This story was originally published on Municipal Sewer & Water magazine’s website on October 2, 2017 and written by Jim Force.
If you have an old building on your water or wastewater treatment site, you might want to consider turning it into a public education tool.
That’s what the Louisville Water Co. did when it established its Water Works Museum in 2014 inside the west wing of an old pumping station that is on the National Historic Landmarks list.
“We’re 3 1/2 years into the museum project and we’ve really brought the story of water to life,” says Kelley Dearing-Smith, vice president of communications and marketing for the utility. “There’s been a solid return on using this facility as part of our public outreach — from over 70 school tours annually, to an annual water festival, to hosting community events, to paid rentals for weddings and other private gatherings. We’ve even had yoga classes at the museum.”
The museum contains photos, films and memorabilia from the city’s early water systems and the Ohio River. Field trips focus on the science of clean drinking water, as well as the importance of the architecture and engineering innovation involved in supplying a consistent supply of safe drinking water to the community. Different exhibits rotate throughout the year.
The $5 price of admission (discounts or free admission are available for seniors, children, and teachers) also includes a visit inside an active pumping station and an up-close view of an Allis Chalmers pump that dates to 1919.
The old pumping station, built around 1860, is the original one for the city, and when it needed an interior restoration, the idea of adding a water museum was born. The museum was only a small part of the overall $2.6 million capital project for the structure, Dearing-Smith says, and the investment has paid off handsomely.
“Since we opened in 2014, over 90,000 people have visited the museum or attended an event on the property,” she says.
The museum is staffed by two full-time people and five part-timers, who also serve the utility in other positions.
Louisville Water felt strongly about making valuable use out of the building since it was a national landmark and an icon for the city.
“We wanted to do it right,” Dearing-Smith says, noting other good examples of water works museums in Boston and Philadelphia. Boston has a museum on the site of the original Chestnut Hill Reservoir and pumping station that a nonprofit organization oversees with a staff of nine people. Philadelphia has a facility that has played host to more than 460,000 visitors since opening in 2003.
Dearing-Smith says Louisville Water’s museum has sometimes required a change in the mindset at the utility.
“We’ve had to adapt from water quality issues to the frantic mother of the bride or the needs of a community festival right next to our pumping station,” Dearing-Smith says.