For a summary of the History and Future of the Kansas City Museum, click here.
Residence of Robert Alexander Long
The Kansas City Museum is housed in the former Beaux-Arts style estate of Robert Alexander Long (R.A. Long) and his family—including his wife Ella and their two daughters Sallie America Long Ellis and Loula Long Combs. R.A. Long was a lumber magnate, civic leader, and philanthropist who owned Long-Bell Lumber Company.
His private residence was completed in 1910, featuring six structures designed by local architect Henry Hoit and contained within a wrought iron fence that runs around the square block of the property. Today five of the six structures remain including Corinthian Hall, the four-story mansion; the Carriage House, in which R.A. Long’s famed equestrienne daughter Loula housed her horses and many trophies; the Conservatory; the Gate House, which served as the home for the horse trainer and now functions as the Museum’s administrative offices; and the Gardener’s Tool Shop and Planting Shed (also called the Carpenter’s Shed). The original Greenhouse is no longer on the property.
The Long family lived at their estate until the death of Mr. Long in 1934; Mrs. Long passed away in 1928, and the two Long daughters were married and living elsewhere. After the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Long, the residence and estate underwent extensive changes. Daughters Sallie and Loula removed decorative items and architectural features from Corinthian Hall for installation in their own homes.
Additionally, they held a two-day auction in the Fall of 1934 to sell the remainder of the items in the mansion. After this auction, the mansion sat empty until late 1939 when Sallie and Loula donated the mansion, its outbuildings, and property to the Kansas City Museum Association for use as a public museum.
From Mansion to Museum
The Kansas City Museum opened its doors in May, 1940 with only a small portion of Corinthian Hall (the mansion) available for public exhibitions. The Kansas City Museum Association, barely a year old, had a white elephant of a mansion that had sat empty for five years, its caretaker Olive Hoggins working behind the scenes to find a good use for the building and grounds. The fledgling organization had no problem procuring artifacts. The Kansas City Public Library had been displaying a collection owned by the Board of Education for many years called the Dyer Collection of Native American objects; this collection had been supplemented over the years and came to be known as The Dyer Museum.
With the arrival of a new history museum on the scene the library–and board of education–were more than willing to turn the collection over. In addition the Missouri Valley Historical Society, a group which had never had a building with which to showcase their historical collections, merged with the newly formed association, bringing with them a core collection of Kansas City history to the new museum.
During those first few months of operation, among the hundreds of items delivered to the Museum, were many mounted animals, birds, and insects, which were exhibited throughout the available space. A large mounted buffalo sat in the center of one room while above it a large section of a whale bone was suspended from a truss system.
The Kansas City Museum’s first director, John Ripley Forbes, was eager to create a museum with a living collection. Originally, only the first floors of the mansion were utilized, but with the help of volunteers and a labor force from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Forbes turned the entire mansion into a museum. The WPA workers fit out the conservatory as a place where live animals could be viewed and touched by touring school groups.
Forbes encouraged exhibition and interpretation of natural history, and secured private support and gifts of specimens to the organization. Dr. Richard Sutton, a world traveler, big game hunter, and ardent supporter of the new Museum often lent his collection. This collection became at length so large that it necessitated its own area for display. Sutton’s children later assisted the Museum in establishing permanent natural history displays in their father’s memory.
Within months of opening, a women’s auxiliary was formed to raise funds for the new Kansas City Museum Association, as well as create a historic fashion collection. Known as the Women’s Division, they were led by Lorraine Shields Page. To differentiate themselves from the married matrons of the division, another younger auxiliary formed and became known as the Musettes; these single women became the museum’s docents. These two auxiliaries sustained the museum through several decades.
Opening just before WWII, the Museum’s resources were strained. Within a few years of opening, they lost their talented director as well as much of their WPA labor force to the war, but perhaps for different reasons. John Ripley Forbes was drafted and claimed immunity for being a conscientious objector. He was assigned to a military camp and became a camp librarian where he sat out the war. With no director and few workers, rationing and expense of maintaining the large mansion, the Kansas City Museum Association chose to close its doors for the duration of the war.
Upon reopening, the Museum faced a financial crisis that eventually led them to offer the Museum and its contents to the City of Kansas City, Missouri. The Museum was sold to the City in 1948, with the Association and its small staff staying on to manage the Museum.
Forbes’ successors expanded the natural history program. The former dining room and adjacent sunroom in Corinthian Hall were devoted to the display of the ever growing collection. During this first decade of the Museum’s operation, the former Carriage House, having served as the garage during the empty 1935-39 years, was restored by WPA workers as the “Museum Annex.” Forbes envisioned the space as a combination lecture hall and school group classrooms.
