Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The Kingman Museum is looking for a new home to house a collection steeped in natural history, science, and world cultures.
In December the collection, which numbers in the thousands, was moved to an undisclosed location in Battle Creek after board members with the Kingman Museum came to the realization that they could no longer afford the costs associated with the upkeep and renovations of the building housing the artifacts.
Necessary repairs would have cost “a substantial amount” for the museum which had an annual operating budget of $300,000 prior to its temporary shutdown in March 2020 because of COVID-19, says Eltine DeYoung, Executive Director of the museum.
“When I came on board in 2019, the Binda Foundation provided the funding for a structural assessment which is something I wanted done because I was worried about liability issues,” DeYoung says. “There were some major things that we had to take care of immediately.”
This included loose stone on the building that was eventually propped up with scaffolding and some larger structural issues that needed to be addressed.
A polar bear that is among the more well-known items in the Kingman Museum's collection is wrapped and ready for its move to a location in Battle Creek where the entire collection is being stored.
“We were looking at a huge amount of money to make it structurally sound and it’s not our building. What needed to be done was too big and too much,” DeYoung says. “One of our board members said that by moving the collection out of the building we were saving the collection for the community but also saving the building for the community.”
Prior to DeYoung’s arrival, the City of Battle Creek took ownership of the building. Assistant City Manager Ted Dearing says he’s not sure of the exact date.
“Under the current arrangement with the Kingman Museum, they occupy the space and are also responsible for maintaining the building,” he says. “It’s a fairly large building and maintenance issues became a burden for the tenant.”
Located on the grounds of the Leila Arboretum, the 6,680-square-foot building was built in 1934 by the Kingman Museum Society for the express purpose of housing the collection. Funding for museum operations was provided by the Battle Creek Public Schools.
“The building was built for kids to come to the museum and learn about natural history and science. It was an added value to what they were learning in the classroom and it was a perfect location for talks about natural history in the midst of Leila Arboretum,” DeYoung says. “The funding model worked at that time.”
But, sometime in the early 2000’s BCPS leadership “let go” of the museum and DeYoung says, “the funding structure was changed completely. For the Kingman, there really was the need to fend for ourselves.”
While larger museums like the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, are able to rely on major endowments as part of their revenue stream, smaller museums like Kingman don’t have these advantages and must rely on ticket sales to exhibits, events, school field trips, and gift shop sales to generate revenue.
But, the size of the building did not provide adequate space for large groups and there was no classroom space for school groups that often include four or five classes of students. Add to this, one functioning bathroom, and DeYoung says it’s not difficult to understand why these numbers couldn’t be accommodated.
After the loss of the BCPS funding, grants, donations, and revenue generated from smaller school field trips and the museum’s gift shop provided the funds needed to cover basic operations, however, there was nothing left to take care of the repairs identified in the structural assessment.
“We just could not generate sustainable revenues for the building,” DeYoung says.
Not Our Building
DeYoung says museum board members did not think it was in the best interest of the organization to put money into a building they don’t even own.
Besides the structural considerations, there was growing concern about the long-term physical safety of the collection because of the potential for water damage, the lack of an appropriate climate-controlled environment, and additional space needed to store portions of the collection no currently on exhibit.
“Museums identify by their collections and we have to make sure our collection is safe and well-taken care and we could not provide that for the collection because of the state of building,” DeYoung says. “We really tried to stay in the building because of the reason it was built. There’s a lot of nostalgia because it was part of the public school system and a lot of people here grew up with it. So, it was really hard for us to say that the building doesn’t define the Kingman Museum. It’s the collection and it’s important that it stay within Battle Creek and is accessible to the Battle Creek community.”
By the end of this year, museum board members hope to have a plan in place that will solidify ongoing operations and its future, says Michele Reid, President of the museum’s board. In the meantime, she says the museum is continuing to showcase what it has to offer. In March, it will be the focus of Willard Library’s “Peek Into the Past”, a virtual monthly presentation that highlights the city’s history. In August, the museum will be the focus of an exhibit at the Art Center of Battle Creek.
