The Behringer-Crawford Museum: A hidden gem that’s tired of hiding

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This story originally appeared in the Dec. 23 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe here.

Perched upon a hillside overlooking the scenic Devou Park in Covington, the Behringer-Crawford Museum was once the 19th century home to the Eubank-Devou family. 

Though the museum has been open for more than 70 years, many say the Behringer-Crawford is a hidden gem. The staff at the museum are fighting to bring the museum out of hiding. 

In July 1950, the mansion was turned into a museum dedicated to natural history from all over Northern Kentucky. William Behringer, a Covington resident collector, traveler, writer, seeker of curiosities, and purveyor of oddities, filled the walls and its halls with his collections from his world travels. 

Its location off the beaten path is part of the reason the museum is a hidden gem, according to Executive Director Laurie Risch. 

“We are often referred to as a ‘hidden gem’ partly because of our location nestled in Devou Park,” Risch said. “We are a destination, where people need to know how to get to the park, then to the museum. It has also taken us a while to get the word out, not having an advertising budget for many years.” 

Risch added that increased programming and “bringing fun and new exhibits,” paired with an increased social media presence, are a few ways they have been trying to reach a broader audience. 

The fact that the building used to be the William Behringer home also contributes to the museum’s “hidden gem” description, according to Communications Director Mary Jane Calderon. It wasn’t until the museum received a 15,000-square-foot renovation, bringing it to four floors, that the building began receiving more attention as a destination. 

Stepping foot into the Behringer-Crawford Museum is like walking through the doors to the past. 

Round the corner from the front door and guests are face-to-headlamp with The Kentucky – a four-wheel parlor car in original operating condition that is believed to be the last of its kind in the U.S. in this preserved state. 

The Kentucky, a once-used streetcar in Covington, is on display near the entrance of the Behringer-Crawford Museum. Photo by Kaitlin Gebby | LINK nky

Assembled in the late 1800s, the Kentucky was upgraded to a deluxe parlor car in 1911, and pulled into its depot for the last time on July 2, 1950. A look at the wheels and guests can see The Kentucky is still on its tracks. Behind it is a large door that is opened during warmer months and the streetcar is moved outside, next to the entrance. Experts at the museum say the streetcar could still operate today, in theory, if the city still had the infrastructure for it. 

A step up to the window offers a conductor’s-eye view into the interior where a friendly-faced streetcar conductor greets visitors while his passenger stands smartly dressed in his finest Christmas hat awaiting his stop. 

Three floors of knowledge await museum-goers, offering rotating collections, permanent installations, fossils, paintings, a well known two-headed calf, among other stuffed wild creatures, and until Jan. 8, 2023 – a tribute to Christmas with their Holly Jolly Days exhibition

Jason French, curator at the Behringer-Crawford Museum, said the Christmas exhibits have been an exciting addition to the museum’s collection, if only temporary. 

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“Three of the actors in ‘White Christmas’ were all local to our area. So it’s pretty exciting for us to have the Holly Jolly Days exhibit here this year,” French said. 

More than just displays of costumes and holiday trains, the Rosemary Clooney-sponsored exhibit has a component designed to give back to the community. 

Costumes and set items from the movie “White Christmas” are part of a temporary exhibit at the Behringer-Crawford Museum in Covington. Photo by Alecia Ricker | LINK nky

“We’re also are happy to be part of Operation Waverly this year, and help in the collection of toiletries and other items for homeless veterans. It’s all part of what the Rosemary Clooney House does,” French explained. 

Costumes designed by Edith Head and worn in the classic 1954 Christmas film “White Christmas” arrived at the museum in November. They appear frozen in time, almost as if they were just hung by the cast, which includes Bing Crosby, Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye, and Kentucky’s own Rosemary Clooney. Props, posters, sheet music, and more can be seen throughout the space, offering a trip down memory lane for fans of the film and an up close and personal introduction to those who have not. 

Other exhibits occupy the third floor, including “Up, Up and Away,” which covers the bridges, steamboats, and structures that fostered the growth of the region. The “Traveling Back in Time” exhibit showcases sea fossils, Native American artifacts, and other geological finds that teach visitors about the past of Kenton, Boone, and Campbell counties. 

Curiosities like giant bones and prehistoric teeth are on display, with full explanation as to where they were found in the region adjacent to the items. Curators are on hand to answer any questions, and offer a wealth of knowledge to anyone who wants to know more. 

“Rollin’ on the River,” also on the third floor, heralds the pivotal role the Licking and Ohio rivers played into the evolution and growth of the river cities along the banks. Interactive play areas for kids, displays with sound and sights, and tons of history round out the top of the museum. 

The second floor provides a look into the world occupied by beatniks, Sputnik, and the birth of rock-and-roll that guests won’t find anywhere else in the area. 

One flight of stairs, or just a short elevator ride down, the second floor pays homage to life lived post-World War II, showcasing the accessibility and affordability of the family car and how it forever shaped the family dynamic and the face of American infrastructure. 

Visitors can sit in a 1959 Electra convertible and take in a drive-in movie, or check out the record selection on the still-operational jukebox, or round the corner and peek into a staged 1950’s kitchen. Many of the items collected in the museum have been preserved from items donated to the museum, while others are shared items with the Fort Wright museum, The Ramage. 

