Does Louisville need a history museum?
Does Louisville need a history museum?
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Does Louisville need a history museum?
Does Louisville need a history museum? (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)

Cincinnati has one. So does Atlanta, Richmond, and New York. But does Louisville need a museum to showcase its long and storied history at the Falls of the Ohio? Historian and author Bryan S. Bush thinks so and has drafted a proposal for just such an institution.

Bush said Louisville already has an authoritative museum row on West Main Street but could benefit from an institution dedicated to the history of the city itself. His proposal is only a rough draft but he wants your input to refine the plan.

Since it was released in mid April of 2009, Bush says the proposal has generated quite a bit of positive buzz from people he has spoken with but admits support from the City and many of its institutions has been lukewarm. He hopes once the economy improves that the idea can pick up some momentum.

There’s currently no financing plan or location in mind, but Bush believes such a museum could serve as an anchor in the West Main Street cultural district. Ideally, Bush would like to see a Louisville History Museum set up in a renovated historic structure.

It takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to take an idea like this from the drawing board to reality, but could offer many benefits for the city in the long run. If the idea generates enough interest, it’s going to take a dedicated team to pull off a comprehensive solution—and it won’t be cheap. A Louisville History Museum will need to establish a permanent collection, find resources to acquire a home, and fund an endowment. But first, it starts with an idea.

From the proposal:

The purpose of the Louisville History museum is to establish a permanent location for a museum showcasing Louisville’s rich political, economic, social and cultural history. With the development of the Louisville Waterfront Park and the showcasing of Louisville’s new museum row with the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Frazier International History Museum, and the Louisville Science Center, Louisville needs a museum dedicated to Louisville’s history.

Many major areas of the country already have museums dedicated to their history, such as the Atlanta History center, which covers Atlanta’s turbulent period in the Civil War, the Richmond Historical Center, in Richmond, Virginia, and Museum Complex in Cincinnati, Ohio, which includes three museums in one area. Louisville is a great city, but has no comparable comprehensive museum for showcasing the city’s history.

Louisville is a very important city, which should have a museum showing her rich history, from the city’s very beginnings on Corn Island to the great city she has become today. Louisville citizens should be proud of their steamboat, riverboat, and railroad history. Louisville became part of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Louisville became a great center for supplies, soldiers, and transportation during the Civil War. The city became a great industrial center. With these and many other elements of our great history, a Louisville Historical Center would be an asset to the community, mostly by increasing tourism as well as unique educational opportunities for Louisville students. Most importantly, especially to historians, is that Louisville needs a museum dedicated to our history before the historical artifacts become lost, damaged or destroyed.

What do you think? Could you get behind a Louisville History Museum? Help to refine the proposal in the comments. Thanks to Steve Magruder at Louisville History & Issues for helping to advance the idea.

The Museum’s historical coverage will be broken into several time periods:

