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Downtown View: More Than Destruction at This Museum

So you think you know all about the West End—how perfectly good brick buildings were leveled, how thousands of people were expelled, how streets were plowed away and the Rappaports made a killing.

But that’s not the West End’s only story. There’s a little museum on Lomasney Way just a few steps northeast of the intersection of Staniford, Merrimac and Causeway streets that draws a fuller picture. It has one permanent exhibit, “The Last Tenement,” which debuted at the Bostonian Society, and that is definitely about the West End’s destruction.

But in the temporary exhibit space, which changes three times a year, is the story of Dr. George Parkman’s murder and the trial and execution of Professor John Webster, who, some say, did not do the evil deed.

The museum is interested in more than just gloom and doom. It tackles the way the West End was created by filling in shallow marshes of the Charles River, it has the scale model of the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge and it displays a couple of seats from the Boston Garden. It presents lectures, has an on-line presence and has hosted several book publishing parties.

The West End Museum opened in 2006 in two large ground-floor rooms at West End Place—the building with the big arch. It’s free, and it had 4,000 visitors last year, said curator Duane Lucia, who basically runs the museum. Lucia is especially proud that all the museum’s 25-strong staff are volunteers, including Susan Hanson, a Ph.D who is an expert in history, collections and archives.

Now this little museum is nothing like the MFA or the Chicago Art Institute or the Getty Museums in LA. Thank goodness. Boston’s small museums play a more important role in a community than only putting objects on display.

They provide a place for neighbors to gather around a common purpose. They contribute to the arts and culture economy, which in this state is significant.

According to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, nonprofit arts, humanities and science organizations in this state generate more than 45,000 jobs, spend $2.1 billion annually and generate another $2.5 billion of economic activity. Museums themselves contribute $21 billion annually directly to the U. S. economy and are responsible for billions more through indirect spending by their visitors, according to the American Alliance of Museums. You can imagine how that works if you think of visitors from Atlanta stopping in at the West End Museum and then heading off along Staniford or Causeway streets to find lunch.

Seventy percent of Massachusetts voters say that arts and culture are very important in their community. Eighty percent believe that taxpayers should chip in when renovating buildings that contain artistic and cultural activities. Yet the City of Boston, unlike New York City, contributes no taxpayer money to its major art museums. In fact, it asks the MFA and the Institute of Contemporary Art to pay the city under the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (Pilot) arrangement.

The big museum directors complain that, given the amount of money their institutions bring into the economy, the city should be investing in the arts, not taxing them.

This is a conundrum, since the city is right when it says it provides free police protection, good roads and other services to museums and their sister cultural institutions. How does one calculate accurately the benefits museums bring to Boston, which surely are not limited to the economy?

In any case, the West End Museum will probably not be charged under the Pilot program and neither will its downtown counterparts, the Harrison Gray Otis House, the Paul Revere Museum, the Gibson House, the Museum of African-American History, the Nichols House Museum, the Bunker Hill Museum, Old Ironsides, and that strange place on Cambridge Street, Verizon’s Innovations in Communications Museum, which, as far as I know, has never opened its door.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at