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Jerry Davich: Using an old history museum to look to the future

Maps

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



The idea of moving the Porter County Museum of History and replacing it with a music conservatory may be controversial or blasphemy to some history buffs, but not to me.

Here’s why: The new location of the museum — inside the former Valparaiso police station/town hall a block away — also will provide needed space for a possible children’s or family-friendly museum, I’m told.

To date, I’ve neither read nor heard anything about a children’s museum regarding the building swap, but even the idea of one is worth the inevitable switch. I’m typically in favor of looking to the future —in this case, our children — more than looking at our past — in this case, historical artifacts.

“It will be the first of its kind in Northwest Indiana,” said Ron Niess, a consultant on the project whose expertise is developing and funding similar museums and exhibitions across the country.

I met with Niess after hearing that the new site of the historical museum could also include upgraded high-tech amenities. This intriguing addition knocked me off the fence of indecision whether this costly move was the right way to go for the museum, the city and the county.

Niess, a consultant with Lewellen and Best, which specializes in museums, exhibits and mobile event marketing, is on the board of trustees of the Porter County Heritage Corp. He has a talent for not only having a vision but also making it a reality. He’s created similar history-related ventures in other cities across the country.

His passion is the fabled Negro Baseball League, and the Milan High School basketball team that took the state championship in 1954, inspiring the great film “Hoosiers.”

Niess is convinced supporters can pull off the needed fundraising for the building renovation, estimated to cost between $1.8 million and $2.3 million.

Critics of the building-swap claim the switch is a waste of taxpayer dollars and it will erase the historical essence of the old museum, which was essentially born in 1916, for Indiana’s centennial celebration. When some of the contributors back then did not want their items returned, or they forgot about them, the museum’s collection began.

First, a brief history

The Porter County Heritage Corp. functions as the private arm in a public-private partnership. In addition to owning the full collection of artifacts, the corporation engages in fundraising and strategic planning, according to museum Executive Director Kevin Pazour.

The Porter County government, specifically the Porter County Commissioners, owns the museum building, pays the utility costs, and provides Pazour’s salary and benefits.

When he took over three years ago, his primary goal was to transition the museum from an amateur, volunteer-run group to a professionally organized institution.

“The creation of the Porter County Heritage Corp. was the first big push in making my goal a reality,” he said.

Last September, the group realized it could no longer function as a museum in its current facility.

“While it is a gorgeous historical building, it does not have the climate-controlled systems to control temperature and relative humidity,” Pazour said. “Nor is it large enough to do the things we would like to do, namely exhibitions and programs.”

The option of renovating the old town hall did not become available until late January, well after Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas indicated it would be used as the future home for a music conservatory. Costas, however, later changed those plans and “enthusiastically” agreed to house the music conservatory in the old museum building.

But now comes the hard part — making both endeavors a reality.

“Right now, we are working to get the County Commissioners, city of Valparaiso, and the Heritage Corp. all on the same page,” Pazour said. “Our next step is to determine what will be contributed from each group for the overall project.”

So far, the city has agreed to pay for utilities on the building for five years, and the Heritage Corp. will conduct a capital campaign to pay for the renovation of the building, redevelopment of exhibits and additional staffing needs.

The group is working on reworked plans to restore the façade of the historic 1878 town hall building, as well as interior renderings of the new museum.

“It is a goal of the Heritage Corp. to make the museum a truly county-wide institution with a strong focus on educational programming for our younger generation of visitors,” Pazour said.

Like Niess, Pazour wants to make the exhibits interactive and relevant through the use of new technology.

Although Niess has a vision of high-tech interactive exhibits — including an outer space experience, a working lighthouse, and a virtual walk along the Lake Michigan floor — Pazour is quick to note that those concepts are, well, concepts.

“Nothing has been approved by the corporation at this time,” Pazour said.

Still, the idea alone has me intrigued and I hope you are on board, too. Public awareness, if not acceptance, can only help the cause.

For more info, or to help the cause, contact Pazour at 465-3836 or kmpazour@gmail.com.

Visit Jerry’s blog at http://blogs.post-trib.com/davich/, his Facebook, and Twitter at @jdavich



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