Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Its home closed for now, Lexington History Museum plans to open 'pocket museums' throughout city

Logo for the Lexington History Museum's Pocket Museums.
Logo for the Lexington History Museum's Pocket Museums. Herald-Leader

Since the city shut down the old Fayette County Courthouse that housed the Lexington History Museum last July because of concerns about lead paint exposure, a lot of people figured the museum had become, well, history.

But the museum's board of directors has spent the past few months rethinking their mission and strategy, which they will formally announce at a Monday morning news conference with Mayor Jim Gray.

"Our first reaction was to run around town looking for new exhibit space, but we found there were few available spaces with big rooms and tall ceilings," said attorney Foster Ockerman Jr., a board member. "So we kind of sat back and said, what now?"

The museum still hopes to have a place when the 115-year-old downtown courthouse is eventually restored to its original beauty. But, at least in the meantime, the museum plans to spread its collection around town in a number of small "pocket museums" beginning this week.

"It's a matter of completely reinventing what the museum is to deal with the circumstances," Ockerman said.

The first five pocket museums to open will be in common spaces of the Central Bank Building, 300 W. Vine Street; Victorian Square, 401 W. Main Street; Bluegrass Corporate Center, 333 W. Vine Street; Central Library, 140 E. Main Street; and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Building, 200 E. Main Street. Displays also will be put in large windows on Central Parking property, 168 N. Upper Street.

More locations are being sought, and exhibits will be changed out every few months.

Also, canvases will be put up later this summer between pillars near the tops of the Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside with old photographs showing how that streetscape looked a century ago.

Museum director Jamie Millard has left and been succeeded by Debra Watkins, who has been with the museum for eight years.

"Our focus on education has not changed," Watkins said, noting that outreach programs for schools and civic groups has continued during the past year. There also have been a few special exhibits, such as outside the Kentucky Room at Central Library and at the Lyric Theatre.

Later this year, the museum plans to reinvent its website ( to be a local history wiki database. Anyone will be able to contribute, but information will be scrutinized before posting, Watkins said. The museum also hopes to digitize and make available old local photos and local home movies.

"We believe that a lot of the future of museums will be virtual, online," Ockerman said.

The website also will interface with other Kentucky online history resources, such as those of the Lexington Public Library and the Kentucky Virtual Library.

"We are trying to integrate ourselves into the community," Watkins said.

Another project is publication of a limited-edition, 350-copy coffee table book of old Lexington photos, along with text written by Ockerman. The museum will begin taking orders July 4 for the $50 book, Historic Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass. The book is to be published in September. All profits from the book will benefit the non-profit museum.

I am sure the Lexington History Museum can't wait to find a larger, permanent location, either in a restored old Fayette County Courthouse or another downtown building.

But this new approach makes a lot of sense — for the long-term as well as in this situation. Museums need more than the traditional, big-box approach to reach busy people in a modern, digital world.

For example, the most visible art museum in Lexington isn't a museum at all; it is the University of Kentucky's Chandler Medical Center. The hospital has a substantial, well-curated collection that is enjoyed every day by hundreds of people who might otherwise never go to the time, trouble and expense of visiting an art museum.

Lexington has a history as rich as any city this side of the East Coast. Spreading exhibits and information around downtown where people can easily encounter them in small doses may be the best way to ensure that that rich history is known and appreciated.