Old Castle Museum now exhibiting new life

Story by Mykaela Cross, Assistant Editor

The stone building looks just like any other building on campus. With obvious wear and tear, it is clear the building has aged. At the east end of campus, tucked away behind a corner, its existence and significance remain unknown to much of the Baker community. Although it is one of the few campus buildings many students do not even know exist, the Old Castle Museum building was actually the very first university structure in Kansas.

Walking through the entrance before the venture into the past begins, visitors are greeted by a smile from University Archivist and Museum Director Sara Decaro. Immediately, the historic value can be found in the artifacts that track the history of Baker.

Now re-opened to the public from 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, the Old Castle Museum is filling in the pieces to Baker’s past.

As the museum’s director, Decaro is overjoyed to see the building open to the public. For her, the historic value and potential learning opportunities the museum holds are well worth the effort of tidying up the 158-year-old building.

“The history of the university, Methodist church and the state are all intertwined, and so I really wanted to reflect that in all of these exhibits,” Decaro said.

Originally called “The College Building,” Old Castle Museum has since been used as a museum for historic artifacts relating to the histories of Kansas, Baker and its ties to the Methodist church. For the past five years, however, the building has been used partly for storage, a fact Decaro was eager to change.

“We have a lot of goals for the museum,” Decaro said. “We have the idea of having students plan exhibits and help with other things like that, and eventually we would like to open up the second floor for exhibits.”

In order to draw in visitors, the Old Castle Museum opened its doors for an open house on Jan. 28. The event was to raise awareness and funds for the museum’s future. For Decaro, it was a major success.

“I was really happy with the turnout, actually. I saw more people than I expected. We had about 55 people come, which is great. I’ve seen both people I know and people I don’t know,” Decaro said. “There’s been everyone from local folks, faculty and staff, students and volunteers, so pretty much people from the whole community.”

According to Decaro, museum visitors have not only enjoyed seeing it open again, but are appreciative of the new look and exhibit. One visiting gentleman even went as far as to tell her that it looks better than it had the last time he had been inside the building, and that was more than 30 years ago.

“Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Everyone has been so very friendly and complimentary, which makes me pretty happy. I’ve never put together an exhibit before, so this was a challenge,” Decaro said.

While in the museum, visitors are transported into a variety of time periods and subject matters — with information on everything from the history of Kansas, beginning just before the Civil War, through the rise of Baker University and the Methodist church to the more familiar realm of the contemporary.

Because Decaro thoroughly enjoyed putting the displays together, she could not pick a favorite part of the museum, but she was particularly interested in the early history of Baker. She also enjoyed learning that the Old Castle Museum has particular artifacts that neighboring museum have shortages in.

“One thing I found out that was really cool was the Native American artifacts,” Decaro said. I had someone from Douglas County come in and she was talking about the Watkins Museum in Lawrence, and they only have one or two Native American pieces, while we have more.”

Putting together the museum came with a few challenges, Decaro admits, even if they were challenges she relished in overcoming. The most challenging element was deciding which artifacts to display, and where to display them. She knew she wanted the display to be in chronological order; however, making everything fit seamlessly was harder than expected.

Though the museum is now open on the weekends, Decaro finds that there is still a long way to go in terms of achieving her goals for the museum, and plenty of obstacles are on the road ahead.

“There’s a lot of organization that needs to happen. The second and third floors are basically storage right now, so they need a lot of work,” Decaro said. “Not to mention running a museum can be costly, and we don’t have a big budget.”

Regardless of the task ahead, Decaro believes the work will be worth the benefits the museum can bring to campus.

“Several history students have written papers on artifacts here in the museum, so it has academic value on campus as well,” Decaro said.

Now that the museum is open, Decaro hopes to see the number of student visitors grow, believing that the Old Castle Museum has the potential to help students during their time at Baker.

“We really hope students will come by, whether they’re interested in history, simply getting out of the dorms, or even working on a research project,” Decaro said. “And we’re always happy to accept volunteers.”

Anyone interested in visiting the Old Castle Museum can visit during the weekend hours at 511 Fifth Street in Baldwin City.