Archive for Friday, February 15, 2008

Watkins director dismissed

February 15, 2008


Watkins Museum director out

After five years, Rebecca Phipps is out as director of the Watkins Community Museum in downtown Lawrence. Enlarge video

The director of the Watkins Community Museum of History has been dismissed as part of a shake-up in the management of the struggling nonprofit.

In a short news release, the board of directors of the Douglas County Historical Society - which oversees Watkins - announced that Rebecca Phipps no longer was director of the museum.

When contacted Thursday, Phipps said she did not resign from the museum, but she declined to go into specifics about her departure.

"At this point, I don't want to comment until I've had a chance to talk to an attorney," Phipps said.

Phyllis Tiffany, chairwoman of the historical society's board of directors, said there has been "a very clear trend downward in interest, membership, funding and our approach to membership and funding."

She said the museum's administrative structure needed to be reorganized to reverse that trend.

"There has been a tremendous awareness on the part of the board that a lot of changes had to be made, to join the 21st century, if you will," she said. "A lot of reorganization needed to be taken care of.

"Rebecca Phipps has a lot of skills and so forth, but they didn't seem to be compatible with what we're trying to do," Tiffany said.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said he did not know the specifics behind the dismissal. But he said county commissioners had expressed concerns to the museum board of directors, which is an independent organization that receives about $135,000 in county funding on an annual basis. Weinaug said the county has challenged the group to find revenue sources other than tax dollars.

"Watkins has made several efforts to do that in the past, but their success has been somewhat limited," Weinaug said. "The County Commission has expressed significant concern that they need to do a better job with that."

On Monday the County Commission agreed to provide $18,000 in funding to Destination Management Inc. to work with the museum on management issues. Destination Management Inc. is the new organization formed to manage the Freedom's Frontier National Heritage area. It is led by Judy Billings, who also is the director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau.

An attempt to reach Billings for comment wasn't successful.

Weinaug said the new funding is, in part, an effort to better market the county's historical resources to tourists. He said he does not envision Destination Management Inc. serving as the director of the museum, but rather as an umbrella group for all the historical societies in the county.

Weinaug said an agreement is being worked on that would allow the County Commission to transfer all the funding it normally provides to historical societies to Destination Management Inc. DMI, in turn, would then distribute that funding to the individual historical societies.

Weinaug said the hope is the new funding relationship would give DMI the leverage it needs to get the traditionally independent historical societies to coordinate their activities and build on the county's historical resources.

"We think there may be a real significant shift in how historic resources in the community are capitalized on," Weinaug said. "It probably will require a willingness to do things differently."

Tiffany said the board hopes to find an interim director soon, but they aren't to that point yet. When an interim is found, they will begin to search for a permanent director "who has some knowledge in terms of these kinds of transitions and the problems and needs of these museums," she said.

Phipps served as the director of Watkins, 1047 Mass., since February 2003. She replaced longtime administrator and historian Steve Jansen, whose demotion and eventual departure sharply divided the historical society's membership.


Boston_Charley 10 years, 4 months ago

Max1- I don't understand what conclusions you are wanting readers to draw from this series of articles. That the county hasn't supported the museum enough? That the struggle to keep it going has been dragging out too long?

OldEnuf2BYurDad 10 years, 4 months ago

""At this point, I don't want to comment until I've had a chance to talk to an attorney," Phipps said."

Great. Just what a struggling non-profit needs - a lawsuit.

Gerald Kendrick 10 years, 4 months ago

The Watkins Community Museum of History is missing its water but they long ago drained the well dry. Maybe they should ask Steve Jansen how he managed to do so much for so long with so little.

Boston_Charley 10 years, 4 months ago

Yes, thanks, Max1. That answered my question

stuckinthemiddle 10 years, 4 months ago

Wondering if the LJW has any legal responsibility for any liable that may appear in these comments... or is the poster the only one legally responsible? And if so, how can they be held responsible if they are anonymous?

BigPrune 10 years, 4 months ago

I was only suggesting a funding resource. It will NEVER happen.

George_Braziller 10 years, 4 months ago

I think that part of the problem may also lie at the feet of the Board of Directors. It doesn't seem like they have ever really had a good handle on what it is that they want the museum to be. I first visited it 25 years ago when I came to Lawrence and was really disappointed in it, and my impression has never really improved over subsequent years when I have been there. I swear that some of the things on display are the same things that were there 25 years ago.

As for a resource for research -- forget it. Things are in such disarray that even the staff can't find information. It also isn't patron friendly for unaided research.

LogicMan 10 years, 4 months ago

"I first visited it 25 years ago when I came to Lawrence and was really disappointed in it"

Me too, and haven't been back since. But I should -- do they charge admission?

Boston_Charley 10 years, 4 months ago


You're right on the money with your comment that the board has never had a clear vision of what they want the museum to be. I was on the professional staff when the museum opened in its current location in 1975. Although there were some very well-intentioned people involved in the institution, the enterprise was ill-thought-out, to say the least. "If you build it, they will come" doesn't necessarily apply to museums.

I have always thought it a huge shame that a county with such rich history does not seem to be able to come up with a quality history museum.

TopekaBlade 10 years, 4 months ago

"Maybe they should ask Steve Jansen how he managed to do so much for so long with so little."

"Jansen was on hand to casually tell me where the various buildings were located . . ."

Not many museum directors--at any level--get to be on hand to casually talk about their exhibits.

I think that answers the question of how he managed.

