You might be surprised to learn that a native of Maine is now in charge of telling the tales of Birmingham and Jefferson County to the world. Then again, you might be just as surprised to learn that there’s a museum dedicated to the task in the first place. What’s known officially as the Birmingham-Jefferson History Museum, Thomas E. Jernigan Sr. Memorial has been percolating almost five years, but with 3,000 square feet of downtown gallery space that Jerry Desmond’s already working to fill, it’s on the verge of joining the city’s distinguished exhibit areas at the Museum of Art, the Civil Rights Institute and the McWane Science Center.
Is this new venue in the Young & Vann building to portray a saga of Birmingham or of Jefferson County? Dez — we are told we may call Mr. Desmond that — is quick to respond: “It’s both. We want to do a section on the communities of Jefferson County and talk about their histories, and I’m learning right now that there are some very interesting stories out there. We’re also talking about a city that’s not in any way touched by the Civil War, a New South city that rose out of a cornfield and became the greatest city in Alabama. At one time, it was even threatening Atlanta and New Orleans for the top spot.”
How Birmingham managed not to become the greatest city in the South might make an intriguing exhibit one day, but Dez has more immediate concerns. Looking ahead to a spring opening, he must bring his considerable expertise in design and curating to bear on shaping the gallery space quickly while filling it with the right kind of memorabilia.
To make things interesting, Jerry Desmond has been here all of one month.
The new hire understands what he’s really up against: “The problem with history museums is that they’ve always been viewed as dusty old places where they have jewelers’ cases full of stuff that hasn’t been moved for a while and the labels are kind of crooked.” He plans to incorporate interactive exhibits, electronic and otherwise, into a space where permanent installations share display area with topical exhibits. “We have to figure out who our audience is going to be, and I’ve got a feeling we’re going to have a lot of school groups coming in,” says Dez.
One way he would address student attention deficit is by incorporating what Dez calls “Birmingham moments”: nuggets of unexpected information about the Magic City and environs. “For example, I found out there was a lady from Birmingham [Mary Anderson] who invented the windshield wiper,” Dez enthuses. “Then I came across a singing quartet in town called the Birmingham Jubilee Singers. They went over to Atlanta in 1926 and recorded an album, and they’re basically the forefathers of, say, Boyz II Men.”
Dez would supplement a time line of the region’s history with many such Birmingham moments, but he is cognizant of shaping a narrative as well, aided in his learning curve by what he calls “an invaluable resource,” the master Birmingham archivist, Marvin Whiting. Working with the board of the museum and the Birmingham-Jefferson Historical Society, Dez has compiled a list of the area’s top 10 stories of all time, with the Civil Rights struggle, the founding of Birmingham and the tale of its mineral industry topping the chart.
General topics of particular interest are being explored as well, such as immigration and war stories. “We’ve got eight Medal of Honor winners from this area, which is just incredible,” Dez observes. The B-J collection currently stored at the Young & Vann building includes a 13-foot scale model of the USS Birmingham, as well as rare photos of its World War I namesake, which served as America’s first aircraft carrier.
Artifacts and artwork from the collection will be displayed in a vintage 1906 room with wall space galore and plenty of exposed red brick (plus, Dez notes happily, a humidity of only 52 percent). Working with a limited budget, the challenge is to upgrade the space from gallery-quality to museum-quality by controlling ambient climate-control noise, upgrading the light grid and, yes, building jewelers’ cases (the enclosure for the scale model ship alone prices out around $7,000).
The Jernigan family has made a sizable financial commitment to the museum, but I have a feeling there are a lot of First Families, and Second and Third Families as well, that’d be happy to mingle their names with the history of their hometown. Dez says he is not averse to having sponsors for certain areas in the space or for underwriting particular exhibitions.
Too, I suspect the project will get assistance from individuals innately proud of their region that would like to help build a space that shows Birmingham off in an interesting, positive way. Perhaps the design group that winds up working with Dez would welcome volunteer collaboration from area college art departments or the kinds of area craftsmen who know how to build those much-maligned jewelers’ cases. Maybe the awe-inspiring fundraising capabilities of our area’s schoolchildren could amass a pile of piggy-bank change to give young history students a shared equity in the old guys’ enterprise.
Our newest resident, a Down Easter nicknamed Dez, is undaunted by the challenge of creating a brand-new museum. “The key part of taking the job was the fact that it’s starting from scratch, “ he says. “The board’s been very supportive, saying, ‘Hey, you’re the expert, go ahead and do it,’ so, hey, I’m going to try and do it.”
The Birmingham-Jefferson History Museum is accepting donations or loans of artifacts. Learn more at www.bjhm.org.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com