October 20, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Durham Museum underwent a $1.2 million renovation this past year. But most of the improvements are not visible to visitors, according to Executive Director Christi Janssen. Behind-the-scenes work, such as security cameras and new heating and air conditioning, were main concerns. The renovations were another step forward in improving the visitor experience, the museum’s priority.

The visitor experience also has been enhanced by close relationships with national partners providing exhibits that would otherwise not be seen in Omaha: The Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum; Chicago’s Field Museum; and the Library of Congress and National Archives in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of our physical enhancements have been because of our partners’ needs for their exhibits,” says Janssen. “National museums have standards and requirements for their exhibition partners. They want a staff that understands what it takes to mount a successful show.” Exhibit costs can range from $50,000 to $500,000. “Security is a major part of the cost,” she says. “For the Abraham Lincoln exhibit, we had 24/7 security.”

The partnerships that Omaha’s regional history museum has forged have led to a new era of exceptional traveling exhibits.

Partners on Display

In 2004, the Velde Hall of American History was completed, providing environmentally controlled space for traveling exhibits, which further encouraged national partners to send exhibits to the Omaha museum.

In January 2011, the Library of Congress sent to Omaha With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition. “The Library of Congress said it was the best installation in the five-city tour,” Janssen says.

The Durham works with other partners, too. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry sent Mindbender Mansion this year, among the museum’s best-attended exhibits. More than 70,000 people visited. Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, an upcoming exhibit (that includes Lady Gaga’s meat dress) will be on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Feb. 9-May 5, 2013.

Traveling exhibits from partners are sometimes matched with a compatible exhibit put together by Durham Museum curators. Examples are current exhibits now on display: The American Soldier reflects soldiering from the Civil War to the War in Iraq. Its companion exhibit, Worn with Pride: Americans in Uniform, gives a local angle to the same topic.

You may be surprised to learn that the museum’s largest artifact on display is right before you as you enter the parking lot. It’s the Art Deco-style building the museum sits in. The building was constructed in 1931 by Union Pacific as a station for railroad passengers who traveled in elegance.

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Walking into the museum’s Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall for the first time is an awesome experience. Interior walls are limestone with polished black Belgian marble and terrazzo floors. The ceiling is gold, silver, and aluminum leaf. Brass lighting fixtures hanging from the 65-foot-tall ceiling each weighs one ton. It takes 45 minutes to replace a light bulb.

Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood said he designed the building “to depict the strength and masculinity of the railroad.” Because Omaha is Union Pacific’s headquarters, an all-out effort was made to construct a special building.

As airplanes, interstate highways, and Amtrak provided new ways to travel, passenger trains dwindled. In 1971, the final UP passenger train left the station. UP donated the building near downtown to the city. The building became the Western Heritage Museum in 1975. The regional museum is now called the Durham Museum after philanthropists Chuck and Margre Durham, who led a $25 million renovation effort to create the museum seen today.

Membership at the Durham has more than doubled since 2004. About 40 to 45 percent of visitors are from out of town, leaving behind money at local shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Education at the Museum

Households with children predominate the list of visitors coming through the museum doors, a major change since 2004. The Durham has set out to make the museum a place of education as well as fun for children. Museum staff follow state education standards, work with local Nebraska and Iowa school districts, and distribute curriculum guides as a resource for teachers.

An example is the curriculum ‘Hail to the Chief.’ Students are asked to identify a U.S. president, his years in office, and a major event tied to him.

The Velde Gallery of American History is a destination for many class field trips. Children also can sign up for summer camp and for summer workshops that offer educational games and tours.

These upcoming exhibits throw a spotlight on topics of educational interest:

  • Girl Scouts: 100 Years of Courage, Confidence and Character—Nov. 3, 2012 – June 9, 2013
  • We Want the Vote: Women’s Suffrage on the Great Plains—Feb. 23 – May 26, 2013
  • A T. Rex Named Sue—May 25 – Sept. 8, 2013
  • Goose Bumps! The Science of Fear—Sept. 28, 2013 – Jan. 5, 2014

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Saving Omaha’s Pictorial History

Two years ago, Durham Museum staff began the long process of digitizing more than 700,000 historical photos from the 1860s to the 1990s and making them searchable online.

Yes, you read that number correctly. More than 700,000 photos that document Omaha’s history from frontier days to modern days are in one archive. Some of the negatives and prints are more than a century old and were in danger of being lost to history as they deteriorated.

The Durham turned to interns for help. Each spends about 20 to 30 hours a week to archive and document the collection. The interns also get hands-on experience by building exhibits around the photo archives. Photos are organized in 17 different collections. So far, 50,000 of the photographs in the archives have been posted online, where they can be viewed or purchased for a minimal amount at durhammuseum.org.

“Ak-Sar-Ben is the most recent collection of photos and artifacts,” says Janssen. “We want to be the repository for all things Ak-Sar-Ben.”

Some people using the photographs are compiling family or local histories. Others are writing books or producing documentaries.

“There are not many communities that have this kind of historical documentation,” says Janssen.

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