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Thursday, June 5, 2008

An unseen treasure: Museum looks for new ways to make ends meet

John Halverson/The Week

Boat tour around Geneva Lake--$25 or more.

Terry Mayer/The Week
One of the museum's latest exhibits, a restoration of the projection room of the Geneva Theatre. Donated by the family of projectionist Ray Mellien Sr., the exhibit uses illustrations and old newspaper clippings to depict his tenure there, which extended from 1928, when 1,400 people attended the theater's opening, to 1964, when movies were in a pitched battle with television.
Dinner for four and a night's lodging in Lake Geneva--$300 if you're lucky.

Adult admission to the Geneva Lake Museum of History--$5.

Whether it's priceless or not is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

But one recent visitor used "hidden treasure" to describe it. Another said it was "a jewel."

As museum board president Vern Magee says, "We've got something more than the ordinary."

One look at the shiny stones on the floor of the museum's downtown replica makes you want to take your shoes off and walk through history barefoot.

One side of the street has farm implements and an assortment of businesses. The other has a variety of facades includes a Marineland gallery, featuring the anchor of the Lucius Newberry, discovered in 1981, 90 years after it had sunk in Geneva Lake.

"It's a good heritage and we want people to know about it," says George Hennerley, executive vice president of the Geneva Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.

Yet few do.

Terry Mayer/The Week
An early stagecoach.
That's left the museum with a deficit in excess of $10,000, according to Magee.

In a city steeped in history, only 3,604 people visited the museum last year--a mere pittance compared to the 30,000 who might come to Lake Geneva on a single weekend.

The city of Lake Geneva provides the building, utilities, and maintenance, plus $10,000 in operating expenses, but staffing and other costs are more than the gate receipts can cover.

At a recent tour of area retirees many expressed regret that they hadn't gone to the museum before.

While a local museum has existed since 1983, it's only been in its present location on Mills Street, just off Main Street, since 2004.

"I remember dentist offices like that one," one tourist said while looking at the 1920s re-creation.

"I'm trying to forget," said another.

At the telephone office, a small woman recalled how she had always wanted to be a phone operator until she was shown the actual switchboard--perhaps this exact one from an early Lake Geneva telephone company--and realized she was too short to reach the toggles.

Other attractions include: A log cabin with Indian arrowheads, a blacksmith shop, a fire house with 1890 Hose Wagon, Frank Lloyd Wright's Geneva Hotel, Yerkes, Andy Gump, the Chicago and Northwestern railroad and, of course, the mansions around the lake.

Kathy Klaisner, director of the Geneva Lake Museum, sees the "hidden treasure" label as a challenge.

"It's our hope to make it less hidden," she said.

In an attempt to make ends meet, the museum has had several fund-raisers so far this year, with at least one more--a book sale--to come.

The museum is also renting meeting rooms.

The challenges the Geneva Lake Museum faces is not unlike those of its small-town peers.

Eighty percent are "dancing on the edge of bankruptcy," says Dan Martin, vice president, of Economic Research Associates, who advises museums. That's an especially high fatality rate when considering 70 percent of the museums in the country didn't even exist until after 1950.

In terms of attendance, historical museums--like Lake Geneva's--rank behind zoos, science, art, children's and even botanical museums.

The historical ones that do draw, like the Lincoln Library in Springfield, are what Martin calls "magnet attractions."

While the Geneva Lakes Museum won't qualify as a magnet--the lake and resorts serve that purpose--it may qualify for Martin's next level, the "linger longers."

Martin suggests that the small town museums have the best chance of getting people to linger longer when they focus more on story-telling than artifacts.

"A museum visit to an unstructured museum is like a piece of Velcro walking into a sewing room wondering what threads to take," he said.

Martin said the Geneva Lake Museum might, for example, feature a diorama showing the lake homes and telling their stories--not only the politically correct stories but fun ones, too, "stories only the locals know."

One example of story-telling can be found in the museum's latest exhibit, a restoration of the projection room of the Geneva Theatre.

Donated by the family of projectionist Ray Mellien Sr., the exhibit uses illustrations and old newspaper clippings to depict his tenure there, which extended from 1928, when 1,400 people attended the theater's opening, to 1964, when movies were in a pitched battled with television.

Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, told The Week that smaller museums need to be more entrepreneurial in fund-raising--regional events, auctions, pie sales, movies. You name it."

He suggests tying in to deals with other attractions like restaurants and hotels.

Another expert suggests museums may always have a place because, "I think we're just big dumb crazy squirrels" who savor collecting stories of the sort only museums can properly tell.

He says museum visitors should leave with "an intangible sense of elation--a feeling that a weight was lifted."

With fountain in the foreground, its sturdy brick facade and awnings that resemble elegant eyelashes, the Geneva Lakes Museum currently stands like a benevolent sentinel.

Perhaps, by the end of the summer, this sleepy-looking giant of an attraction will find its weight lifted and its financial sluggishness replaced by the elation that only success can bring.


To help

--- There's a fund-raising book and bake sale on Aug. 22-24 during Maxwell Street Days. Donations for that are now being accepted. See the museum's Web site for details.

--- You can volunteer. Volunteers are requested to work twice a month for a three-hour period of time. All docents will be thoroughly trained in their responsibilities.

--- The museum rents out rooms for special occasions. Call 262) 248-6060 for details about that or if you want to donate.



Blogger Mom Pam said...

My husband and I have lived in the Delavan area for almost 10 yrs. yet we have never heard of the museum until it was written about. Maybe some advertising will bring in the people. We certainly will vist as we love to go to museums.

June 12, 2008 2:27 PM  

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