Since 1998, the Angel Museum has offered visitors a glimpse at roughly 7,000 angels of every conceivable shape, size and style.
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The collection itself started in 1976 when museum founder Joyce Berg and her husband, Lowell, bought a small Italian figurine of two angels on a see-saw while vacationing in Florida.
Since then, it has expanded to include a number of different collections, including roughly 600 black angels donated by Oprah Winfrey. Despite their traditionally Christian association, the angels are meant to represent joy and goodness in the world rather than any specific theology.
The Angel Museum is the only collection of its kind in the world, according to Berg.
While there is an angel museum in Japan, the collections there are mostly made up of paintings and pictures rather than the figurines that adorn the interior of this former Beloit church. In 2001, the Angel Museum made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest collection of its kind, a record that remains unbroken to this day.
These days, the museum is celebrating other milestones. This year marks the 100th anniversary of St. Paul’s Church, the building that houses the collection.
Celebrations include commemorative labels and a public fundraising dinner in October to honor the actual day that the church was finished. The museum itself has been up and running for 16 years, although the level of success has varied. Berg remembers that in the early days. “The economy was wonderful, and the bus tours were very plentiful,” she said.
Indeed, it was these bus tours full of senior citizen travel groups that have traditionally provided the bulk of the income for the Angel Museum. However, attendance dropped off during the great recession as the number of bus tours decreased.
But Berg said that the numbers have started picking up again. A group of 50 from Michigan visited last week, and a group of 30 from Pennsylvania are scheduled to arrive next week. She added that there is a steady stream of visitors from the surrounding towns and even as far away as the Chicago suburbs. Additional revenue comes from selling souvenirs, including a cookbook with recipes from locals, members of the Angel Collector’s Club and many other contributors.
The visitors are all the more important because the museum is a nonprofit organization that is staffed entirely by volunteers, many of whom are affiliated with the nonprofit organization St. Paul’s by the River.
There also are two employees hired through the W.I.S.E. Foundation, which promotes community involvement through engagement with local organizations. A committee of 12 trustees oversees the business side of things, including maintaining and improving revenue. Berg explained that although the museum is first and foremost a tourist attraction, and as such operates with financial goals in mind, it also is a vital part of the community.
“If we can just get people into town, then they can partake in our town,” she says, citing the use of restaurants and hotels by visitors. Indeed, the president of the museum, Shauna El-Amin, is also executive director of the Downtown Beloit Association. El-Amin, whose duties include overseeing the volunteers and employees as well as heading the board, estimates that 1,000 guests visit the museum each year, although this doesn’t account for the people who regularly rent the café for special events.
She cited the typical visitors as tourists from the Midwest and the occasional visiting businessperson working with one of Beloit’s many industries. This is a far cry from the mostly local clientele of the early days. Over the first two years, the museum had close to 10,000 guests.
“When we first opened it was new, it was exciting, a lot more people from the community came,” she said.
Over time, the numbers dropped to their current rate due to the struggling economy and the lack of novelty. She also mentioned the museum’s focus on promoting themselves to the wider world, particularly through the Internet. The board member in charge of marketing is working to generate more visitors to the museum’s official website and Facebook page.
“I think definitely the uniqueness is what keeps bringing people in,” El-Amin said.
Berg also cited distinctiveness as a crucial part of the place. Indeed, one of the rules for determining which figurines go on display is whether or not they are original in design.
“They aren’t duplicates, and that’s what makes it very different,” she said.
In the end, Berg, like the rest of the museum’s supporters, has a simple dream for the years to come: “Our hope for the future is that we will be able to be here.”