Jerry Desmond is nothing if not excited about the future of the Birmingham History Center.
BHC had to store it exhibits and artifacts in October because it lost its lease in the Young & Vann Supply Co. building at 1731 First Ave. North, which will become offices for the Alabama Media Group.
“We’ve got about 13,000 things we have collected over the years of Birmingham and Jefferson County history,” says Desmond, executive director of the BHC. All of those items now are in temporary storage as Desmond and the BHC board of directors regroup.
Desmond says the artifacts range from small items to an 1892 carriage that belonged to a judge. The carriage, made by Brewster Carriage in New York, cost the judge $380. “It was more than a year’s salary for most people,” he says.
Other items include a diorama of Birmingham history done by artist Eleanor Bridges in the 1980s. A circular display that is 8 feet tall and 15 feet wide, the diorama features scenes from the city’s past. It has unfinished areas because Bridges died before she could complete it, Desmond says.
Volunteers who moved the collection also struggled with an 1872 bell from an Elyton church – which weighs 400 pounds.
He says BHC leaders hope a property owner will donate a building with 15,000 to 20,000 square-feet of floor space to the center. A location in downtown or near Regions Field would be ideal because visitors who come to other attractions like the McWane Science Center would be able to tour BHC as well.
“We’re kind of in the middle of deciding our next step,” Desmond says. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”
He says BHC will need to raise $300 to $400 per square-foot of exhibit space. He estimates the exhibits will take up 9,000 square-feet, bringing the total needed to around $3.7 million even if a building is donated.
“Our goal is to have a presence in the city someplace…and to have an attraction people will come to,” Desmond says.
He is heartened by the success of fundraising efforts for restoration of the Lyric Theatre. The 100-year-old Lyric is undergoing a $7.5 million renovation. He also points to the planned children’s museum at McWane.
“It’s a matter of the city deciding if we want to have a history museum, if it’s a good project,” Desmond says. “We believe it is.”
BHC is a nonprofit that receives no government funding. A $750,000 10-year grant from the Thomas E. Jernigan family foundation pays for most of the center’s operating expenses.
Ironically, Desmond says the unexpected loss of the Young & Vann lease has launched BHC ahead. The center had only 3,000 square-feet of display space in its old location. “We were not able to put more than 5 percent of our collection out,” he says. “We would have moved eventually anyway. … This forces us to do some searching.”
BHC was started in 2004 by citizens who thought that Birmingham needed a general history museum. Other museums in the city are specialty facilities. “No one was collecting anything except for the library…[which collects] archival material,” Desmond says.
BHC first had offices in the Mountain Brook Office Park. Desmond was hired in July 2009, months before BHC opened exhibits in the Young & Vann location. BHC now is operating out of temporary offices at 1807 Third Ave. North.
Desmond says tentative plans call for a fundraising campaign starting within the next year, once the board of directors decides what direction to take. Meanwhile, no one should think BHC has given up.
“This is definitely a startup that has stopped and will start up again,” he says.