Guests can see vintage toys, games from decades ago, and sit in front of a black-and-white television to watch “The Lone Ranger” or “Buck Rogers.”

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The first floor explores the Northern Kentucky rail system and its role in the region’s development, moving its people and products around the world. Alongside a 1924 Stewart Iron Works’ U.S. Motor Truck, visitors are greeted with displays from area manufacturers who influenced and shaped the region, creating a multi-faceted glimpse into rail’s early impacts on Northern Kentucky. 

Visitors can take in city streetscapes in a miniature version of portions of Northern Kentucky during a bygone era in the Ray Faragher Garden Railway display, near the entrance of the museum. 

A snowy diner is part of the diorama of Northern Kentucky at the Behringer-Crawford Museum. Photo by Alecia Ricker | LINK nky

Painstakingly hand-built with the help of other model train enthusiasts and by navy WWII veteran, aspiring streetcar conductor, and Ludlow native Ray Faragher, he spent six years hand-crafting the community of his dreams in his home. The layout was relocated to the museum in 2008, and at the end of the holiday season, it’s slated for a 21st-century upgrade; replacing the lights that have burnt out in the 10-plus years since its arrival with newer LEDs, general upkeep and housekeeping of the train tracks and buildings. Today, the display is a statement piece on the first floor and a mainstay of the museum. 

One can spend hours across multiple visits and still not see every aspect of the display. A woman hangs out the window of her apartment building, seemingly yelling at the people below her. A sign advertises Sunday cartoon matinees in a theater, a grave digger prepares a final resting place six-feet downward as the mourning family looks on. 

Saloons, both with and without Ladies of the Night propositioning gentleman visitors with “company” for the evening dot the corner of each block. Visitors can get their shoes shined and repaired right next door to the diner. A gentleman is seen courting a lady at a park bench while a dog scratches himself, looking on at the man’s endeavors. 

A Sunoco gas station and an ice cream bar are part of the miniature display of Northern Kentucky at the Behringer-Crawford Museum. Photo by Alecia Ricker | LINK nky

Part of the idea of the display was to allow guests to imagine the intricate stories of the characters in the miniature city. The platform was an idealized version of Northern Kentucky, with Ludlow, Covington, and Cincinnati landmarks peppered throughout. The facades and buildings are recognizable, while the stories of the inhabitants are up to the beholder. 

The Behringer-Crawford Museum offers a look at the history that shaped the Northern Kentucky region in an immersive, interactive, and accessible way. 

Every person who visits can take something different from their time spent roaming the floors of the former Eubank-Devou home. For some, the reclusive location makes the destination seem daunting, readers are encouraged to travel along the narrow roads once traversed by horse and buggy, up the winding hills and across the narrow overlooks, to the very top where visitors will see the museum and its streetcar conductor greeting them, welcoming guests into a world so familiar yet different than today. 

Many of the exhibits have interactive components designed to keep little minds engaged. LEGO building stations save parents’ feet from stepping on them in the dark at home, and kids can create anything their minds can conjure up. Displays have sound, lights, and moving parts that are at kid-friendly heights, encouraging kids to push, pull, and explore. 

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The staff at the Behringer-Crawford Museum have taken great pains to provide a wide range of exhibits to attract visitors of all ages and interests. The curators understand variety is the spice of life, and purposefully host a menagerie of displays, articles, videos, and rotating exhibits for any discerning historian. 

In addition to playing host to a variety of activities designed to engage visitors, many nonprofits partner with the museum to take donations for their organizations, sponsor events, and bring awareness to their causes. The museum aims to keep visitors curious by telling the story of our region’s history while supporting our region’s future. 

Director Risch said the museum was shuttered during the pandemic. Like many organizations, some silver linings were found during the difficult circumstances. 

“The pandemic affected us similarly to most other organizations in our area. We were forced to close our doors and think of new ways to reach people in their homes. This led to us making a documentary with photographer Malcolm Wilson with whom we had planned to feature his work during the 2020 fotofocus event,” Risch said. “Instead, we went to him, photographing and documenting his life and the art behind his craft. We also began our NKY History Hour programs, an on-line weekly program featuring local guest historians presenting fascinating stories of our region’s history. And we created programming for students and take-home craft activities for the youth in our community.” 

She said that the museum is recovering, thanks to the support of the community and guests who have visited the museum since it reopened. 

“So far, this holiday season is recording attendance numbers that are reaching and most likely will exceed pre-pandemic numbers,” Risch said. 

She added that the museum plans to continue partnering with organizations and government bodies to keep the institution on an upward trajectory, including a partnership with the Kenton County Fiscal Court to curate exhibits on the Bavarian Brewery in the new administration building.  

Risch also said the museum is working on populating the building with local artists’ works “to not only enrich the space, but engage the public with local art.” 

The Behringer-Crawford has also secured funding to offer educational scholarships to area schools, and plans to take its Chippie’s Sensational Science programs outdoors to community parks to involve students during the summer months.

Starting soon, Risch said they are launching a new program, Crawford’s Curators in Training, “to excite the younger generation and develop future leadership for the continued preservation of our regional history. We will also be working on some digital programming that will be accessible via personal devices in the near future.” 

Risch finished by saying that the museum “survived thanks to the community sticking together as a team” and the pandemic has opened new opportunities and vision for “creating access to the culture and history of this region.”

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