Heritage Hall Museum and Archives, which has operated in some form as part of Freeman Junior College and Freeman Academy since the late 1920s, will become its own, non-profit organization.
At a special meeting of the Freeman Junior College/Freeman Academy Corporation Monday night, Nov. 18, members of the corporation overwhelmingly voted to approve a recommendation from the Freeman Academy Board of Directors for museum divestment, according to board president Sherilyn Ortman. The approval earned 72 percent of the vote, with 2,063 votes in favor of divestment and 794 against.
Divestment also has support and a recommendation from the museum’s own board of trustees.
Monday’s special meeting lasted about 2 hours, 45 minutes and included written statements, other shared comments, an opportunity for a Q&A and round-table discussions.
Heritage Hall Museum and Archives will move toward establishing a 501(c)(3) and operate independently of the corporation, although it will remain in its location between the Freeman Academy campus and the Freeman Prairie Arboretum.
A Freeman Academy board statement read by Lee Brockmueller Monday night and made available to the Courier notes the discussion about museum divestment goes back to 2017. That’s when the Heritage Hall Museum and Archives’ own board raised questions about maintaining its relationship with the Freeman Junior College/Freeman Academy Corporation — and therefore Freeman Academy itself — versus becoming its own, independent organization.
Meanwhile, Brockmueller, said the FA board, too, was taking a closer look at its auxiliary organizations, including the museum.
“Over the past two years, our board has devoted significant time to studying this issue; through the efforts of a task force; joint meetings with the museum board; constituent feedback at two annual Corporation meetings; and many hours of discussion and debate in our own boardroom,” he said. “This is not a decision we take lightly.”
Brockmueller said there were four areas the FA board studied closely that led to its motion to approve divestment: mission, finances, museum growth and legacy.
“Most entities within the Corporation were established through a direct decision of the board because they were viewed as either central to its primary mission, or as a means to generate revenue to support that mission. While the museum and archives have undoubtedly enhanced our mission, their origin is distinct from other parts of the Corporation.
“Our mission is faith-based education. Divestiture allows our board and staff to focus on educating students, recruiting students and raising funds, goals to which the museum currently contributes little. Time devoted to issues like the present discussion is time not spent on matters which directly affect students.”
“Why would the Corporation transfer hundreds of thousands worth of funds to the museum? How long will those funds last without the level of oversight currently in place? Everything that has been given to the museum has been given to the museum and the corporation, which oversees both the museum and the school. How do we separate what is whose? These are questions our board has asked.
“The funds that we propose transferring have been given to and designated for use by the museum. As a board, we have a longstanding policy of not touching ‘museum money.’
“Through numerous physical improvements and investments in staff, the museum has advanced itself beyond the resources this Corporation can devote to it. Without the ability to seek outside funds for future projects, the museum board has indicated it will ask our board to allocate more funding for its operation.
“However, if the museum can broaden its own funding sources, some of us feel there may be less pressure on our constituents for direct support.”
“In the last 15 years, the museum has blossomed through the energetic and willing work of its board. What happens to that energy and willingness when the board senses it has reached the limit of possible growth under the Corporation? But some of us struggle to trust that the museum board can achieve its vision better independently than as part of the Corporation. Some of us wonder if we’ve exhausted the options of finding a workable relationship.
“Ultimately, we see benefit from allowing the museum to fully develop and still be on our campus. A thriving museum would be a positive for both the school and the community. Divestment preserves the option to work together in whatever ways make sense.”
“Without divestment, museum board and staff may become disillusioned, and the Freeman Academy board will almost certainly find itself more involved in governance of the museum. We do not have the money, the manpower or the expertise within our own board of directors to duplicate what the museum has accomplished. Do we risk a legacy of being a Corporation that tried to manage too much and, as a result, did none of it well?
“On the other hand, is that the precedent we want to set for divesting: doing it out of fear that key people might leave if we don’t? While divesting would simplify management of the Corporation, is it right for us to just get rid of parts that we no longer want to manage?
“Ultimately, the school and the museum will always have a connection because of their history and sharing a campus. Divesting may increase the number of people coming to campus who aren’t coming now, which could generate goodwill. We see Heritage Hall Museum and Archives striving to become a strong, vibrant museum with broad community support; such a museum would reflect well on the FA Corporation.”
The morning following the vote, Marnette Hofer, executive director and archivist at the museum, told the Courier she was excited to move forward. Becoming an independent organization means that, in time, is increased potential for significant grant money that could be used for ongoing improvements, and the museum can work toward becoming more inclusive in the community.
“We have a very strong, hard-working board that believes very deeply in this museum, this community and preserving its history,” Hofer said. “They are going to be doing some hard work here, and you need to trust them. At the same time, we are looking to broaden our board and increase both the numbers and representation from the community as a whole.
“We have to be able to reach different groups in the community and hear from them what they want in the museum. What we are lacking? How we can tell their stories? That’s important and we haven’t done a very good job of that in the past.”
Hofer also addressed one of the concerns raised about what is going to happen to the artifacts and the collections housed in the museum, and the integrity of those items. She assures the public that they will be taken care of.
“They have to be,” she told the Courier. “A museum is held to such high standards and a high code of ethics; there is no question that, of course they are going to be taken care of. We have a strict code of ethics that we follow and policies we adhere to for the integrity of museums everywhere.”
That’s part of the reason seeking funding through grants is so important.
“The reality is, we need that money to be able to take care of things properly,” Hofer said. “That wasn’t happening in the past and we’ve worked hard to turn that around.”
She cites a simple thing like increasing the temperature inside the museum on an ongoing basis to help with the preservation of the artifacts.
“That means a higher utility bill,” Hofer said. “People don’t think about that, and part of what we are striving for is educating people about how museums operate. We feel like this will allow us to move forward in a new and exciting way.”
STATEMENT FROM ORTMAN
Sherilyn Ortman, who is president of the Freeman Academy Board of Directors, told the Courier in a statement on Tuesday that she felt good about Monday’s meeting — not only how the vote turned out, but the feeling that prevailed in Pioneer Hall’s dining hall, where the meeting took place.
“Of course, it’s gratifying to have an outcome that acknowledges the hard work our two boards have undertaken over the past couple of years,” she said. “But even more encouraging to me were multiple comments by our constituents expressing their desire to see both institutions thrive and to maintain harmonious relationships with one another. I felt there was a positive spirit in the room.”
That “harmonious relationship” was evident in the final action of the night — a joint reciting of “The Lord’s Prayer.”