From left to right: Steve Bass and Terri Bass; Edward Halperin, Dean of the U of L School of Medicine; David Laird, Jewish Hospital CEO; Nancy Laird; Dr. Shiao Woo, chairman of the U of L Radiation Oncology Dept.; Madeleine Burnside and John Shaw-Woo. (Photo courtesy of John Shaw-Woo. Click to enlarge.)

About 50 selected invitees gathered at The Frazier History Museum one evening earlier this week for cocktails, cheese and shrimp and a guided tour of the museum’s current “Da Vinci – The Genius” exhibition.

This was no special preview: The Da Vinci exhibition has been going on since May and will run until September 18 at the Frazier, Ninth and Main Streets downtown.

This was marketing for a new Louisville brand – an attempt to reinforce the message that the Frazier intends to be about more than guns and warfare.

“I was hired to rethink the whole idea of an arms museum,” said executive director Madeleine Burnside, who came to Louisville four years ago from Key West, Fla.

“This is too small a city for a niche museum. We need a history museum.”

Starting this year, weapons will coexist side-by-side with crowd-pleasing exhibitions featuring Leonardo, Princess Diana and Abraham Lincoln’s mad first lady.

Mingling with one of the world’s outstanding collection of American and British arms will be the exotic culture of the Samurai.

Burnside said she’s learned it’s not enough just to be across the street from the Louisville Slugger Museum, one of Louisville’s biggest draws.

That’s a destination – for kids, for families, for baseball fans,” she said. “It’s not as if they’ll just wander across the street and visit us.

“We have to build our own audience. We have to become a destination.”

The target for success, said Burnside, is to fill the museum’s 100,000 square feet of exhibit space with 100,000 visitors a year – roughly 2,000 people each week. The Frazier is almost there, having built the attendance to 75,000.

Special exhibits, like the works of Leonardo, are intended to get them the rest of the way.

Clearly, the Mona Lisa isn’t hanging in the Frazier.

But the exhibition does show various versions of the famous portrait to suggest the artist’s technique and intentions – breaking down the well-known enigma of the smiling subject. More than his paintings, though, the exhibit concentrates on Da Vinci’s scientific experiments and inventions, like an early scuba diving suit, bicycle, military tank – even his attempt at a flying machine, replicating the wings of a bat.

It’s also a tour of the culture, politics and lifestyle of 15th and 16th century Florence and Rome, the Italian Renaissance featuring Leonardo as the prototypical Renaissance Man.

“We’ll still be about history,” said Burnside, “but it will be BIG history.” She listed four criteria for future Frazier exhibitions:

1 – They’ll include heavy, serious history but, at the same time

2 – They’ll be family friendly.

3 – They’ll be international in scope and

4 – Related to an event such as an anniversary or a celebration.

With these criteria in mind, the museum is planning:

  • A Civil War exhibition this fall that concentrates on the Kentucky experience.
  • A show of photographs taken of Kentucky in 1976, at the time of the nation’s bicentennial, to review how the commonwealth has changed in 35 years.
  • A show of a newly acquired collection of toy soldiers that, at 12,000 pieces, Burnside insists is the largest such collection on public view in the country.

Next year, museum management is particularly excited about shows on two of history’s most famous first ladies: the collection of Mary Todd Lincoln’s insanity papers and a shirt that she made for son Robert, the only Lincoln son to live to maturity (and ironically, the son who committed his mother to an institution in 1875); and an exhibition of Princess Diana – photographs, clothing and her 1981 wedding gown.

Martial themes certainly aren’t disappearing from the Frazier collection.

There is, on exhibit, a sword owned by Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire, the first man to vote “yes” for independence and the second to sign the Declaration of Independence; Gen. George Custer’s pistol; a collection of the Kentucky pioneer rifle; and a Samurai exhibit scheduled for next summer, featuring Japanese swords and armor.

But even these are intended to be about more than just the objects themselves.

“The samurai exhibition will also include porcelains, screens and kimonos of the period,” said Burnside. “It’s a window into centuries of Japanese life.”

Similarly, she said, the Bartlett sword is as much about the man and his times as about the sword itself. And the Kentucky rifles, used to feed families more than to be shot in anger, show a life that once existed here.

“People need to know Kentucky was a part of world history even before Daniel Boone,” Burnside said.

“We want kids, in particular, to understand they’re part of a larger world. But we also want adults to be surprised, to see something and exclaim, “Omigod, this is the real thing!’ ”

About the Frazier History Museum: The Frazier was founded as the Frazier Historical Arms Museum in 2004 by Owsley Brown Frazier, a Brown-Forman Corp. heir and the former vice-chairman of the Louisville-based liquor giant’s board.

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Steve Kaufman
Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.

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