Can a museum in Montopolis work?

Montopolis Negro School. Credit: Austin Monitor

There’s a lot of interesting things going on in this story about the Montopolis Negro School that I wrote in today’s Monitor.

But right now I’d like to put aside questions over the use of eminent domain and focus on a simple question: Does it make sense for Austin to establish a museum in such a lightly-trafficked part of town?

As much as I appreciate the idea of stashing cultural gems throughout the city, when we invest $5.7 million in a museum, we have to consider the return on investment. I’m not talking about how many paying customers the museum attracts, although that’s also certainly something worth considering. I’m talking about the museum’s educational and cultural impact. A big part of evaluating that impact is the number of people who visit the museum.

In projecting how many people will visit a site, it’s critical to consider whether it’s near other things that they are likely to visit. Montopolis is a predominantly residential area. The relatively few retail/entertainment/food options in the neighborhood are spread out. Thus, you are expecting the vast majority of visitors to drive far away from all of the other major tourist sites and commerce in Austin to spend what would likely be a very short amount of time in a one-room museum.

If you want people to visit a museum, put it where all of the other museums are. Consider the George Washington Carver Center. It’s near a ton of stuff that visitors and Austinites alike are likely to check out, including a plethora of bars and restaurants and other major tourist sites, all of which have become even more amusingly accessible due to electric scooters.

It’s important to note that I would say the same thing for a museum proposed in any overwhelmingly residential area that is far away from downtown. I don’t think that a museum in Tarrytown would be particularly compelling either.

When I visit other cities, I enjoy going to various neighborhoods that are off the beaten path and walking around. If there’s an obscure museum, I’ll check it out. But most people aren’t like me.

CM Ora Houston has hinted that she has come to the same conclusion:

Council Member Ora Houston, who grew up attending segregated schools in East Austin, has been a vocal proponent of preserving the Montopolis building. In an email to the Austin Monitor, she said that she was open to Stowell’s proposal to preserve the building. She acknowledged that there might not be the funding or demand necessary to support a full-time public museum.

“Throughout the discussion of the property, I pointed out that the Parks and Recreation Department has difficulty funding the maintenance and operation of the current parks and historic structures in their portfolio,” she noted.

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