that.

“I think that it’s important for the public, all aspects of the public, to support museums and to support archives that preserve our history and our legacy,” Riley said. “We are proud custodians of that history, and to make sure that new generations and generations to come have access to it.”