When asbestos and other hazardous material were discovered in the former Fayette County courthouse on Main Street in 2011, the Lexington History Museum had to make a hasty retreat.
That abrupt departure started a downward spiral for the historical group that has long operated on a shoe-string budget. First, it lost its visibility, then its director got hired away. Attempts to hire professional staff were met with laughter from the museum community. Board members began to lose interest. Private donations and grants — which once topped more than $120,000 — slowed to a trickle of a few thousand dollars.
“It was time for something drastic or quit,” said Foster Ockerman Jr., a lawyer, historian and longtime board member.
Ockerman was hired as president and chief historian in March 2016.
Over the past two years, the museum has inched its way back into the public spotlight despite not having a permanent exhibit space. First it raised $15,000 to complete long-delayed mayoral portraits of Scotty Baesler, Teresa Isaac and Jim Newberry. It also raised $20,000 for the documentary: “Belle Brezing and the Gilded Age of the Bluegrass.”
Lack of permanent exhibit space forced the group to come up with an innovative solution: an online virtual museum. Its executive offices on the third floor of The Square on Main Street serve as an exhibit space during LexArts Gallery Hop, an art event in various downtown spaces. The museum’s exhibits change at each gallery hop. The exhibits are photographed using a special camera. That technology allows users to toggle through the pictures, much like they were walking through the exhibit.
“We can build a 10,000 square-foot museum on 1,000 square feet of real estate,” Ockerman said. “We believe we are the first in Kentucky to deploy this type of technology.”
Laurel Harper, director of marketing for the Kentucky Historical Society, said the society is not aware of any other local history museum in Kentucky that is entirely online.
“There are many museums that have virtual exhibits,” Harper said. “Virtual exhibits are growing in popularity because it allows people such as school kids in Hazard to visit museums and exhibits in Frankfort without having to travel.”
Parking? No problem. School groups can log on, learn local history and never have to board a bus, Ockerman said.
Still, challenges remain.
When the museum left the courthouse, artifacts were shoved into approximately 300 different boxes. At the same time, a database cataloging its collection crashed. The group limped along using volunteer labor to help it re-catalog its collection, but that produced uneven results.
Ockerman said the group’s most pressing need is for someone with a degree in library science to archive and catalog its collection — which is in three different Lexington locations.
“We have been told by the Kentucky Historical Society: ‘Don’t rush out and exhibit right now because you need to re-inventory things and see where you are strong — that’s your exhibits — and where you are weak — that’s what you collect.”
Ockerman estimates that to hire a curator and an archivist — who would start part time — and to get a permanent exhibit space, the group would need an operations budget of $250,000.
The city allows the group to store some of its collection — much of it owned by the merged government — at a city-owned building for free. The city also gives $60,000 to the group.
There is some good news: the group’s private fundraising is on the upswing as it has become more visible both online and at gallery hops, but it’s still short of the $250,000 a year it would need for a permanent exhibit space, a curator and an archivist.
So what’s in those 300 boxes?
A lot. And not all of it fits in boxes. In the collection are 10 antique lamp posts that were once on the Harrison Street viaduct, which was replaced by the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive bridge.
How old are those lamp posts? That’s still not known.
There’s also an ax that Richard Foley used to cut trees and build what later became Bowman Station, which was part of Fayette County at the time, in the late 1770s. Foley’s ax was also used to build what became Lexington Station. The 42-inch ax is part of a permanent display at the Lexington History Museum’s office in Victorian Square.
There’s the 1889 copper horse weather vane that once adorned the Fayette County courthouse.
Lexington’s manufacturing history is also represented: the museum has electric typewriters that were once produced at IBM in Lexington. Also in those boxes: memorabilia from The Golden Horseshoe, a Main Street restaurant and bar, a mainstay in the 1940s and 1950s that made a return to downtown in the 1980s. Director John Huston ate there when he was town shooting the “Asphalt Jungle.” It was Lexington’s version of New York’s Stork Club.
“I’ve got match books and ash trays,” Ockerman said. “I even have a four-foot section of the old bar.”
There could be more Golden Horseshoe memorabilia in those boxes. Once the contents of those boxes are sorted, it’s possible that an exhibit on one of Lexington’s most colorful eateries could open.
“I could set up a replica of the bar,” Ockerman said.
If you go:
To take a tour of Lexington History Museum’s virtual exhibits go to www.lexhistory.org