$145K national grant will help Watkins Museum of History continue telling the story of Douglas County

photo by: Kathy Hanks

Steve Nowak, executive director of the Watkins Museum of History, stands near a completed exhibit about life on Massachusetts Street, on Sept. 18, 2019. The exhibit is on the third floor of the museum at 1047 Massachusetts St.

For several years, the staff of the Watkins Museum of History has been working on the third-floor exhibits in the iconic red brick building at 1047 Massachusetts St.

In the large space, several of the exhibits are now completed and help tell the story of everyday life in Douglas County. Plus, thanks to a $145,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent federal agency that provides museum grants, staff will be able to begin work on other third-floor exhibits.

The Watkins Museum is one of 130 projects across the nation — including Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home — to receive IMLS grants this year. Watkins is the only museum in Kansas to receive the grant in the category of “learning experiences,” while the Wichita Art Museum received a grant to conduct a conservation survey of its collections.

The Watkins Museum must match the dollars locally and is planning to kick off a fundraising campaign, said Steve Nowak, executive director of the museum.

Since the museum began to actively work on the third floor in 2013, Nowak said, it has received generous contributions from friends of the Watkins. Funding support has included a grant by the Douglas County Heritage Council for the infrastructure. Now the IMLS grant will assist in the final phase of the third-floor exhibits.

Currently, the exhibits on old-time agriculture in Douglas County and the story of businesses on Massachusetts Street have been completed. They feature hundreds of images and artifacts documenting local businesses.

“This should give a strong sense of what everyday life was like in Douglas County and what shaped our community to make it what it is today,” said Nowak, as he pointed out items in the museum case. The floor-to-ceiling exhibit houses a collection of items that could have been found for sale or used by the people shopping along Massachusetts Street over the decades. The items range from a lantern that used whale oil to an electric lamp, covering a span of about 100 years.

“It looks pretty good, but there are still big plans,” Nowak said.

With the matching grant, the museum plans to develop an exhibit that focuses on local innovation and entrepreneurs of Lawrence. This exhibit will be set up in what was once J.B. Watkins’ office on the third floor. Watkins opened the Watkins Land Mortgage and National Bank Building in 1888.

“This exhibit will highlight people like J.B. Watkins and J.D. Bowersock, who built the dam on the Kansas River, and the Simons family, who pioneered the communications industry in Lawrence, plus other groups who inspired the economic growth in the community,” Nowak said.

Two other themes being developed include the railroad and how it diversified the community, connecting it to the broader world. The museum will also look at the public schools and the importance the community has placed on education. Plus, it will explore all the universities in Douglas County: Baker University, Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas.

A sports exhibit is also in the works, Nowak said. Currently on display is James Naismith’s desk from Robinson Gymnasium. Above it hangs a backboard designed by Phog Allen that was used to develop skills during basketball practice.

The public can tour the completed exhibits on the third floor while the additional exhibits are being developed. Nowak said the museum would continue to bring out artifacts housed in the attic to tell the story of life in Douglas County.

“We want people to make a personal connection to history,” he said.


Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.