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Resting in Pieces: The Scattered Fate of Closed Museums

The art shrouded at the Seattle Art Museum during its closure for renovations (photograph by Chris Blakeley, Flickr user)
The art shrouded at the Seattle Art Museum during its closure for renovations (it has since reopened) (photograph by Chris Blakeley, Flickr user)

As interests shift and funding dwindles, it can be hard to keep a museum open. And after a museum ends its run and its building is shuttered, what happens to the collections? Some are acquired by libraries or absorbed by other museums where they are more the footnote than the focus, others disperse through auctions and lose all relationship with the broader story of which they were once a part.

The Arkansas River Historical Society Museum in Catoosa, Oklahoma, is one of these, as this week the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that its materials relating to the McClellan-Kerr navigation system along with Native American artifacts from the area would be relocated to the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock, Arkansas. While this move is small on the international museum scale, it does raise interesting questions about what becomes of a museum once it closes, especially for museums that represent a particular era that is fading, with here that of the local historical society.

A polar bear on the move at the Jensen Arctic Museum (photograph by Andrew Parodi, via Wikimedia)
A polar bear on the move at the Jensen Arctic Museum (photograph by Andrew Parodi, via Wikimedia)

While the Oklahoma and Arkansas museum have a tight connection in their focus on the maritime history of the central United States, other museums in the country have less parallel moves. This month it was also reported that the Jensen Arctic Museum at Western Oregon University was closing due to a lack of funding. The museum — founded by researcher and collector Paul Jensen — will have its around 5,000 artifacts centered on the Arctic becoming an archive at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon. This keeps them available in a way, although not in a public museum.

Women's Museum in Dallas (photograph by Stephen Witherden, via Wikimedia)
Women’s Museum in Dallas (photograph by Stephen Witherden, via Wikimedia)

A similar transition happened when the much larger Women’s Museum in Dallas, a Smithsonian affiliate, closed in 2011 after only just over a decade in its 70,000-square-foot Art Deco building that had been created at a cost of $30 million. One of the only national museums devoted to women’s history was haunted by funding issues from almost the beginning, operating in a major deficit for much of its run, and after its closure its archives were acquired by Texas Woman’s University in Denton.

Costumes in the Liberace Museum (photograph by Christine Wang/Flickr user)
Costumes in the Liberace Museum (photograph by Christine Wang/Flickr user)

Yet even if archiving the museum in a library isn’t exactly the same as keeping it all visible and open, it does at least keep the collection together. When the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Branson closed in 2009, the over 1,000 items related to cowboy superstar Roy Rogers were auctioned at Christie’s. Even the taxidermy of Rogers’ trusty horse Trigger was sold for $266,500 to a Nebraska-based television channel. Museums devoted to a performer like Rogers whose popularity has faded tend to have a limited lifespan, as has also been the case with the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, which closed in October of 2010 due to a plunge in its attendance, which once rivaled the Hoover Dam. Liberace set up the museum to himself in 1979, and now its flashy costumes and car covered in gold flake and candelabra emblems are all stored away by the Liberace Foundation Board of Directors, with part of it planned to reopen in 2014 as the Liberace Entertainment Experience.

But physical closure doesn’t always mean the museum has to disappear. Milwaukee’s Black Holocaust Museum founded by James Cameron — a lynching survivor — as a memorial to enslavement, closed in 2008 due to financial difficulties, but reopened in 2012 as a virtual museum. And there’s always the possibility that another museum has their eye on the collections of these struggling institutions. Earlier this year, the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts announced that it was closing in December due to fundraising issues. The only American museum that’s completed devoted to armor, its around 2,000 objects will be staying in Worcester with a relocation to the Worcester Art Museum (along with its $3 million endowment). Yet while much of it will be displayed there, much will also be in storage.

It can be hard to sustain a small museum in the constantly shifting demographics of the United States, where what draws people one decade may seem dated or irrelevant in the next, but they still contain stories and history that is important to preserve. Yet often what is preserved is not the identity of the museum itself, but a shadow of its memory in the scattered objects and archived name.

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