The Birmingham History Center, displaced more than two years ago, is still trying to find a place to preserve both itself and its singular collection of local artifacts.
Since the end of BHC’s lease at the Young & Vann Supply Co. Building in December 2013, which made space available for the Alabama Media Group’s AL.com and Birmingham News, the center has become a museum without a building.
“We’ve been looking, for quite some time now, for a building to turn into a museum,” said BHC Executive Director Jerry R. Desmond. “We’d like to be downtown, within the historic district someplace. The problem is that none of these buildings are designed to be museums. They are old and they’d likely have to be completely refurbished.”
Founded in 2004 by seven members, including Dr. Bayard Tynes and Garland Smith, who serves as a current co-president, the history center collects, preserves and stores artifacts that are specifically related to Birmingham’s past.
Space is only part of the problem when considering a museum location, Desmond said. American Alliance of Museums standards require a windowless “black box” type building so that artifacts are not harmed by light. Within Birmingham’s historic district, such buildings are hard to come by. And with the revitalization of the district, the real estate market is going sky high, Desmond said.
“We’ve looked at, I’d estimate, probably 15 or 20 different buildings downtown, “Desmond said. “And none of them met our needs so far. Also, the costs of these buildings have gone way up. So before we could get a building for $200,000 to $300,000, and now it’s selling for $800,000 or $900,000.”
As the search continues, Desmond’s offices are stationed in a fourth floor suite in the Pythian Building, formerly the Alabama Penny Savings Bank. A majority of the artifacts, nine storage rooms full in total, rest in cool, climate-controlled Metro Storage. “We’ve been in storage since December of 2013, “Desmond said. “We’re kind of getting full because we still are collecting.”
In mid-January of this year, the BHC acquired a total of 87 items from the family collection of Iron Art founder Katherine McTyeire that reflect the personal nature of some of the artifacts entrusted to the museum. The items include a Julian LaMar portrait of McTyeire’s mother, Bert Monroe Meadow; a number of early Birmingham business hats and hat boxes, as well as uniforms from both world wars. The uniforms were worn by McTyeire’s uncle, Joseph Horn, and husband, William Walter McTyeire, Jr.
“Our storage is climate-controlled, humidity-controlled and temperature-controlled,” Desmond said. “We have a big insurance policy on everything. These things have to be protected. I go there [Metro Storage] once a week or so. I’m always over there bringing new artifacts. We’re a professional museum; we do everything by professional standards.”
In keeping with AAM guidelines for artifact handling and collection procedures, BHC cares for artifacts with white gloves, acid-free boxes and acid-free tissue paper, in addition to protecting the items in its care from light, among other procedures. AAM emphasizes the importance of “ensuring the safety and security of the museum’s collections and/or objects and proper maintenance for both the visitors and artifacts.”
The Magic City Dilemma
The BHC considered Powell School on 24th Street, the oldest surviving school in the Birmingham City School system as a possible new home, but it was not suitable for a museum due to both the age and the number of windows. “It was a historic building,” Desmond said. “But there wasn’t anything we could do with it. We need at least 15-20,000 square feet.”
The BHC came close to obtaining the Ideal Building, which is diagonal from the McWane Science Center. The owner at the time wanted almost twice of what the building was worth, according to Desmond. “It would have been a great location, six-story building built in 1913,” said Desmond. “He sold it to another development group that is putting in some more condominiums.”
For Desmond, it is bewildering that Birmingham, with a population of approximately 1.2 million within 40 miles of downtown, doesn’t have a museum like BHC. “There are 42 history museums in Alabama, and the biggest city in Alabama doesn’t have a general history museum,” he said. “The greatest city in Alabama does not have a general history museum.”
The EarlyWorks Family of Museums in downtown Huntsville, with a population of 400,000, boasts three history museums that work together to provide historical records. According to Desmond, in addition to the Museum of Mobile, the city of Mobile has built a state-of-the-art seaport museum at an estimated cost of $63 million.
The BHC doesn’t just need a home. It needs an upgrade, as Desmond sees it.
“Our vision is a modern museum,” Desmond said. “Our vision is to be on the cutting edge of the technology. We want people to bring in their IPhones and scan a barcode and read it at their leisure on the phone. Today, you have to trick people into learning history. History isn’t boring. The way it’s presented is boring.”
For the past 10 years, the Birmingham History Center’s major donor has been the Jernigan Foundation, connected with the late Thomas Jernigan Sr., founder and CEO of the Marathon Corporation. In the future, Desmond said, the BHC plans to move ahead with a feasibility study by an outside consulting firm, followed by a capital campaign which will begin with large funders before broadening the support base to include smaller donors. The goal is a new building.
“We would like to have a venue that people can come to with permanent and changing exhibits,” Desmond said. “We not only want to showcase stories about Birmingham, but also bring in exhibits from outside and travelling exhibits that people can look at. We want to be a full service museum, a research center, have genealogy research, have education programs. We want to go out into the community.”