1830s era American Indian dormitory to become Mackinac Island art museum

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MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. – The first phase of an innovative art museum due to open the summer of 2010 is underway inside historic Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island. Located in Lake Huron, just north of the Mackinac Bridge that connects the Upper Peninsula with the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, the British built fort is located on a limestone bluff 150 feet above the small town.

Inside the fort are 14 original buildings, including one built in 1838 to serve as a dormitory for Michigan Indians traveling to the island to receive payments from the United States Indian Agency for a land swap deal under the 1836 Treaty of Washington.

The old American Indian dormitory, used until five years ago, had to be shut down due to its deteriorating condition. Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP) Director Phil Porter said, “MSHP had identified the old Indian dormitory in our strategic plan as a building that we really wanted to do something with. It is a building with a lot of historical value and a beautiful piece of federal era architecture. That need, combined with a long term need we had to provide a venue for displaying art work, kind of came together and is going to work out wonderfully well.”

Plans for the three-story building call for a fully accessible ramp to the lower level and an attachment on the back of the building for an elevator to the upper level. The newly remodeled first floor will contain the permanent art collection exhibits, with the second floor housing work from Mackinac Island artists and changing exhibits of fine and decorative art. The lower level will include a catering kitchen for small receptions and a 500-square foot workshop space for visitors to try their hand at island art – drawing lilacs in Marquette Park or weaving a basket. “We will offer a variety of hands-on activities for people who have viewed the inspirational art inside the museum and can then experience their own artistic creation,” said Porter.

The $827,000 project was funded by the Richard and Jane Manoogian Foundation. “Mr. Manoogian is a collector of American art work and probably has one of the largest private collections in the country. He has been extremely generous to museums across the country in terms of supporting the display of art work, including the Detroit Institute of Arts. He is also a member of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission. MSHP approached him about a year ago with this project and he encouraged us to put together a plan, which we did and he reviewed. At our September commission meeting he agreed enthusiastically to fund the entire project,” said Porter.

“Part of our focus has always been to collect and preserve Mackinac Island art work which we have been doing for a number of years but never really had a venue for displaying it. Sometimes they fit into our period settings and exhibits, but we have a number of pieces in our collection including glass work, ceramics, paintings and drawings, hand tinted photographs from the late 19th century and American Indian objects that have never been displayed. This new venue will give us the opportunity to display those pieces based on the theme that Mackinac Island has always been a place that has inspired artistic creation beginning with the first people here through today’s contemporary artists. The displays will also include art work created by early American Indians on the island – hand woven baskets, bead work and crafts,” he said.

Also included in the buildings restoration is a micro-climate exhibit case system, asbestos abatement, replacing the roof and rotted windows, foundation repairs, an upgraded electrical system and a new restroom.

Eight years after the American Indian dormitory was built it was closed and then sold to the village of Mackinac where it served as a public school for the next 100 years. In the 1960s the building was purchased by the parks commission and underwent some restoration work before opening each summer as an exhibit interpreting the story of the United States Indian Agency until it closed in 2002.

The four and a half square mile island has a downtown area with lodgings, historic buildings, specialty shops, restaurants and museums. It is also locally famous for its many varieties of Mackinac Island Fudge. No motorized vehicles are permittedon the island except for service vehicles, with common sites including horse drawn carriages, bike rentals and good old-fashioned walking. Golfing, tennis, sailing and horseback riding are also available with 140 miles of trails and footpaths.

Mackinac State Historic Parks is accredited by the American Association of Museums. “We first attained our accreditation in 1972 and every 10 years or so we go through another process of accreditation. We are one of less than 100 museums in the country that have been accredited four times. Basically what that means is they gave us a stamp of approval that we are meeting all of the highest standards that a museum should have to run in a professional manner,” Porter said. “Our historic sites are living history museums. The components of what we call the Mackinac State Historic Parks include Fort Mackinac, Mackinac Island State Park, several historic buildings, Colonial Michilimackinac (a reconstructed 18th century fort and fur trading village), Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse built in 1892, and historic Mill Creek Discovery Park just south of Mackinaw City.”

For more information about Mackinac State Historic Parks visit www.mackinacparks.com or call visitor information at (231) 436-4100.