December 31, 2011 / 6:55 PM / 7 years ago

Tiny Kansas town to host prestigious Smithsonian exhibit

KANSAS CITY, Mo (Reuters) - The tiny town of Franklin, Kansas, population 250, has no school, gas station, hotel or restaurant.

But for six weeks it will house a prestigious exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution.

Frankin will host the Smithsonian exhibit on work and working, one of several traveling historical exhibits that breathe life into often-struggling small towns. The exhibit will visit six Kansas towns starting next September, reaching Franklin in May 2013.

“We are pretty thrilled,” said Phyllis Bitner, who helped bring the exhibit to the southeast Kansas town. “We are hoping people will see Franklin and say ‘wow, this is a great little community.’”

The Smithsonian has five road exhibits in its Museum on Main Street program, launched in 1994 and still growing. It goes to communities of 500 to 20,000, people, including small towns the Smithsonian says may feel geographic, economic and cultural isolation.

“We are America’s museum and so it’s our job to reach out to people who would otherwise not come to Washington,” said Tara Andris, a program spokesperson said of the famed collection of museums in the nation’s capital.

Congress has budgeted $500,000 annually for Museum on Main Street, Andris said. There is no direct cost to the communities, but state humanities councils typically pay $9,000 to the Smithsonian to offset some of the costs, Andris said.

The towns have to offer a suitable space for the exhibit, such as a library or community center, and must have an accompanying local exhibit on a similar topic.

Franklin is among the smallest towns to get an exhibit. Once a booming coal-mining town, Franklin has been in economic decline for decades. A tornado destroyed two-thirds of the community in 2003, but the city got a grant to rebuild the community center and add a local history museum, which will host the Smithsonian display.

There is no main street in Franklin and only a few mom-and-pop businesses such as a consignment store and lawn service, but its Community Center and Heritage Museum draw more than 5,000 people annually.

Franklin is getting an exhibit called “The Way We Worked.” It tells how work evolved in America and features video, still and audio presentations as well as artifacts.

Bitner expects people from a wide area to visit the exhibit and perhaps stay in nearby towns with hotels and restaurants.

“It’s going to be an economic boost to all of southeast Kansas,” Bitner said.

In Rolla, Missouri, the “The Way We Worked” exhibit drew several guest lecturers during its recent stay and was used by local schools as a teaching tool, Rolla city spokesman Scott Grahl said.

Guest lecturers are a common spinoff of the exhibits, Andris said.

The exhibits sometimes draw more people than the population of the host town itself.

During a recent six-week showing in Marlinton, West Virginia, population 1,190, it drew 2,935 people, according to the Smithsonian. In Folsom, New Mexico, population 67, the exhibit drew about 800, Andris said.

The exhibit can sometimes have an impact long after it is gone. Two years ago, in the community of Kaplan, Louisiana, money was raised to rehabilitate an abandoned Dollar Store to house space for a traveling Smithsonian exhibit.

That building now is home to a flea market, said Linda Romero of the Kaplan Area Chamber of Commerce.

Andris said the exhibits often have given communities motivation to make improvements to museums or other buildings.

“It’s about more than the exhibit,” Andris said. “It’s really about capacity-building and leaving a legacy in these towns.”

Editing by David Bailey

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