Destination Management Inc. has appointed an advisory committee to work with the Douglas County Historical Society to improve management and fundraising at Watkins Community Museum of History. Here are the committee members: Ann Gardner, editorial page editor, Lawrence Journal-World; John Pierce, former executive director of the Oregon State Historical Society; David Dunfield, former Lawrence city commissioner, mayor and DMI board member; Craig Weinaug, Douglas County administrator and DMI board member; Dianne Stoddard, assistant Lawrence city manager; and Mike Wildgen, interim director of Watkins Museum.
The future of Watkins Community Museum of History is uncertain without major changes in its operation and fundraising efforts, a consultant’s study has found.
A newly formed advisory committee is ready to work with the Douglas County Historical Society in trying to fix problems that have plagued the museum for years.
The six-member committee was appointed by Destination Management Inc., the entity that promotes tourism in Lawrence and Douglas County.
“The museum’s struggled — I don’t think that’s a secret — and its struggles have become pretty acute financially,” Douglas County Commissioner Charles Jones said. “What needs to be done is stronger management and more fundraising.”
Last year, county commissioners allocated an $18,000 grant to DMI to use for museum management issues. That allowed the hiring of a consultant, Jean Svadlenak, of Kansas City, Mo., to study the museum’s operations, recommend changes and help implement them. She has worked with museums in the Kansas City area.
In her report, Svadlenak outlined the need for the museum to have a consistent fundraising program to support basic operational expenses. In the past, historical society board members have said they were uncomfortable with fundraising, Svadlenak found.
The report also noted that museum spending exceeded revenues by 20 percent in each of the last three years, resulting in an erosion of cash reserves to cover day-to-day operations with a skeletal staff and the use of endowment assets to cover building maintenance costs.
While some of the museum’s problems were known, their magnitude was a surprise, said Deanell Tacha, chairwoman of DMI’s board of directors. Last year, the County Commission designated DMI to oversee distribution and use of county funds allocated for historical society operations. DMI’s board was assigned the task of evaluating the overall needs and operations of Watkins museum. Because of Svadlenak’s findings, the DMI board decided direction and leadership of the society must change significantly, Tacha said.
“The purpose of the committee is to try to assist them in making that transition,” she said. “It’s difficult for organizations to change dramatically and that clearly has to happen in this case.”
The historical society board “doesn’t have a clue” how it is supposed to work with the advisory committee, said Phyllis Tiffany, the historical board’s chairwoman.
“We have no choice. They control the money. It’s that simple,” Tiffany said. “Everything we hear just reinforces the idea that we no longer have any control whatsoever.”
The advisory committee isn’t necessarily a bad idea, Tiffany said, but it is raising questions and paranoia among historical society board members. She said Monday that she didn’t even know who was on the committee.
The committee is going to meet with the board to talk with members about the findings of the report and what needs to be done, Jones said.
Tiffany said she saw nothing wrong with what was in the consultant’s report. The problems have been in existence for decades, she said.
“It actually gives a very good description of what is,” Tiffany said.
The museum, 1047 Mass., was built between 1885 and 1888. It was donated to the city in 1929 and served as city hall until 1970. It became a museum in 1975.