  • 1700–1810: The museum will discuss Louisville’s first settlement at Corn Island and the Life of General George Rogers Clark.
  • 1820–1850: Louisville becomes a prosperous city with the settlement of their first successful families, such as the Speeds.
  • 1850–1860: Louisville becomes an important city for steamboats and railroads, with the founding of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Politically the city turns to an unsettled period and has one of the cities deadliest riots in August 1855, during the Blood Monday riots.
  • 1860–1865: THE CIVIL WAR! Louisville goes through turbulent times, with many financial and personal losses during the War. The city comes close to invasion in 1861 and 1862. In 1864, one of the most important meetings of the Civil War takes place at the Galt House. Union General Ulysses S. Grant meets with the Union generals of the western theater to plan out the upcoming March of the Sea Campaign, and later Union Ulysses S. Grant meets with Union General William T. Sherman.
  • 1866–1890: The City of Progress. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad expands and fuels Louisville’s economic boom. The bridge of 1870 connects North and South. The Louisville Industrial Exposition opened in 1872 and runs until 1882. Louisville becomes a manufacturing town, with a rise in industry of 61 percent. The Southern Exposition opens in 1883 and runs until 1887. The Louisville Jockey Club opens in 1875, which becomes Churchill Downs. Henry Watterson takes over the Louisville Courier-Journal. The Great Cyclone of 1890. The rise of Macauley Theater, and the opening of Union Station.
  • 1910–1919: Electric railways expand in Louisville. The heart of downtown Louisville begins to move south. Ford Motor company opened in 1916. Louis and Otto Seelbach’s hotel opened in 1905. The Majestic, Louisville first movie theater opens in 1912. Louisville supports World War I. Camp Zachary Taylor opens to train soldiers for the war.
  • 1920–1939: Louisville suffers with the loss in prosperity, with Prohibition, the Stock Market crash and the 1937 flood hitting the city. The Rialto Theater, Louisville’s most elaborate motion picture theater, opens in 1921. Fourth and Broadway becomes the “magic corner” with the rise of the Brown Hotel and the Heyburn building. In 1922, WHAS becomes Louisville’s first radio station. In 1925, the University of Louisville moved their College of Arts and Sciences from Broadway to the Belknap Campus. The J. B. Speed Art Museum opened in 1927. Spalding College opened in 1920. In 1927, at the Falls of the Ohio was built the dam and hydroelectric plant. Fontaine Ferry Park and Rose Island become Louisville entertainment centers. In 1933, WAVE becomes the first regular broadcasting station.
  • 1939–1945: Louisville supports World War II. Louisville becomes the world’s largest producer of synthetic rubber.
  • 1945–1969: The ending of segregation. The rise of Louisville as an industrial center such as Ford and General Electric. Standiford Field opens to commercial aviation. In 1956, white and black students attend public schools together. The Louisville Zoological Garden opened in 1968.
  • 1970–2000: A great Tornado hits Louisville. Forced Busing. The rise of the Kentucky Derby Festival, Saint James Court Art Festival, the Bluegrass Music Festival. The city changes from industrial to business sector. The rise of UPS.
  • 2000–Present: The Revitalization of the Riverfront. New museums come to Louisville, such as Frazier, the Slugger Museum, and the Muhammad Ali Center. This timeline is meant only as a suggestion to inspire debate and discussion and can be expanded upon.
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Branden Klayko

Founder and Editor at Broken Sidewalk
Branden founded Broken Sidewalk in 2008 while practicing architecture in Louisville. He continued the site for seven years while living in New York City, returning to Louisville in 2016. Branden is a graduate of the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and has covered architecture, design, and urbanism for The Architect's Newspaper, Designers & Books, Inhabitat, and the American Institute of Architects.
Branden Klayko

18 COMMENTS

  1. Yes. Louisville needs a museum. The rate at which we are tearing down historical buildings and replacing them with shopping centers is atrocious. We need somewhere to hold the history of the city before modern development firms remove all traces. Think I'm wrong? Go look at all the historical marker signs all over the city. Many of them now stand where buildings of historical significance use to be, but are now modern complexes used for shopping & drinking.

  2. I know it is not quite what is being called for above but the Filson Historical Society does provide some of these functions. Perhaps their own mission could be expanded? Honestly, as much as I love history generally and Louisville's history specifically I worry this is a project that would constantly require subsidies. Also, there are numerous books detailing the history of the city generally and also specific events or neighborhoods. In regard to the historical markers mentioned above- they provide enough detail that an interested person could seek more information on their own if desired, they are accessible to more people than a museum would be, and as they tend to mark the place something happened they provide a context lost in a museum.

    The museum would be cool and a great addition but, let's be honest, it would likely be a consistent drain on city coffers and most often visited by uninterested children on field trips.

  3. This effort is a long range concept, not a short range one, so think in the future. This economic downturn will not last forever, and neither will the lack of funds. This is a great idea, and one that will enhance the West Main Street area if there are any locations left by the time this could be assembled. All ideas like this take time to develop, so the time is now to start the discussion so that it can be an organized, legitimate effort, and ready for when the funding can be obtained. If you sit on your hands now and wait for it to come around, you will be too late when the opportinity presents its self.

