Lexington History Museum plans ‘museum roundtable’ Wednesday

March 16, 2015

The Lexington History Museum will host a gathering Wednesday of more than a dozen local museums and other history-related organizations to help them better coordinate their missions and outreach.

“Our goal is to build a strong working relationship with other area institutions and increase heritage tourism,” said William Ambrose, the museum’s president. “The more we talk, the better all of these organizations will be.”

LexHistThe Museum Roundtable is at 4 p..m. March 18 in the basement conference room of the Lexington Public Library on Main Street. For more information, email the museum’s executive director, Debra Watkins, at debra@lexhistory.org.

Each group has been asked to bring information to share about their organization’s programs, exhibits and events. Mayor Jim Gray will give opening remarks. The museum also is compiling a directory of Central Kentucky history groups.

The Lexington History Museum was housed in the old Fayette County Courthouse until July 2012, when city officials ordered the building closed because of concerns about lead paint and asbestos contamination.

Officials from the city and the Downtown Development Authority are working on a restoration and reuse plan for the circa 1900 courthouse, but it is unclear what, if any, presence the history museum will have there in the future. Most of the museum’s collection is in storage.

In the meantime, the museum has focused on education and outreach, sponsoring programs and small exhibits called “pocket museums” around town. The museum published an illustrated book about Lexington history in 2013, written by board member Foster Ockerman Jr. It also has built a website (Lexhistory.org) that includes WikiLex, a database of local history information.

“Actually, closing, in hindsight, may have been the best thing for us,” Ambrose said, adding that the museum’s board of directors is working on a long-term strategy.

The museum is preparing an exhibit for this fall focused on Central Kentucky’s bourbon industry. It is likely to be displayed at the former James E. Pepper Distillery complex on Manchester Street, which is being redeveloped into several businesses, including the brewpub Etherial Brewing.


Museum publishes new illustrated Lexington history book

November 13, 2013

Historic Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass is a new illustrated history book published by the Lexington History Museum.

The book includes a 64-page history narrative written by Lexington lawyer Foster Ockerman Jr., followed by articles about 20 local companies and institutions bookcoverwhose sponsorship paid for the publication. All proceeds from the book, which sells for $50, will benefit the museum.

“What I wanted to write was a popular history,” Ockerman said of the one-chapter, chronological overview illustrated with historic and modern images. About 100 books were sold by pre-order, and 400 more are available.

Ockerman will be signing the book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Central Library, 140 E. Main St., and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

The Lexington History Museum has been reinventing itself since its home, the old Fayette County Courthouse, was closed in July 2012 because of lead paint hazards. The organization has opened several small “pocket museums” around downtown and plans more there and in Chevy Chase. Also, the museum is rebuilding its website to be more of a local history database.  


Lexington History Museum reopens with series of ‘pocket’ museums

June 29, 2013

Since the city shut down the old Fayette County Courthouse that housed the Lexington History Museum last July because of concerns about lead paint exposure, a lot of people figured the museum had become, well, history.

But the museum’s board of directors has spent the past few months rethinking their mission and strategy, which they will formally announce at a Monday morning news conference with Mayor Jim Gray.

“Our first reaction was to run around town looking for new exhibit space, but we found there were few available spaces with big rooms and tall ceilings,” said attorney Foster Ockerman Jr., a board member. “So we kind of sat back and said, what now?”

The museum still hopes to have a place when the 115-year-old downtown courthouse is eventually restored to its original beauty. But, at least in the meantime, the museum plans to spread its collection around town in a number of small “pocket museums” beginning this week.

“It’s a matter of completely reinventing what the museum is to deal with the circumstances,” Ockerman said.

PrintThe first five pocket museums to open will be in common spaces of the Central Bank Building, 300 W. Vine Street; Victorian Square, 401 W. Main Street; Bluegrass Corporate Center, 333 W. Vine Street; Central Library, 140 E. Main Street; and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Building, 200 E. Main Street. Displays also will be put in large windows on Central Parking property, 168 N. Upper Street.

More locations are being sought, and exhibits will be changed out every few months.

Also, canvases will be put up later this summer between pillars near the tops of the Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside with old photographs showing how that streetscape looked a century ago.

Museum director Jamie Millard has left and been succeeded by Debra Watkins, who has been with the museum for eight years.

“Our focus on education has not changed,” Watkins said, noting that outreach programs for schools and civic groups has continued during the past year. There also have been a few special exhibits, such as outside the Kentucky Room at Central Library and at the Lyric Theatre.

Later this year, the museum plans to reinvent its website (Lexingtonhistorymuseum.org) to be a local history wiki database. Anyone will be able to contribute, but information will be scrutinized before posting, Watkins said. The museum also hopes to digitize and make available old local photos and local home movies.

“We believe that a lot of the future of museums will be virtual, online,” Ockerman said.

The website also will interface with other Kentucky online history resources, such as those of the Lexington Public Library and the Kentucky Virtual Library.

“We are trying to integrate ourselves into the community,” Watkins said.

Another project is publication of a limited-edition, 350-copy coffee table book of old Lexington photos, along with text written by Ockerman. The museum will begin taking orders July 4 for the $50 book, Historic Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass. The book is to be published in September. All profits from the book will benefit the non-profit museum.

I am sure the Lexington History Museum can’t wait to find a larger, permanent location, either in a restored old Fayette County Courthouse or another downtown building.

But this new approach makes a lot of sense — for the long-term as well as in this situation. Museums need more than the traditional, big-box approach to reach busy people in a modern, digital world.

For example, the most visible art museum in Lexington isn’t a museum at all; it is the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Medical Center. The hospital has a substantial, well-curated collection that is enjoyed every day by hundreds of people who might otherwise never go to the time, trouble and expense of visiting an art museum.

Lexington has a history as rich as any city this side of the East Coast. Spreading exhibits and information around downtown where people can easily encounter them in small doses may be the best way to ensure that that rich history is known and appreciated.


Former VP takes to the air in Lexington

February 5, 2010

Jamie Millard, president of the Lexington History Museum, had a video camera running as workers moved the statue of former Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge across Cheapside to make way for construction of the new market house. Pretty cool. (Note Herald-Leader chief photographer Charles Bertram shooting photos the whole time.)

By the way, the museum today opened a new exhibit, which looks at the Lexington of 1810. It includes historic documents and a map showing Lexington’s surviving 200-year-old structures. The display is within the permanent exhibit, Lexington: Athens of the West.

Located in the old Fayette County Courthouse, 215 W. Main St., The Lexington History Museum is open Friday through Monday, Noon to 4 p.m, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (859) 254-0530, or visit www.LexingtonHistoryMuseum.org.