Derby Museum to reopen in April

Some good news today. The Kentucky Derby Museum will reopen on April 18 after a $5.5 million renovation.

This gives me a chance to repost a story that got all but buried by Rick Pitino news on the day I wrote it. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, I’d encourage you to take a minute and read about the work of some dedicated museum employees who worked to save Derby history from flooding, even while some of their cars were floating out of the parking lot.

Their story shouldn’t be forgotten.

True high-water mark

Derby Museum staff rescued past for the future

August 12, 2009

It looks like a horse lover’s fantasy flea market.

On long rows of folding tables in the Kentucky Derby Museum basement, items rescued during last week’s flooding represent not only a large chunk of Derby history, but also the story of a determined group of museum employees’ efforts to save it.

There are 14 large, leather-bound personal scrapbooks kept by Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker. Across the room lies the halter Street Sense wore during his Derby victory. Legendary Churchill Downs president Matt Winn’s chair is covered in plastic in a room across the hall, not far from a stack of numbers and letters used in an old manual tote board.

There’s a leather program presented to the Earl of Derby when he came to the race in 1930, and artwork as old as the race itself.

This is the part of the Derby Museum most people never get to see. It is the Fort Knox of Derby history, many of its collections and archives irreplaceable. And on Aug. 4 it was in jeopardy when floodwater began to pour into the building.

So far, the estimated damage to the building runs to $4 million. But the real story lies in what was saved – more than 2,000 artifacts in two hours – and the 31 museum employees and one former employee who worked to save it.

Curator Katherine Veitschegger was the first to notice a problem when a portion of her office wall cracked and water started leaking in. She scrambled to find a bucket and some caulk.

Within an hour she found herself in the basement, shin-deep in muck, shouting out directions in a frantic effort to save some of the most valuable items.

Lynn Ashton, the museum’s executive director, said she could hear on her radio as new leaks sprang up in offices and then the café. But when she heard the word “collections,” she ran for the basement. So did everyone else.

Water there was 10 inches deep and pouring in from above, mixed with oil from the flooded elevator shafts and sewage backing up. Workers from every department pitched in. It was dark. Electricity was out, and emergency lighting soon went out.

“You really couldn’t tell what you were handling,” said museum communications director Wendy Treinen.

At first, workers grabbed what they could and carried it to tables in the large William Ray gallery. Artwork received highest priority, as did a collection of articles, notes and recordings donated by sportswriter Jim Bolus.

Soon they formed a human chain to pass items along from the flooding collections room to the gallery.

“We were sliding and slipping,” Ashton said. “And we’re handling things that we would never in our life touch. Once it is put into the collection it is never again touched by human hands. But I guess we can say that really isn’t quite the case now.”

Veitschegger, whose clothes had been drenched when she walked into the museum from her car earlier in the day, had changed into the only extra clothes she had, a garden-party dress she had worn on Derby Day. That’s what she was wearing as she got to the basement and started directing the rescue effort.

“Katherine knew where everything was in her head,” Treinen said. “She would yell, ‘Middle shelf in that room on the left, get everything.’ She was standing under the water as it was pouring in on her head, not knowing if what we were going after was wet or not.”

Jay Ferguson, a former curator who had been let go in a recent round of layoffs, came back to help locate items and save them. Several workers, Veitschegger included, worked to rescue the museum’s property while their own cars floated away in the parking lot above.

In a top-floor gallery, one employee stayed with the dozen or so guests who had been stranded in the museum.

“My only thought was get as much out of here as we can,” Veitschegger said. “You just pull, grab, get as many people as you can working on it, get it in safe places and keep moving, moving to maximize the window of time you have to get everything you can.

“… It’s just very satisfying to know that I work with such a wonderful group of people that care so much about the collection that they would come down and do really brutal, physical, dirty work. Everybody got beat up and banged up and bruised and cut. That kind of support, you don’t find that a lot of places.”

The morning after, Ashton was the first person to the museum. She took a flashlight and headed downstairs, where water was still standing, to see what had been saved. She says it was a tear-filled walking tour.

Treinen described it as a surreal feeling, seeing priceless museum pieces sitting on tables in such disarray. “But I think,” she said, “there’s a definite sense of pride in everything that was saved.”

There’s a lot of that feeling around the museum these days. It’s closed for business indefinitely, but it’s busier than ever as the recovery process continues. The gift shop is operating out of the Churchill Downs gift shop, and the museum is still conducting tours of the track.

Each employee had to get a tetanus shot after working in the sewage. Ashton had bandages on both arms Tuesday, one for her tetanus shot and another for a pneumonia shot she received as a precaution for her asthma. Several employees are still scrambling to get to work because they lost their cars.

Through all of it, Ashton says, nothing irreplaceable has been lost. Some valuable pieces were damaged. Among the items being shipped for repair were a box marked “Pleasant Colony halter” and “Jimmie Jones portrait.” Both can be restored.

“To me, that’s the miracle of it,” Ashton said. “When you see that everything down there (on the ground floor) is destroyed. We don’t have a desk left. We don’t have a chair left. Anything that was wood, it’s out of here.”

But thanks to the quick work of some dedicated workers, the history endures.


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