Constructed in 1838 as part of the federal Indian Agency, the “Indian Dormitory” served its original purpose for less than a decade. Use for a variety of federal government and public purposes through the middle nineteenth century, in 1867 it became the island’s public school. With several additions, it served this purpose until 1960. Surround by park commission-owned property, the Park Commission purchased the school in 1963 and restored it to its original appearance. The building opened as a museum in 1966. Featuring 1830s period settings and a Native American exhibit, by 2001 the exhibits were showing their age, and the structure was closed for renovation and reinterpretation. The evaluation of the future uses of the structure as a publicly accessible museum space thus coincided with the need for a venue for the commission’s art gallery. The upper floor, which previously contained the Native American exhibit, did not meet accessibility requirements, and, in fact, had been closed several years before the rest of the building. There was no climate control and, with the adoption of higher standards of collections care, the most fragile objects had been removed from exhibit even earlier. The building would need full climate control, fire suppression, and an elevator, all installed so as not to compromise the building’s original historic fabric. The funds for such a transformation were not available in the Park Commission’s budget. A private donor was needed. Fortunately one was available, whose interests were perfectly aligned to the idea of an art museum for Mackinac. Richard Manoogian is a major art collector and benefactor, and a Mackinac Island State Park Commissioner. With his wife Jane he is also a summer cottager with an intense interest in Mackinac Island. Impressed by the proposal, the conversion of the Indian Dormitory into an art museum was fully funded by the Richard and Jane Manoogian Foundation.
Work commenced on the project in 2009. An addition to the back of the building was required to house an elevator and emergency stairway. Before construction began, archaeologists performed a full excavation to study the site of the addition. A number of the items found during the excavation related to the history of the structure itself. Prehistoric items were also uncovered, including pottery sherds dating from ca. 800-1000 A.D. One is the rim of a vessel decorated with a linear punctuate design. It is an example of the earliest type of Mackinac art, and is featured in the museum.
The addition was carefully joined to the back of the original structure in an area that had previously been altered, with no loss of historic building fabric. Adapting the rest of the structure into a modern gallery space included the same level of care. All original material was carefully preserved and some features, such as the reconstruction of original hearths not done during the 1966 restoration, were finished at this time.
Dedicated in July 2010, the museum showcases Mackinac art from Native American objects to recent creations.
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