Lawshe Memorial Museum is home to the Dakota County Historical Society and its more than 25,000 artifacts that tell the county’s history.
Visitors regularly turn to the South St. Paul building for its research library, exhibits and events. Last week, the 27th annual Dakota County Star Quilters’ show opened to the public, showcasing around 100 quilts through April 2.
“Pre-COVID, we could get upwards of 500 people coming through to see the show,” said Matt Carter, executive director of the historical society, which runs the museum.
But the two-story building, which opened in 1978, continues to have handicap accessibility issues inside and outside and inadequate space, two big concerns highlighted in a 2015 space-efficiency study of Dakota County’s properties.
Those concerns are coming to a head, again.
At a Dakota County Board committee meeting last week, commissioners discussed whether to provide $1.2 million for ADA improvements and interior upgrades. They directed staff to prepare a resolution authorizing the expenditure of the funds, which were previously budgeted. It is scheduled to go before the board on March 23.
Last week’s action was a far cry from the November meeting when three commissioners questioned whether more money should be put into the building and that perhaps the historical society prefers a move toward mobile exhibits instead. Commissioners later said the question was in reaction to previous comments by former board members and staff.
But the discussion had already caused a stir.
The historical society posted a message on its website that claimed the board was considering a shutdown of the museum, which commissioners later said was false and not on the table.
The post, titled “Future of the Lawshe Museum,” asked supporters to call and email commissioners. And they did in big numbers, according to commissioners.
According to Carter, attendance at the Society’s three buildings has increased annually since 2016; the organization also runs the LeDuc Historic Estate in Hastings and the Sibley Historic Site in Mendota. Lawshe Museum saw a 150 percent increase in attendance, which pre-pandemic totaled 5,000 annually.
The historical society receives an annual operating grant from Dakota County. The grant, totaling just over $107,000, has remained the same since 2015. Since 2016, the county also has provided $125,000 in matching grant funds to the organization. In addition, the county contributes money for utility and maintenance costs.
But archival storage is overflowing at the three sites, making cataloging and access to resources more challenging, the society’s updated business and strategic plan states.
At Lawshe, the building’s condition as primary offices and for the society’s operations “remains an issue that impacts operations and visitor perception. Beyond the physical condition, and the somewhat unknown location of the building, the internal flow of exhibits and space is limiting staff from trying new approaches for exhibits and events.”
Last year, Dakota County invested in a new roof, windows and a bus drop-off zone.
MUSEUM VS. TRAVELING EXHIBITS?
After hearing a Nov. 10 presentation from county staff on the proposed improvements, Commissioner Mike Slavik asked whether it was worth investing more money in the building.
“My question is why we’re spending any money at all?” he said.
Slavik went on to say that he feels that the future of the historical society is not in a bricks-and-mortar museum and that “the best use” of county tax dollars could be mobile exhibits, such as the World War I display the historical society took to the Mall of America in 2019.
“And quite frankly, if we are going to go and see the bricks-and-mortar museum we’re going to go to St. Paul and see the Minnesota History Museum,” he said.
Slavik added that although he feels the historical society should still be based in South St. Paul, it could be in aN office building and “not in this big bricks-and-mortar museum that’s costing millions of dollars for the taxpayers of Dakota County.”
Commissioners Mary Liz Holberg and Liz Workman chimed in, both saying they agreed.
Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord, whose district includes South St. Paul, suggested commissioners meet with historical society staff and board members.
At a Feb. 2 board meeting, Slavik backtracked on his November comments. He read a statement in which he said he wished to rescind them. He apologized.
“Though this concept was shared with me in the past by former staff and former board members of the Dakota County Historical Society,” he said, “it was not appropriate for me to get into the weeds of the Dakota County Historical Society operations.”
Slavik said his mind was changed after attending the historical society’s annual meeting on Jan. 23, when “it became very clear” the organization wants to continue operating the Lawshe Museum at its current site.
STUDY IDENTIFIES OPTIONS
Since 2014, significant discussion and several studies have entertained the idea to remodel, relocate or redesign the museum. The county space-efficiency study from 2015 found massive renovations were needed and came up with two options:
- $3.3 million would address concerns raised in the study.
- $3.7 million would address those concerns, as well as provide a children’s area and flexible exhibit space.
In an interview last week, Gaylord recalled how commissioners were set to vote on whether to provide $3.7 million in funding back in 2016. Then the historical society’s board presented a third option: a move.
“It was a bomb that was dropped on the committee,” Gaylord said.
Relocating in central Dakota County could improve parking, increase visibility and make the museum more accessible to those in the southern part of the county, the society’s board said in a 2016 letter to commissioners.
But the idea of a new museum came with a heftier $5.3 million price tag, not including land costs, and also delayed serious consideration of improvements to the building. But last year, at Gaylord’s urging, the county included the $1.2 million in its buildings capital improvement program budget.
“We knew that these improvements were needed,” Gaylord said last week.
To clear up any confusion over its map for the future, Carter, the historical society’s executive director, attended last week’s commissioner committee meeting at Gaylord’s request. He presented them with the organization’s updated business and strategic plan.
At Lawshe, the historical society “remains hindered by lack of adequate signage, space needing remodeling, and overall upgrades to the building to bring it current with county standards,” the plan reads.
But Carter said they want to stay put — and that they need the county funds for upgrades.
“One of the things we wanted to reiterate, as our plan shows, we’re committed to staying in South St. Paul and the Lawshe Museum,” he said. “And we’re looking forward to working with each of you as we move towards the discussions with the ADA upgrades and improvements.”
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