Overhauled Derby Museum reopens Sunday

Following a ravaging flash flood last September, The Kentucky Derby Museum staff suffered through it's own stages of grief.

The first day was totally focused on sorting through their soggy collection, saving what they could and ruefully tossing the 2,500 artifacts were damaged beyond repair.

The second day, it was time for tears and feeling a little bit sorry for themselves, said executive director Lynn Ashton.

But by day three, plans for the future started to emerge and they began to see opportunity out of tragedy.

"When something like this happens, when you essentially have this much devastation you essentially have a blank slate," said curator of collections Katherine Veitschegger. "We could be a little bit more honest about what was working and what wasn't working."

The end result was a $5.5 million renovation with a new spotlight on fun, fashion and exhibits based on horses. There will be a grand re-opening Sunday complete with special events such as a tours and hat contest. "We kind of re-laid out both floors," said executive director Lynn Ashton. "The main floor is everything about the Derby experience. Taking a look at the culture and what really makes the day pop.

"The second floor is everything about horses and getting the horse ready for the race," she said.

In order to keep exhibits fresh and the public interested, museums needs to be renovated about every 10 years, said Ashton. The Derby museum staff had been working on plans for several months before the flood.

"We had been creating a new mission," said Ashton, adding that it's unusual for a museum to undergo a complete overhaul. But, she said, with the damage from the flood so extensive they went all in.

"Let's just go ahead and do it," she said.

More than likely, Veitschegger said, tweaks to the new exhibits will continue literally until the doors open. But, she said, she's excited that fashion has a broader showcase at the renovated museum.

Fashionable trends from across the years will be on view including the suit Penny Chenery wore in the 1972 Winner's Circle with her horse Riva Ridge and the gown reality show starlet Anna Nicole Smith wore to the 2004 Barnstable-Brown charity bash. The new fashion space also allows highlights the looks of Cora Jacobs a Louisville real estate agent who was known for her flamboyant presence, especially during the 1970s when one Derby outfit featured hot pants and a floor-length duster coat emblazoned with the names of all previous Derby winners.

That coat has long been in storage but didn't have a good fit in the previous museum, Veitschegger said. But Jacobs sense of kitschy flair is a cultural touchstone.

"She paved the way for thousands of others to wear cheese on their heads," she said.

Technology also plays a part in the renovation. Ashton is especially excited about the "It's My Derby" exhibit. The museum in connection with Louisville media outlets have been collecting individual Derby stories. Some are video taped, others simply text but each put gives the Derby a personal spin.

"We have really gone out and gotten stories from everyone ," said Ashton, "not just from the celebrities that come to Derby."

For instance, one featured on the Derby museum Web site quotes a Helen Wiser as saying "In 1950 I won $17 on Middle Ground. I used my Derby winnings to buy my wedding shoes." She's been married ever since.

You can add your story at the Derby museum Web site,, or look for future special events. Eventually, she said, she hopes patrons to the museum can produce their own video taped Derby stories during their visits.

There is also extensive coverage of the Derby's past. "We have a time machine where you can see any Derby and every type of film (associated with it) with pre and post race interviews" with key players, said Ashton.

At least 30,000 hours of research went into creating the new exhibits, said Ashton, essentially cramming 18 to 20 months of work into a six -month schedule.

But, Veitschegger hopes it will enhance the visitor's experience.

"It's all telling the story in a way that's really going to make sense."