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Frank Gray

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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
About 2,000 animal displays – but not many visitors – fill the Jack Diehm Museum of Natural History, across Sherman Boulevard from the zoo.

Let’s exhibit interest in troubled museum

What happens every 10 years, just like clockwork?

The village of Oberammergau, Germany, conducts a passion play to protect the town from the Black Death.

The U.S. government conducts a national census.

And in Fort Wayne, someone suggests we close down the Jack Diehm Museum of Natural History, a display of stuffed animals located more or less across the street from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

The museum isn’t that old, really. Its current location only opened in 1981, and it’s crammed with mounted animals displayed as if they were in their natural habitat, about 2,000 displays in all. But its location, hidden behind the clutter of some trees off Sherman Boulevard, has allowed it to remain a mystery to most people.

I suspect that if you stopped people going into the zoo and pointed out the building in the distance and asked them what it was, most would say they have no idea. Probably an office building of some type, would be a common guess.

Ten years ago, the museum came under fire. Some people suggested that the building be razed and the land be used for additional parking for the zoo, which has grown and become increasingly successful over the years.

That idea, and the suggestion that some of the stuffed animals be displayed in a pedestrian tunnel leading under Sherman Boulevard to the zoo, eventually fizzled. The museum got a new lease on life.

It appears, though, that lease was only for 10 years. Now, the zoo’s director, Jim Anderson, says it’s time to close the museum.

Practically no one goes there. Only 500 to 700 people pay the $2 admission ($1 for children) in any given year, not enough people to even pay the salary of the ticket taker.

Anderson’s primary argument for closing the museum, though, is that it needs about $170,000 in work for a new roof and other maintenance.

Yes, $170,000 is a lot of money, but we can’t lose sight of one thing. The museum is an asset. The problem is that the museum is probably the most under-promoted asset in the city.

People aren’t encouraged to visit the place in the winter when the zoo is closed. It isn’t on schools’ lists of places to go for field trips. About the only time it is mentioned in the newspaper is when someone has called for it to be shut down.

I won’t deny for one second that stuffed animals aren’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. The truth, though, is that the Diehm Museum is not some obscure example of a taxidermist’s handiwork. It is put together very well, about as well as it is done anywhere, given what it has to work with. And it includes animals that can’t be seen at the zoo.

Go to the Field Museum in Chicago. Large parts of the main floor are nothing but displays of mounted animals: birds, gorillas, zebras and lions. About three miles away, you can see much of the same thing live at the Lincoln Park Zoo, so what good are the stuffed animals? But advocate that their displays be scrapped and see what happens.

Granted, the Field Museum is much larger, has plenty of other displays, has tremendous attendance, charges a lot more to get in and undoubtedly has a lot more money to work with than the little Diehm Museum.

To write off the museum because it needs repairs is a mistake, though. In a community that routinely raises large amounts of money to save old abandoned laundry buildings and panics at the decay of old root beer stands, certainly there must be a group that can champion the Diehm Museum.

No, the museum isn’t old, but that doesn’t mean it has no value. To write it off and abandon it would be a disgrace.

Frank Gray has held positions as reporter and editor at The Journal Gazette since 1982 and has been writing a column on local topics since 1998. His column is published on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net.

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