BigPrune 10 years, 4 months ago

They need to turn the museum over to the school district and take the $2.4 million for landscaping and give it to the museum. It could be a great education tool and field trip destination, then the school district could give the museum back to the County, or whatever they decide. The museum would be set for years.

putthere 10 years, 4 months ago

The history museum should be about preserving history above all else. The community needs to decide what is more important, making money with a museum or preserving history. Dr. Jansen's ability to pass the history to others was amazing. He believed that the history should go to those who would listen rather than insisting that everyone come to the museum if they want to know about there community. Douglas County has some rich amazing history and the county should be concerned first and foremost with preserving it through both physical and oral means. The number of people who visit the museum should not be the sole measurement of the success of the museum.

toefungus 10 years, 4 months ago

Judge Judy Billings is in charge now, boys. She will fire herself to prove it too!

OhHai 10 years, 4 months ago

as i said yesterday that "museum" is the worst i have ever seen. it has a couple of poster boards, a piece of melted glass and a doily shop. it is in desperate need of rejuvenation and hopefully that is exactly what it will get.

TheOriginalCA 10 years, 4 months ago

The problem with people like Jansen is that you will never find anyone more knowledgeable and totally consumed with his own personal interest but that seldom equates to being that constant PR/Sales person that it takes to get the general public excited about the museum and everything that it is all about. I am not sure that such a person exists that can possess that kind of knowledge and enthusiasm that is contagious.

Boston_Charley 10 years, 4 months ago

I think the real problem comes in when you expect the museum director, who ought to be taking care of all-important administrative matters, to also be the PR/enthusiasm person. It's great if all staff have that quality in some way or another, but there are certainly lots of other kinds of work necessary to running a successful museum. Like keeping proper records in order to be accountable to your donors, for example. Or pursuing grants from government and foundation sources to enhance museum operations and programs.

Kookamooka 10 years, 4 months ago

Going to the Watkins Museum these last few years felt a little like entering some sort of "Church of old crap." There were a lot of things on display that I could find at the Antique Mall up the street but I couldn't touch anything and it wasn't for sale.

I remembering reading a great article in the paper about a button exhibit. It sounded really interesting. When I got there and inquired about it, the old volunteer at the door acted as if I didn't know what I was talking about. He had never heard of it. I just wanted to know where to find it. He didn't know. He asked around. Nobody there knew anything about it. So I wandered upstairs and found a jewlery cabinet with a few old buttons. It wasn't really finished and it didn't look like it was being worked on. I wasted so much time and energy for that. I even left a huge bill in the basket, seeing the need for money all over the place. But it is never enough.

The other day I was getting a bagel and I saw four young mom's shivering outside of the door with their babies in those carry seats. It was time for the museum to open, and no one was there. People actually wanted to go in and they couldn't because no one could let them in. It's just pathetic.

They treat the public with disdain and then blame them for their woes. They need a public relations expert/customer service agent to improve the image of the institution, then maybe people will want to go there.

kansasredlegs 10 years, 4 months ago

Has the County Counselor looked at the legal issues involving giving an incorporated organization public funds?

If not, Destination Management, Inc. should be prepared for the Kansas Open Records Act requests from taxpayers. It should also be prepared for those pesky open meeting laws when it comes to doling out tax dollars.

Might want to rethink this one.

BullSmitty 10 years, 4 months ago

Judy Billings has done nothing but serve this community with high marks. You think that Destination Mgmt Inc will run the Watkins into the ground? I believe you are wrong. She has done nothing but bring Lawrence into the spotlight and try to build this city's reputation for tourists from a fledgling NCAA BB championship town to a year-round tourists' destination.

Rebecca Phipps, has done the best with what has been put before her (as has Steve Jansen before her) but the future of museums is beyond that. Where are the podcasts, the interactive websites, the focus on bringing school groups in (which, by the way are the moneymakers for most museums, beyond grants) etc? The museum (as the article states) needs to move beyond the county museum of the past and into the 21st century. Museums no longer can just try and help preserve the history of the past, they need to try and engage the 21st century in order to not only preserve the history but interest the succeeding generations in our history as well. and that is not limited to Lawrence but the towns, villages and cities of Douglas County past, present and future.

Overhaul the gift shop, update the museum's permanent exhibits (include communities outside of Lawrence and focus on our unique neighborhoods), highlight our unique history (good or bad: the territorial battles, Quantrill's Raid, the shutdown of the city because of the flu in 1918, the figures of Lawrence (Hugh Beaumont, William Quantrill, William Burroughs, et al), the deadly 1970s, the changing 1970s and the growth of the 1990s-2000 in downtown and beyond, etc (do I really need to go on townies?). There are a bevy of interesting stories in Lawrence and Douglas County. The Watkins Bank can't even begin to hold the stories that need to be told. Add on podcasts, a more inclusive and interactive website, a more interactive website (see; and hell, signage out in front of the museum would go a helluva long way.

If the museum board and Destination Management INc. would call for an experienced museum person (and not a Master's in Museum Studies) I would shoot for that spot in a heartbeat. I could turn that museum around in a heartbeat. Not a knock to Rebecca; she did what she could with the experience she has. With more experience and some resources, she would've made that place a palace of history. Too little too late. I wish her the best.

TopekaBlade 10 years, 4 months ago

"Considering the fact that Jansen's job was that of a "full time paid historian", I saw nothing wrong with him offering his knowledge, but I suppose you think he should have been out on the golf course schmoozing for dollars like most business managers do nowadays. Hospital directors usually don't know anything about medical practice, so maybe a historian for a museum needn't know anything about history."

He may have been a "full time paid historian" at the end of his run, but he used the title "director" most of the time he was there. Now a museum director in 1940 might have focused on research and sharing his knowledge, but that was not how a museum director's position was viewed in Janzen's time.

I will not blame Janzen completely--the board must take responsibility as well. Lawrence and Douglas County deserves a better museum than it has, and it has been like that for 25 years at least. Some schmoozing was needed, and part of that needs to come from the director, but can also come from board members.

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