“We are charting the course for the next 150 years of the museum,” Reid says. “This year during COVID-19, we are taking time to review the mission and update our business plan to secure the future of the museum.”
BCCF provided funding for the move and storage of the collection and the Zanetti Family Foundation, Post Foundation, Battle Creek Unlimited and donors provided funding to assist with operating costs as the search continues for a new location. Reid says alternative funding sources are being sought out as well as additional grant opportunities.
Most museums don’t have reserve funding and rely on diverse revenue streams that include earned income, grants, and private individual giving. Nathan Kemler, President of the Michigan Museum Association, says hardly any museums have full endowments for operations and keeping their open.
“By the nature and definition of it being a nonprofit in our state, the crux of the issue is that not only is earned income going down, but most museums don’t earn enough revenue to keep their doors open,” he said earlier. “It’s a very complicated economic challenge for a lot of museums that are trying to prioritize what is critical to their community’s right now.”
Of the 600 museums in Michigan, Kemler says that many had to lay off staff when the pandemic forced temporary closures. He says more than 91,000 people are employed by these museums.
In February or mid-March of 2020, DeYoung says she had 13 people on her staff, both full-time and part-time. By the summer and into the fall, that number decreased to a core staff of three to get through the move.
“Right now, because we’re not operating the museum, we have one employee and that’s me,” DeYoung says. “We will be bringing back our furloughed staff as we get funding.”
These museum employees are considered part of the state’s creative industries and they have paid $5 billion in wages since 2014. An additional $1 billion is spent by visitors to arts and cultural attractions such as museums.
Kemler’s remarks were prompted by a press release issued in July 2020 by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), which said, “one out of every three museums may shutter forever as funding sources and financial reserves run dry. Without near-term assistance from governments and private donors, hundreds of directors reported their museums may not survive the financial crisis brought on by the pandemic.”
DeYoung says the impact of the pandemic had little to do with the decision to leave the building and move the collection.
“COVID certainly accelerated the decision making but when I came on board we were already in a phase where it became very clear that without making major decisions and changes, we were not going to survive,” she says. “Either way we would have moved the collection out.”
COVID also made the situation at the Kingman less of a priority for funders who were focused on targeting dollars to critical needs in the community, including food and shelter.
“There were definitely more pressing needs in the community,” DeYoung says.
As leadership with Kingman searches for a new property within the city limits to house their collection, Dearing says the city is “exploring a number of options” for the vacant building.
“We don’t have any definitive plans,” he says. “We would like to find an end-user who appreciates the historic nature of that building and its importance and is in a financial position to maintain it. We will do our best to keep the building from deteriorating while we look for options.”
At the same time, Dearing says it is the city’s hope that Kingman leadership is able to find a local facility that suits their needs or potential partners that can make it work financially.
“We have been looking at other locations and talking to people who may know of a property,” DeYoung says. “We hope we can find something in Battle Creek otherwise we may have to venture out into the region. We will have a lot to do in terms of fund development, getting our staff back, and building new exhibits and exhibit spaces.
“We’re not moving offices, we are moving a whole museum, and needing to build out everything to provide education and content and making sure the collection is accessible.”
Attractions like the Kingman contribute to the overall health and vibrancy of a community, in addition to serving as an economic development tool, Dearing says.
The collection, he says, represents a “significant part of our history and scientific value as well. People choose where they live and jobs follow that. Having quality of life amenities is critically important, but we know it has to work financially for all involved.”
Community residents have expressed concerns to DeYoung and museum board members about the future of the Kingman. She has received comments from people who visited as children and want to be able to bring their grandchildren to see the collection. They may not be frequent visitors, but there is a sense of comfort in knowing that it’s there for them.
“What museums bring to a community is a sense of pride and that has to do with your culture and identity. We are a museum of science and cultures,” DeYoung says. “It’s about livability and placemaking. It’s important to have that sense of place.”