    There are a lot of individual organizations that I believe would be interested in contributing information and substance to fill it, except for the Filson. They are a private organization, a research library and work a lot with geneology. They do have a lot of artifacts, but they are not a Museum with items on display that the general public can walk in and view.

    Louisville needs to have a place that will display a large, somewhat comprehensive show place on the History of the City. We want people to come here and visit, and we need to tell them why it's a great town. A Museum of this type would do just that.

  4. In addition to Floyd County, Bullitt County and Oldham County both have their own history museums as well. And as Bryan stated, Lexington, our smaller sister city in the state.

    So why not Louisville? That's the question I put to everyone.

    With all the rich history here (so much that adjacent counties think there's enough to treasure about their own), how can we NOT do this?

  5. As a member of the choir (& board member of the Louisville Historical League along with Bryan), I have to thank him & Steve for promoting this idea. Yes, it is way past time for Louisville to have a cultural asset like this, both as a tourist attraction and a place of learning for our own residents. What we present about our own past (and how we present it) tells a lot about how we view ourselves to our visitors, and perhaps by celebrating our unique history we might finally see our own community in a different way (and overcome that chronic low self-esteem that says we're not Atlanta, Nashville, Cincinnati, etc.).

    But more importantly, we need to have a place where the locals can learn more of their own history. Yes, we have a number of great archives & specialized museums already, but they each either tell only a small part of our story, or they are better suited for only the most serious students & researchers of history. What we need is a place that engages the more casual visitor & perhaps awakens a deeper interest & pride in their own community. This is an especially vital need among our younger people & students, if we are to really raise them to be better citizens who become more engaged in their community as adults, and to give them the perspective our next generation of community leaders need to have. If we had more leaders imbued with the sense of our community's history like Tom Owen, how might our vision for our future be different?

    Local history, by & large, is not taught in our schools at all. And when history is taught, it is usually about events that happened hundreds or thousands of miles away. I would have given anything if my high school history teachers had told me the Wilderness Road ran right outside our front door, or if my grade school teachers had told me the founder of the KY Derby & Churchill Downs was born just a block away, or if I had known my walking route to U of L took me past the site of an old Civil fort & hospital every day. Those are the kinds of stories that make history tangible & exciting for young people.

    We need a place where we come together & hear the stories, and know who walked before us on this land. That collective community heritage is as important as our own personal family histories. Without it, we do not truly know who we are & why we are here, or more importantly, where we are going.

    The easiest way to engage with someone is to ask about their history, and they'll tell you more than you'll ever want to know. That's how community & connection is built. Heritage tourism is one of the hottest industries in the country right now, & we shouldn't miss the boat. A Louisville history museum is as important of an amenity for our community as is a new arena. It could bring us together in ways we might not even imagine!

    Mike Zanone

    Saint Joseph Area Association

  6. I am glad to see some positive comments about the museum project. I think that YUM Brands, UPS, Kroger, and many other organizations would be able to help with the funding of this project. The city also needs to take pride in their own city by showcasing their rich and colorful history. I have seen the Filson Club’s name in the discussion and I think they would even agree that they are not a museum. They are a research institution. They have wonderful documents and I have used them exclusively for research. They have a small museum which used to be their carriage house. I think Louisville can do better.
    As for one of the comments that all we need are historical markers, you might want to take a look around. I have posted a comment on Louisville History and Issues website stating that there are several missing historical markers in downtown Louisville.
    When I visit a city, I always check to see if they have a museum. I am currently putting together a Civil War display for the Floyd County Historical Society. Yes, even Floyd Co. has a museum. Even Lexington, Kentucky has again outdone Louisville by having a museum.
    If the museum is done right, it does not have to be a drain on the city coffers. Could not the museum complex give some room or could U of L loan one of their buildings? I am sure that there is property that could be donated to the project.
    I know many children act like they are disinterested in a museum field trip, but if just ONE student learns, the museum has done their job. I used to be a curator of a museum, and believe it or not, there would be at least three students who truely want to learn more out of a group.
    If we do not preserve our history and heritage for future generations for our children, who will? I have seen many artifacts of Louisville’s history disappear. Are we willing to let our history slip through our hands? Remember, a city has no future without understanding their past.

