Mindi Love has an encyclopedic memory of Johnson County's history. Off the top of her head, she can say what year Country Club Plaza developer J.C. Nichols completed his studies at the old Olathe High School.
As she leads a tour through the narrow corridors of the Johnson County Museum of History's cramped Shawnee house, she summons facts about Johnson County and offers context for its suburban past, from the time it was settled through the post–World War II development boom that would eventually make it one of the country's most affluent counties.
Some exhibits in the museum are generic — the faux raspberries and potatoes that demonstrate the once-agrarian nature of Johnson County. Some are sobering — the exhibit that covers deed restrictions, which sought to keep out blacks and Jews and Syrians in some of Johnson County's developing neighborhoods unless they were there as servants.
Love has been the director of the Johnson County Museum since 2000, and for all of that time she has worked in its 19,000-square-foot building at 6305 Lackman Road. It's not as easy to spot from the road as the nearby Target-anchored shopping development, off Shawnee Mission Parkway and Interstate 435, but it attracts about 30,000 visitors a year.
Many of those museumgoers are children, whose smaller size is an advantage here. Exhibits line hallways not much wider than those found in an average residence.
"You can't give a tour to a large group of people," Love says. "Can you imagine a group of 90 third-graders in here?"
On the day she leads The Pitch through the museum, her voice competes with the din of children clattering through various interactive exhibits designed to give young people a simulation of 20th-century suburban life.
But the museum has more problems than a high decibel level. For one, it's largely static. Its main feature is an exhibit called "Seeking the Good Life," which was erected in the late 1990s after a fundraising campaign. It remains mostly unchanged.
The gallery devoted to rotating exhibitions is a space the size of an average home's dining room. At the moment, it's taken up by a show of editorial cartoons by Bob Bliss, of the defunct Johnson County Sun newspaper. (One of them takes a jab at Johnson County's bus system, depicting a Jo bus with two people in it and the caption "The Jo's ridership doubles!")
It also has flooding problems. The building's foundation kept rainwater out during a modest May 30 storm, but a 2009 downpour damaged exhibits and records in the basement. That event accelerated the county's search for a new Johnson County Museum space.
Love may be on her way to getting that wish, if the county remakes the museum in the old King Louie West building, in Overland Park.
Johnson County bought the dormant bowling alley in 2011, and the proposed budget for the 2014 fiscal year contemplates spending more than $5 million to ready the dilapidated building for use. The museum is calling for another $5 million in the following year's budget to remake King Louie in the museum's image.
The Johnson County Museum Foundation also wants to raise $2 million for new exhibits in time for a Johnson County Museum opening at King Louie in 2017.
That's a big goal for a small foundation.
The nonprofit fundraising arm of the Johnson County Museum has raised $23,000–$38,000 a year since 2007, according to the most recent tax records available.
Love says those records don't include grants that flow through the county books. One such grant: a $120,000 stipend to study a 2011 interpretive plan for what a future museum would look like. Another study was done to explore the feasibility of raising $2 million in time to get the museum moved into King Louie by 2017.