BRISTOL — The possibility of relocating Elkhart County Historical Museum is creating a stir, although plans are only just being considered.
According to a monthly letter of the Bristol High School Alumni Association, members of the association were invited to attend the Elkhart County Park Board’s recent meeting about the future of the museum.
“Our anticipated thoughts were of the planning of the kitchen renovation,” the letter states, but the conversation instead featured concerns for the future of the historical museum, which is housed in the old Bristol High School.
“The building was never intended to serve as a museum,” museum director Julie Park said. “We’ve worked hard and the people who came before the current staff worked hard, but we’re challenged by climate, humidity and seasonal changes.”
Just a few years ago, Parke said, the museum risked closing for the winter as the circa-1940 boilers went down. An old radiator is all that heats the former high school, and window fans serve as the primary source of cooling for the museum, which is filled with sensitive artifacts.
“We have infrastructure that isn’t conducive to the long-term care of the objects here, also the visitor’s experience,” Parke said, adding that there is also no elevator for handicap accessibility.
Built in 1903, the building was originally the Bristol-Washington Township School, serving all grades. Additions were built in 1923, 1925 and 1949 as the need grew. In 1968, the Historical Museum was founded and began its occupancy of the building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
The museum features over 30,000 artifacts from county’s cultural heritage and is intended to serve at least 10,000 patrons a year, but parks department director Ronda DeCaire suggests the patronage isn’t nearly high enough. The property also serves as home for the county’s historical society and genealogical society library.
“Our museum right now has less than 100 visitors a month and our goal really is to have 100 visitors a day,” she said. “We need to think about the future and building a modern facility for the future.”
As such, the Elkhart County Parks Department, of which the Elkhart County Historical Museum is a part, is beginning a feasibility study in December with Boyle & Associates in the hopes of moving the Elkhart County Historical Museum and the historical society’s collection to a new interpretive facility alongside the Elkhart County Naturalists at Ox Bow County Park.
“It’s been an idea for about 25 years, to have a vision of a proper interpretive facility for our department,” DeCaire said, adding that the idea is part of the Vibrant Communities Initiative. The spring 2019 report lists the item as “build Ox Bow Lodge and Natural Interpretive and Recreation Center,” challenging the parks department to determine community support through fundraising and grants. Should the feasibility study lead to positive results, the parks department has hopes of constructing the new facility at the more centrally located county park.
“We’re just information-digging right now to see if this is something the community needs and if it’s even possible,” DeCaire said. “We need to find out if this is something the community will support.”
The feasibility study will aim to discover whether or not a fundraising campaign for the facility would lead to success.
If successful, the project wouldn’t be finished for several years – estimates have been suggested as long as 10 years from now.
“Projects like this take a lot of work and a lot of time and we’re still in the dream phase,” DeCaire said.
In the meantime, the museum at the old school will continue to operate as it has, and museum staff will continue to make improvements including work on the newest exhibit, “Crossroads of Elkhart County: Claiming the Land.”
The new exhibit serves as phase two of the redesign of the museum’s primary exhibits and examines the period beginning with French contact and the fur trade with native groups and concludes one year prior to the arrival of trains in Elkhart County. It succeeds “Forging a Path,” chronicling the paleo period through French contact, and precedes the final installment telling the story of the arrival of trains all the way through present day and representing a monumental shift in area dynamics.
“We want people to leave here with some better understanding of the story of Elkhart County,” Parke said. “We were sharing a huge collection in very densely packed exhibits but we weren’t telling the story with some sort of thread running through it that tied all of this together. (Despite the possibility of moving) we still have an obligation and a responsibility to be bringing the latest way of thinking about history integration to our audiences today.”
A traveling exhibit will also be featured in the gymnasium of the museum. “Crossroads, Changing Rural America,” will be held from Feb. 1 through March 15, looking at small rural communities nationwide and the change in dynamic of those communities over time. For its part, the Elkhart County Historical Museum will host a companion exhibit to the national one, “Profiles in Rural Life,” telling the stories of local people and their relationships between the agricultural community and the manufacturing one.