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Opinion: History Museum’s next chapter almost ready to be told

Eyes & Ears

Posted online

Sometimes, it takes a long time to make history.

The organizers of the new History Museum on the Square are proving that. 

They’re also proving it’s worth the wait. And let me say, I’ve been skeptical.

For nearly five years now, there’s been a labor of love observant on the north side of Springfield’s downtown square. Rick and Mary McQueary are leading that work, and they recently took me on a personal tour, along with museum Development Director Krista Adams, of the two-story building. It feels like much more than two stories, though.

I zipped through some 200 years of local history in two hours flat.

It’s a bit of an information and sensory overload. But I also had with me three people most intimately knowledgeable of the displays and the stories they tell.

“It’s the stories that connect us,” Mary McQueary says.

But not all stories are created equal. I mean, there were all kinds of stories being told upstairs in the Historic City Hall, where the museum previously housed its collections. You’ve probably never been there or, if you had, never went back.

Today, the stories are being told in an eye-catching, relevant way.

“History museums are no longer taking a tour through grandma’s attic,” Adams says as she describes the interactive railcar exhibit yet to be completed.

In this revised, multimillion-dollar version of the museum, digital components are everywhere. Each of the six exhibits have video screens. Museum organizers smartly hired Massachusetts-based Richard Lewis Media Group Inc. to handle the prevalent interactive elements.

It couldn’t have been cheap. The company has worked on the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, to name a few.

The local work isn’t finished. There’s still a checklist – reinstall the Native American teepee, load the trolley time machine videos and the highly anticipated arrival of the 66-foot timeline and map of Route 66, which is expected in mid-May. Organizers say they’ll open this summer, but no date is set.

I’m impressed by where it’s going. The highlights, for me, begin just inside the entry doors.

In a gathering area immediately to the left, a then-and-now photo exhibit beckons people of all ages. But my prediction is kids will flock to it; the giant touchscreen is as intuitive as the smartphones they’ve grown up navigating.

Imagine your smartphone screen several feet long, with six or eight people gathered around it. Some 35 locations are set on a city map for users to select by the touch of a finger, at which point the before-and-after photos pop up. Each has a slider to drag the old photo over the current image.

I selected the southeast corner of Cherry Street and Pickwick Avenue, in Rountree Neighborhood. It’s currently home to Imo’s Pizza. Much to my surprise, the slider revealed a huge, multistory building in 1900. It was the Normal School, the forerunner to Missouri State University. Now, let’s say I want you to share in my discovery. I simply grab the image with two fingers and slide it across the screen to where you’re standing – and multiple images can be moving at once.

But this is only five steps into the museum. Let’s keep going.

The exhibits are laid out in chronological order, beginning with the Native Americans and ending with the Mother Road. Special placement belongs to the “Wild Bill” Hickok exhibit: It overlooks the square, where his shootout with Davis Tutt took place.

Before my tour, I had heard of a secret exhibit. This is it. More specifically, the secret is an element in it. I was told I could share a bit of the secret, but I couldn’t take photos.

The centerpiece is an oval-shaped wall with swinging doors. Step inside, and you find yourself enveloped by a wrap-around mural to create a forced perspective of the square – just 10 seconds before the shooting takes place. It works. I’ve never experienced painted art that’s so alive.

Additionally, you’re invited to take part of the history and draw a replica gun from a holster in the center of the oval and see if you can make the same shot as Hickok.

The bigger part of the secret, though, is that local video journalist Ed Fillmer filmed Carthage artist Andy Thomas while painting the shootout scene. I didn’t get to see this documentary footage, but it’s coming.

The story keeps being told – and with modern elements. That’s the beauty of this new museum. I’m confident our next generation will connect with it and be better because of it. On the economic level, I see the History Museum on the Square as another tool for tourism; there’s already Route 66 aficionados knocking on the windows trying to get in.

Summertime is all they say.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.

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