In March 2015, around the time his Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum was opening in Branson, Mo., as part of a massive vacation and golf destination, Johnny Morris took a guided tour of the curation facility of the Missouri State Museum.
Morris, who checks in at No. 148 on the Forbes list of wealthiest people in the U.S., is the founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops. He was touring the facility where some of the state museum’s most precious artifacts are stored at the request of Bill Bryan, the Missouri State Parks director.
“We were told that Mr. Morris was opening a museum and might like to borrow some artifacts to display there,” remembers Katie Owens. She’s the curator of collections at the Missouri State Museum, the person most directly charged with protecting historic artifacts for future generations. “It turned out he thought it was a shopping trip.”
Before Morris had left Jefferson City, he was talking about making a $50,000 donation to the state parks foundation, and, oh, by the way, he’d like to have a loan of a bunch of state artifacts, including some precious and difficult to protect Civil War flags.
For the past year, Owens and other museum employees have been stuck between Top of the Rock (where Morris’ museum is) and a hard place.
In a series of emails between museum employees and Bryan, a longtime aide to Gov. Jay Nixon, it’s clear that the people charged with protecting state artifacts believe the state’s history was put in peril because a politically connected billionaire used his influence to help fill his private museum with public items.
Owens shared her story — and a bevy of emails and other documents — with both me and a state lawmaker in hopes of preventing this sort of thing in the future.
“Hopefully the outcome is that we can get some kind of protection for the collection so it doesn’t happen again,” Owens said. “When this sort of thing gets to donors, it looks bad. People won’t give to your collection if they don’t believe the artifacts are properly protected.”
As of today, several state artifacts, including some Civil War flags, are still on display in Morris’ museum. State curators remain concerned that the level of lighting and protection for the aging flags isn’t ideal. The loan agreement with Morris runs out in April 2017.
In an interview, Bryan said the donation from Morris and the agreement to lend artifacts are separate issues.
“They’re not related,” he says.
A letter from Bryan to Morris dated March 6, 2015, tells a different story.
“Dear John,” it begins, “Thank you for your interest in the Missouri State Museum Collection. It was our pleasure hosting you and your team. Your appreciation for our meager efforts was both humbling and inspiring.”
The letter goes on to outline a list of the items that would be lent to the Ancient Ozarks museum, including some Native American artifacts, a Civil War “Seminole Gentry” flag, a “Colt Gatling Gun” and a mastodon mandible.
At the end of the same letter that offers the loan, Bryan thanks Morris for his “generous offer to support our efforts.”
In a statement, Morris said he was proud of his contributions to the parks foundation “to help fund critical artifact restoration efforts.” He further said artifact loan programs are typical for museums around the world.
We’re proud of our generous financial support and contributions to the Missouri State Parks …
Documents from the state museum indicate that curators and other staff members were upset that the loans seemed tied to a donation, but also that they were rushed through what is generally a very deliberate process.
In an email sent to Bryan on March 8, Tiffany Patterson, the director of the Missouri State Museum, pushes back on a timeline that Bryan admits was “expedited.”
“We want to make a name for the Missouri State Museum as a leader in the museum and interpretation field in this state,” Patterson wrote, “but we can’t do that by eschewing best practices for collections management and interpretation.”
In later emails, Patterson let Bryan know that the Ancient Ozarks museum wasn’t even ready to properly display the items that were being rushed for delivery and that the environment at the museum wasn’t ideal, particularly for the protection of the flags.
Bryan continued to push for an expedited delivery, even mentioning the $50,000 donation at one point.
Over the past year, museum staff continued to push Bryan to allow the state to bring back the flags to the state curation facility, while Bryan was pushing for a year extension on the loan.
“They have already been on display twice as long as they should be,” wrote John Cunning, a program director at the museum, in March of this year. “These flags are irreplaceable and keeping them on display for a total of 2 years places them at risk.”
Bryan says he appreciates the passion of his staff, but he defends the loans to Morris’ museum.
“I don’t feel the decisions were any different than other loans,” he said.
The paper trail from the museum staff says something different.
For now, Owens is just worried about the artifacts still at the Ancient Ozarks museum.
The staff at that museum has changed and the Civil War flags have been there too long, she says.
In August, a visit found that the lighting was at dangerous levels for such flags, but Owens has been unable to correct the situation with the proper staff in Branson.
Come April, she hopes the state can get its history back to make sure it’s protected for the next generation.
“It’s unfortunate that it has been left there for so long,” she says. “Ultimately something needs to change in order to ensure the long-term preservation of the artifacts and the integrity of the museum.”