It has been called Omaha's “missing museum.”
The Great Plains Black History Museum has a board of directors, a website, volunteers, more than 400 members, artifacts and other treasures.
What it lacks is a home.
The building that used to house it on Lake Street is uninhabitable. It is full of leaks, mold and unstable stairs and floors. The museum closed its doors in 2004, putting most of its holdings in storage.
But don't call it the missing museum around its president and chairman of the board, James Beatty.
“The building is closed,” he likes to say, “but the museum is open.”
The museum was founded by Bertha Calloway in 1976 in the Webster Telephone Exchange Building. Built in 1907 by architect Thomas Kimball, the building was designated an Omaha Landmark in 1980 and is on National Register of Historic Places. But it is also in desperate disrepair.
At the top of Beatty's wish list is a place to exhibit the museum's collection. Although he doesn't rule out an existing building as a home, “we really want to build new,” he said.
The Legislature may help with that. State Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha's District 31 introduced a bill last week that, if passed, would provide up to $8 million of state money toward a new facility. The money would go into a fund that the Nebraska State Historical Society would administer. For every $2 million the museum raised on its own, it would receive $1 million from the fund.
Kolowski, a former principal at Millard West High School, has been a supporter of the black history museum since the 1970s, when he taught social studies.
“A newly designed facility in a prime location will take this museum to the next level and become an important tourism and educational draw to our metro area,” he said in a press release.
Beatty, who joined the Black History Museum in 2010, admits that he and Terri Sanders, vice president of marketing and development, face challenges.
They hope to double membership and are trying to round up serious financial backers. Working from a sunny office near 31st and Dodge Streets, the two accept donations and look for new artifacts, visiting any attic or basement where they are invited to hunt for hidden bounty.
Neither is paid, yet they give frequent talks and take artifacts into the community and to schools so people, especially children, can see and touch history.
“Education is the absolute key and foundation to our mission and the success of the museum,” Beatty said. “We'll go anywhere.”
The museum has an exhibit at the W. Dale Clark Library downtown that will be up through Jan. 31 and it will rent space for an exhibit in Crossroads Mall. Last week, a “Salute to Black Women” exhibit opened at the Omaha Community Playhouse to coincide with the opening of the play “Having Our Say” about a pair of sisters who fought for civil rights.
But there is only so much Beatty and Sanders can do with the vast part of the collection in storage. Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani, chairman of the black studies department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said that's why it's so important for the museum to find a permanent space. Not only do white people need to see what black people have accomplished, he said, but black people also “need to see what they've done.”
“You need the building,” Imani said. “A museum has one thing a library does not: It has artifacts.”
One of the toughest jobs Beatty and Sanders face is getting the word out about the museum, Beatty said. Even before it closed, not enough people were aware of it.
One person who knew it well was north Omaha activist and businessman Preston Love Jr.
“I was a frequent flier,” he said. “I often marveled at the wide range of artifacts and collectibles Bertha had accumulated. You couldn't see the whole place at once. I would get paralyzed by something that would catch my attention and stay for hours.”
When it comes to a new exhibit space, Beatty is thinking big. He sees a future where the Black History Museum competes with the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and the Durham Museum, for which he was once a board member. He sees not only a draw for tourism but also a great repository of information for researchers.
“We want it to be a destination point for Omaha,” said Rudy Smith, a museum board member. “We're going in a positive direction. It will benefit the entire state.”
But there is much work ahead.
First, there is the building. A major capital fundraising campaign will be headed by civic leader John Gottschalk, former publisher of The World-Herald. Sanders estimates that the entire project, including land, will cost about $25 million. Beatty said that they are still working on when to hold fundraisers but that some possible big donors have already expressed interest in the project. If Kolowski's bill, Legislative Bill 904, is passed, it would create somewhat of a deadline because it would put a two-year time limit on the state's fund.
They do at least know what they want to build. Stanley J. How Architects, which has done extensive work at the zoo and Bellevue University, has drawn up renderings, and J. Greg Smith Inc. would be the designer. But they still aren't sure where it would go. Beatty said the museum is looking at several possible locations around the city.
Then there's the collection. It needs to be cataloged, and much of it is undocumented and missing provenance or context. When the old museum closed its doors, it was not emptied systematically. Everything was jammed into boxes, which went to storage facilities.
And the storage units aren't organized well. For instance, one unit Beatty showed The World-Herald was stuffed with hundreds of boxes full of papers and who-knows-what. There were signs and photographs, an old baby carriage, long-forgotten toys and articles of clothing, old military equipment and household items.
No one knows what all the museum has or what kind of shape it's in. And “we just don't know where some of this stuff came from,” Beatty said.
“I blame former management,” he said. “It's a tragedy.”
That former management would be Calloway and her son James.
“In all candor and fairness, Bertha was not a curator,” Love said, “and the place needs a curator approach.”
Love agrees that Beatty and Sanders are facing “a huge job. But I commend them. I think they are going about it the right way. They are looking at a bigger picture.”
The process of sorting and identifying items and discovering sources is going to be long, exhausting and probably frustrating. But they won't have to do it entirely on their own. Patrick Jones, associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and his students have been helping sort through the collection.
Jones said that when people see what is in there, “they are blown away.”
In addition, the Omaha Public Library and the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center are assisting, Beatty said.
It seems a daunting task, but Love said the black community has been involved in the museum before and can be again.
“People felt responsible for the museum,” he said. “If you had something of value, you'd give it to her (Bertha) or loan it to the museum.”
When the new facility finally goes up, the name will be changed to the Great Plains Black History Museum, Science & Technology Center. Beatty said that's to reflect not only the history of Nebraska's black population but also what youths of all races need to study for the future.
The museum takes donations and applies for grants for operating expenses, which came to just over $113,000 in 2012, the latest year for which information was available. But those expenses, too, will grow as the project goes forward, Beatty said.
All involved agree about the importance of their work. The museum, they say, isn't just about preserving the past.
“Misperceptions fill people's heads about African-Americans,” UNL's Jones said. “Seeing what's in this collection helps them develop respect for the differences and helps them find common humanity.”