By Dr. Mary McMurray, Museum Director
Fifty-five years ago, on Oct. 29, 1967, the Johnson County Museum opened its doors to the public. The new museum was located in an old, familiar place - the Greenwood School site at 6305 Lackman Road in Shawnee. Visitors were invited to explore exhibits which looked at the history of Johnson County and included a pioneer kitchen, general store, and Victorian-era parlor.
The opening of the museum and curation of its exhibits was the product of service and dedication to the community. Less than a decade earlier, during a period of dynamic change for Johnson County, volunteer members of the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society decided to collect beyond the history of the mission site. As their collection grew, they worked with state and county governments to allow for and propose a 1/10th mill levy to support the establishment of a local county history museum. When the mill levy passed, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners appointed members of the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society as legal supervisors of the historical collection and the Johnson County Museum. By the end of their first year of operation, museum leadership had collected 889 objects, 70 photographs, and had welcomed 3,400 visitors.
In the southern reaches of the county, another group of community volunteers - the Edgerton Dizzy Doers Extension - were also working to preserve local history. Their work focused on the only standing structure in a town that no longer existed: Lanesfield, Kansas. The town had served as a mail stop on the Santa Fe Trail and was the site of an 1856 skirmish between Missouri Border Ruffians and Free-State Kansans led by General James Lane. The only surviving building was a limestone structure that had served as a school for the community. The school was the oldest operating schoolhouse in Johnson County, with students receiving instruction in a single room from 1869 until 1963.
The Johnson County Museum has changed significantly over these past 55 years. Our primary location moved in 2017 to the old King Louie West building at 8788 Metcalf, in Overland Park. The Lanesfield Schoolhouse is now on the National Historic Register and a modern visitors center, complete with a history exhibit, stands on the grounds. Today, the historic collections include 21,500 objects; 1.3 million photographs, negatives and slides; and 400 cubic feet of archival material. A team of highly trained, professional staff oversee the sites and the collections. Earlier this year, the museum earned national accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, which signifies our commitment to excellence, accountability, high professional standards, and continued institutional improvement. This year alone, we have welcomed tens of thousands of visitors (and climbing).
While much has changed in our 55-year history, the core of our work remains the same: service to our community. You can see it in the committed volunteers who make the Johnson County Museum better each day by greeting our visitors, providing tours, serving on our nonprofit board of directors, helping to oversee our management of the collections, and more. You can see it in the museum staff, who diligently work to collect, preserve, interpret, and educate our visitors on our county’s rich history. And you can see it on the walls of our signature exhibit, “Becoming Johnson County,” that tells the story of community members from all walks of life who worked to help Johnson County become what they wanted it to be at any given time in our history. Like the volunteers of the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society and Edgerton Dizzy Doers Extension, we hope these stories of community efforts inspire, empower, and embolden visitors to continue the never-ending process of helping Johnson County become what they want and need it to be in our time (and beyond).
As we celebrate the museum’s history, I can’t help but also think of the future of our institution. Looking forward, we want to continue to bring award-winning exhibitions, programs, fieldtrips, camps, and more to our community. Through these offerings, we can help our community better understand our county, the region, the national story of suburban development, and ourselves within those histories. We want to deepen our relationships with the community so that we can tell a fuller and more inclusive history of Johnson County and all of those who helped it become what it is today. We want to honor the roots of our museum through our service to our community, today, tomorrow, and always.
We invite you to join us in whatever way you’d like – a visit to KidScape or Lanesfield Historic Site, attending a program, viewing “REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation” (closing Jan. 7!), donating to the collections, volunteering with us, and/or becoming a museum member. We exist because of our community, and we are honored to serve you all these past 55 years. Here’s to the next 55!