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VIEWPOINT: We're listening. Strategic pause taken for Brockhouse Collection
Guest column by Erica Beck & Councilor Alex Jensen
With the momentum created by the merger of the Great Plains Zoo (GPZ) and Butterfly House and Aquarium (BHA) in January of 2023, the course for future growth was set by creating an opportunity for expanded year-round activities, securing its designation as a regional destination for residents and visitors. While the two organizations have officially merged, operations are on separate campuses as leaders move forward in master planning the Zoo’s 40-acre campus to determine the best fit for the aquarium and butterfly house investments. The master planning process considers the best and highest use of the property, which includes the Delbridge Museum of Natural History.
The Delbridge Museum of Natural History currently includes a large taxidermy collection, a portion of which is known as the Brockhouse Collection. Given the master planning efforts underway and the deterioration and age of the taxidermy collection, the decision was made to test the mounts. It is commonly known that taxidermy specimens from pre-1970 were often produced using harmful chemicals.
When tested, various levels of arsenic were detected in the collection which contains more than 150 mounts. Out of an abundance of caution for Great Plains Zoo staff and visitors, in early August, leaders from the City of Sioux Falls and the Great Plains Zoo made the decision to close off access to the collection. Proper barriers have been in place since the museum’s inception as well as “do not touch” signs, so it’s not believed guests have been at risk. However, as soon as the City received the data outlining detected levels of arsenic, it became a liability and required additional testing and analyzing to be done. As previously stated, most of the specimens housed at the Delbridge are part of the Brockhouse Animal Collection, which was purchased on public auction from the Brockhouse estate by Sioux Falls attorney C.J. Delbridge in 1981. It was donated to the City of Sioux Falls and has been displayed at the GPZ as part of the Delbridge Museum of Natural History since 1984.
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Following months of extensive discussion, research, recent testing, and consultations about best practices to manage aged taxidermy with experts at other reputable museums, the Mayor decided to seek surplus options for the collection. Due to state laws, federal protections for many of the species, and the detected levels of arsenic in the majority of the mounts, the most appropriate and pragmatic course of action was to ask the City Council to consider surplus. According to state law SDCL Ch. 6-13, a surplus declaration generally allows the City to sell, trade, loan, destroy, or otherwise dispose of any property which is determined to be no longer necessary, useful, or suitable for the purpose for which it was acquired.
Following the announcement of the mayor seeking surplus, we did hear from members of the Brockhouse family and a few members of the public who were concerned with the proposed process. Mayor TenHaken decided to take a strategic pause and form a work group tasked with collaborating with GPZ and City of Sioux Falls staff on developing surplus plan details for each specific specimen in the collection. The work group is being led by Sioux Falls Parks & Recreation Director Don Kearney and Great Plains Zoo CEO Becky Dewitz. Members of the work group include Councilors Rich Merkouris and Alex Jensen, Sioux Falls Zoo and Aquarium Board Chair Jeanelle Lust, Parks and Recreation Board Member Mick Conlin, and two community members, Ally Brandner and Jeff Scherschligt. The work group held their first meeting on Oct. 4, where they learned details about how the Mayor arrived at the decision to seek a plan for surplus of the collection. Productive conversations were had while members inquired about specifics of the situation, including an appraisal and condition assessment of the collection by a reputable third-party taxidermist. The GPZ does have a report that was conducted in 2022, however the taxidermist has requested it not be made public in fear of it harming his business given varying opinions on aged taxidermy. The work group would like to pursue a report that can become public. From there, Councilors in the work study group would like to receive an estimate of restoring the entire collection, encasing it in glass, and updating the educational storytelling of the specimens. Initial estimates put a new 16,000 sq. foot building at an estimate of over $13 million, which does not include restoration or updated interpretive signage. This is something the Councilors on the work group would like to explore more. Although it was playfully brought up, community member Jeff Scherschligt raised the fact that he’s likely the only seasoned individual of the group who is old enough to have seen the Brockhouse Collection when it was at West Sioux Hardware, which led the conversation to how long taxidermy lasts. As these mounts continue to age, there is more potential for chemical exposure, which is at the forefront of our minds in this decision. We know reputable institutions like the Smithsonian display historical taxidermy, but we also know the museum doesn’t employ a dedicated taxidermist and hasn’t for more than a decade, instead this work is freelanced. It reinforces the shift we’ve seen with federal laws in place that now protect many of these animals from being hunted. It’s also why the work group is interested in learning more about the attendance numbers that are specific to the Delbridge Museum of Natural History. How many people are visiting the Great Plains Zoo and specifically taking a tour through the taxidermy collection? Is the collection being used for educational programming? This information is being gathered for the group ahead of their Oct. 19 meeting.
To be clear, the work group‘s task of developing a surplus plan will be a lengthy and arduous process due to the number and condition of specimens in the extensive collection. While the City recognizes the history of the Brockhouse Collection, we also recognized the need to take necessary precautions for safety of the GPZ staff and visitors, in collaboratively closing off access to the collection. Additionally, we will also continue to make decisions that are financially sustainable. This is local government working to move its community and people forward through challenges. We are making difficult decisions, pausing when there are concerns, communicating process and strategically considering all aspects of the situation before bringing forward a recommendation to the City Council. We have been partners with the GPZ through this situation and will continue reinforcing this partnership by moving this process forward to ensure the GPZ has the answers it needs to realize a sound future.
Alex Jensen is a Sioux Falls city councilor, a member of the Mayor TenHaken’s Brockhouse Collection workgroup, and a former lawmaker.
Erica Beck is chief of staff in the Sioux Falls mayor’s office and a lifelong South Dakotan.