  7. I think that concerns with regards to financial sustainability are absolutely legitimate. The Frazier and Ali Museums have struggled mightily to attract their pre-opening attendance estimates. However, I most definitely support a Louisville history museum dedicated solely to telling the story of the city. In order for it to be successful, there would need to be significant buy-in from local businesses, LCVB, GLI, JCPS and the city to make sure everyone is on the same page with regards to financing and mission.

    As a proud Louisvillian who has spent the past 15+ years working in Miami, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo, one of my greatest pleasures is bringing European and Asian colleagues–and even U.S. colleagues for that matter–from more world-famous cities to Louisville for the Derby. After a day wandering amongst the museums on Main, the galleries on Market or the bars on Bardstown, you can literally watch their pre-visit stereotypes morph from condescension to curiosity. Oddly, there is no single place, i.e. a local history museum, where this curiosity can be sated–unless we consider the bourbon and KFC exhibits at the LCVB center at 4th & Liberty to be an ample source of historical fulfillment.

    Shocking to most outsiders is Louisville`s outsized cultural and historical impact on the U.S. vis-a-vis her present day status as a lower-tier U.S. city. As mentioned above, a center explaining out past could not only act as a tourist destination, but perhaps also re-awaken a slumbering civic spirit amongst the locals. Lousiville has a lot of which to be proud. How many cities, regardless of size, have three globally iconic, instantly recognizable images that can rival KFC, bourbon and horseracing/Derby? Strangely, foreigners often recognize and appreciate Louisville for being Louisville moreso than the locals.

    Louisville needs to become more educated, and that can start by educating ourselves about our own history in a dynamic and interactive way. The Frazier has proven that with compelling, interactive exhibits, people can be drawn to museums that would otherwise not interest them. While historical arms may not interest everyone, Fontaine Ferry might. The Frazier has most certainly struggled, but it has also proven many naysayers wrong.

    A local history museum would need the same kind of dynamic management to overcome any perception of another boring, tedious and dull museum.

    It can be done. It should be done.

  8. As an employee of the Frazier International History Museum, I can assure readers that the history of Louisville is being shared with the public. Since we accepted the responsibility our name invokes, the Frazier Museum has produced two major exhibitions of Louisville history, including Fontaine Ferry and WWII: 48 Local Stories, and will open an exhibition on the Civil War in early 2011. In addition, Louisville Water Company’s 150th anniversary will be celebrated with an exhibition opening this fall.

    I encourage all readers to visit the Frazier Museum and bring us your ideas of how to share Louisville’s rich history with the visitors. And, I hope Mr. Bush will join with us to become the Kentuckiana region’s leading history museum, thus minimizing fears that taxpayers would be solely responsible for maintaining such an institution. The beauty of making the Frazier Museum the home of Louisville history is that we already have a building, a stunning collection that grows daily (not just in arms, but in all types of artifacts), and as a 501(c)3 non-profit institution, can accept tax-deductible support from Louisville’s generous donors and history enthusiasts. Why not join forces?

  9. Laura, thank you for your response. I think Bryan can more fully address your position.

    Only speaking for myself, I fully appreciate what the Frazier and other local museums have contributed to the sharing of information about Louisville’s history. I don’t think anyone is denying that such sharing is going on across our community.

    Bryan’s proposal, however, is about creating a comprehensive Louisville History Museum in one location.

    I agree that the design and environment of the Frazier would make it a superior home to such a museum. Does the Frazier plan to create a permanent comprehensive Louisville history museum side-by-side with international history, or convert wholly to this subject matter? I ask because Bryan’s proposal is calling for a dedicated museum.

  10. Nothing is impossible, Steve. Speaking only for myself, as well, I believe that the Frazier Museum could easily include the comprehensive story of Louisville history, as part of the greater international story we tell. Perhaps you and Bryan would like to visit with us about your ideas?