By 1950, the west end of the Carriage House had been converted to a large lecture hall, and a workshop for exhibit preparators was installed on the second level. In the 1950s, display and interpretation of natural history took center stage at the Museum. Early in 1951, taxidermy specimen displays expanded into the basement of Corinthian Hall, along with mineralogical exhibits of fossils, rocks, and minerals. A new Board trustee, Arthur Popham, Jr. took an active role in developing improved displays of mounted animals, placing specimens in naturalistic settings. Dynamic taxidermy displays filled with mounted specimens procured in the wild, Mr. Popham and many others believed, would contribute to an understanding of natural systems, and thus encourage conservation of species and habitats.
Such dioramas created life-like exhibits but were increasingly inconsistent with the Beaux-Arts decorative interior of the main house. The Museum’s Carriage House annex was a logical accommodation for the natural history displays. By 1953, Harold Yokum had been hired as Curator of Natural History, and former WPA Museum worker Wilber Phillips was named staff artist. (Phillips would become the Museum’s director in the late 1960s). These two assumed responsibility for designing and implementing Mr. Popham’s vision of the Natural History Halls.
The Kansas City Star’s January 8, 1954 headline read “Big Bear Is Problem.” The Museum Annex (Carriage House) was being rehabilitated as a natural history exhibition hall and an all-purpose auditorium space. Mr. Popham’s donation of three Alaskan bears was, however, proving difficult to mount and display. To place one standing erect meant that the ceiling had to be raised two feet. Working with a city engineer, the feat was accomplished. A large domed enclosure was erected and a panoramic scene depicting a typical bear habitat was painted. October 23, 1955 saw the dedication of the Alaskan Brown Bear habitat as a centerpiece of the new Natural History Halls.
“Eskimo Land” was completed in 1954. This large exhibition on the third floor of Corinthian Hall featured two large polar bears mounted in standing poses. The room is fondly recalled by many visitors of that generation for its igloo that children could climb into and out of. The temporary inhabitants of the igloo, in its “refrigerated” room, could be viewed through a glass porthole open in the side.
While the Museum at one time exhibited several large African mammal specimens, efforts to expand on the subject were met with limited success. At the beginning of 1954, Kanas City Zoo’s popular Cleo the Hippo died. Plans were immediately put into place to make Cleo the centerpiece of a new display of African wildlife at the Museum. A “Committee for Continuing Cleo” began but met considerable trouble raising necessary funds. The expense could not be met, and the expanded African displays were never fully realized.
The habitats in the Museum’s Natural History Hall were all completed by the early 1960s; a new facade was installed on the front of the Carriage House; the building was named “Arthur Popham Natural History Hall.” The 1960s were a time of growth for the Museum’s programming featuring successful lectures, school tours, and new auxiliary organizations. The Kansas City Museum Natural Science Society was formed; chief among their activities was sponsoring safaris and expeditions gathering additional specimens. The closing decade, however, saw shifting attitudes toward big game hunting. The idea that hunting could be a nature conservation activity seemed contradictory to many. Coupled with growing concern for endangered species, the Society’s objectives secure less and less support form Museum donors, and they disbanded.
By the 1970s, a new young professional staff realized that the building was too small to do all the great things it could be doing for local history and science and decided to work toward splitting the Museum. Museum staff and civic leaders looked to the newly empty Union Station as a potential site for a new science museum. Despite three vigorous campaigns in the ’70s and ’80s, voters would not approve a tax increase. Well into the 1980s, the Museum continued to sponsor taxidermy classes, held in the evenings on the second floor of the Natural History Hall. Led by staff taxidermist Tom Duvall, these classes would guide individuals from all walks of life in the proper techniques of mounting animals as large as horses and as small as finches. General cutbacks in all Museum programs in 1983 saw discontinuation of the Natural History program.
Management by Union Station
In the 1990s, the Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall began to reevaluate its interpretative program; it became a primary goal of the board of directors to create a science center, something Kansas City had never had. Since the museum hadn’t the space to fully develop science other than natural history, the board and staff began to work in earnest to fund a new science center. Instead of building a new building, however, it became clear that the best option was to look again at the empty Union Station as the home for the science facility. Therefore, in combination with Union Station Assistance Corporation, the Kansas City Museum worked toward passing the Bi-State Cultural Tax that would fund a fully restored Union Station and allow the Museum to bring the long sought science center to fruition.
In 2001, the Kansas City Museum Association merged with Union Station Assistance Corporation and created Union Station Kansas City which included Science City, exhibit galleries, theaters, and restaurants, in the rehabilitated 1914 train station. The Kansas City Museum remained committed to the study and exhibition of local and regional history at the original Gladstone Boulevard site, deciding that the natural history specimens were past their prime; all of the specimens found new homes at institutions more fully devoted to the natural sciences, such as the University of Kansas at Lawrence.
Management by the Parks and Recreation Department
In 2014, the City of Kansas City, Missouri Parks and Recreation Department began to operate and manage the Kansas City Museum to develop, implement, and lead a multi-year renovation project and to create a first-rate history museum.