Today the Public Museum of Grand Rapids can be found in a modern state of the art facility on the banks of the Grand River, but some of its former inhabitants weren’t invited to come along.
Its current home built in 1994, the first museum opened in 1854, making it one of America’s oldest history museums still operating, despite relocation. Between 1940 and 1994, the museum was located in a lovely art deco building on Jefferson Avenue.
Designed by local architect Roger Allen, it was one of the last buildings to be built as part of the WPA program. An art deco masterpiece more similar in style to a movie theatre of the period than a traditional museum, it was designed to be “As Accessible as a Dime Store, as Friendly as a Next-Door Neighbor.”
The main attraction of the museum used to be its habitat dioramas—designed similar in style to Carl Akeley’s grand dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Visiting Michiganites could marvel at polar bears, deer, and otters in their natural habitat, all under the auspices of a giant whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling.
So popular was the museum that with over 120 years of collecting, it soon outgrew its art deco surroundings and the museum moved to its new location on the river, leaving the old building empty and abandoned.
Today the diorama lies in disrepair. The glass which once separated the animals from their human observers has gone and peeling paint litters the floor. The crowds may have long gone but the animals remain frozen in time.
The museum has recently been open to the public for brief periods of time when hosting art displays by the art cooperative Sitelab, as part of the Grand Rapids Art Prize competition. It was last used for an art exhibit in 2013. The dioramas are now gone, and the building is being renovated.
Update: The dioramas have been moved to the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s third floor.