  11. Laura Wheaton: I am actually a Frazier Museum member and have been for a number of years. I enjoyed your exhibit on WW II. I went to your Civil War exhibit Liberty on the Border, which was actually an exhibit done by the Museum Complex in Cincinnati, but I was glad to see it again. I actually gave a lecture about Louisville during the Civil War for your Hands on History class this year. When I have visitors to town I have always taken them to the Frazier Museum. I have already extended my services in helping with your exhibit on the Civil War, but to date I have heard nothing back in response. I also gave a lecture on Lincoln and his friendship with the Speeds. I know Tony Dingman quite well and always admire his efforts to do his interpretations correctly. I would have no problem sitting down with your members and show you my proposal for a comprehensive museum on Louisville’s history and it is my deepest desire that in your display on the Civil War, that you tell the importance of Louisville During the Civil War.

  12. I love the idea of Louisville having a museum that showcases it’s unique imprint on American history, but for viability purposes, why not consider an even bigger scope: perhaps making it an International Museum of the Bridge, where Louisville can be uniquely showcased as a “bridge to westward expansion”, and a “bridge between North & South”, etc. etc. Not sure if there is already a museum out there that focuses on the Bridges of the world, but I think that Bridges (along with Louisville) are just plain cool! And might be a pretty big draw…and let’s house it in Museum Plaza Bldg, to help re-vitalize that project…Just some thoughts.

  13. We absolutely need a museum! Louisville has such wonderful history. Everytime I go to St. Louis, I go to the Old Courthouse and wonder, why don’t we have this? Any time I go to a new city, I try to go by the history museum, if they have one. Dallas’s “Big Red” is terrific, also. Frazier is wonderful, but it isn’t, first and foremost, a LOUISVILLE museum, although its exhibits on local history have been excellent.

    The Filson Club is a private organization is an important, but limited, mission, it isn’t a museum.

  14. It has been brought to my attention that Louisville used to have a city history museum where the Louisville Science Center is today. However, as a 43-year-old who was born and raised in Louisville and went to the Museum of Natural History & Science as a child and young man, my memories are mainly of natural history exhibits at that location, not the many other aspects of the city’s history and certainly not anything comprehensive. Is my memory accurate, or perhaps did I not go to the museum when they were attempting to have a comprehensive city history showcase?

  15. There are two good examples of local history museums in Indiana, one in Fort Wayne in their old city hall, and another in South Bend. The South Bend one is in a new building and is quite nice. It is on the grounds of an old mansion, but the grounds also includes a factory workers cottage, so this museum complex interprets social history as well as the more conventional pioneer history. So, if relatively small cities like South Bend and Fort Wayne can support local history museums I don’t see why Louisville can’t.

  16. I support the idea of a city museum; but I fear for the dilution of resources (which are more limited than some seem to think) given the other fine historical organizations in town, all of which tell part of the story now. The Frazier should be major player in this discussion – they have the space, the location, and their vision seems to be moving in the direction of telling local stories. The Filson has the collections. A new organization that competes with these could damage everyone (look at the fate of the African-American History Museum in the West End, given the establishment of the Ali Center – there’s not THAT much money and support out there!). Having said that – a huge part of Louisville’s history is untold, especially from the Civil War to the present; the history of the working people, the businesses, the arts & artists, civil rights, streetscapes and buildings, ethnic minorities… we do need to consider together how to build the collections and the exhibitions and programs to present these stories. Maybe a dedicated museum, but maybe a creative collaboration. Chicago recently had a city-wide, multi-institution, full year focus on MAPS – each organization had its own take on the theme. Perhaps a Louisville year on Louisville history? That might be the basis for something more permanent. (message from Historic Locust Grove)

  17. Yes, Louisville does need a museum to honor all that we have in industry, science and other areas of expertise. While we travel all over the United States to other cities that have museums that honor their own history, historical docuuments and growth we have a tendency here in Louisville to
    forget that we have all of those things as well. Our children need to know about yesterday, today and tomorrow, but most of all they need to be proud of their community and heritage.But, most of all the financial benefit that could come from this from other international companies and people that would tour our facility as we do theirs. Mayor, You have done a wonderful job in this city and it is appreciated. The commerce that would come from this from within our own city and from the International market and visitors to our city from other outside states could be phenomenal.

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