“M” is for Museum

Gazette Article by: Laurie Starrett
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1998

Several years ago when the Minnesota Historical Society reopened its exhibit area, a unique approach was taken to interpret its history from “A to Z.” Various objects and topics were depicted by “letters,” and visitors moved through the gallery “alphabetically.” The editorial board of the Winnetka Historical Society Gazette has decided to adopt a similar technique and has added a new feature, “WINNETKA HISTORY: A to Z.”

The word “museum” is derived from the Greek word mouseion, meaning, “place of the Muses.” The spirit of Clio, the Muse of History, is alive and well in the Winnetka Historical Society’s museum, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

In 1986, responding to enthusiastic community support, the Winnetka Village Council provided funding to “establish a facility for the proper display and maintenance of historical information, memorabilia, and artifacts.” The council appointed a nine-member Winnetka Historical Museum Committee to oversee the planning and operation of a local history museum that would house and preserve the collection owned by the Winnetka Historical Society. Space in The Skokie School was rented and renovated, and founding director Trish Early was hired in 1987.

In 1988 the museum opened with its first exhibit, Winnetka: The First Fifty Years. Since then, museum staff and volunteers have mounted seven more annual or biannual exhibits. They have focused on the village’s architecture, schools, infrastructure and services, diverse natural environment, the Columbian Exposition era, the village in wartime, and the history of railroads in Winnetka. Their scope has expanded the community’s knowledge of its history while displaying a large part of the collection. Reflecting the history of the village since the mid-1800s, the 15,000-item collection includes historic costumes, photographs, documents, models of early Winnetka buildings, recorded oral histories, videotapes, and other artifacts.

Since only about five percent of the collection can be seen at one time, the changing exhibits allow a greater number of objects to be displayed, often in more than one context. Varied presentations also attract diverse audiences and visitors who return to view each new exhibit. As founding director Trish Early explained, “It’s what local history is all about—making connections, interpreting objects, telling the story.” The museum has told the story to wide acclaim; to date it has been recognized with 13 awards from state and national professional museum organizations.

The museum is also an important research resource, containing a 450-volume library, structure files chronicling the architectural history of the village, a selection of materials on renovation and restoration, a complete collection of the Winnetka Talk from 1917 to the present, and the Carleton W. Washburne Memorial Library.

Volunteers play an important role in the organization. They help museum staff research and mount exhibits, care for the collection, plan and present programs for students and adults, such as lectures, workshops, tours, and contests, and perform many clerical duties.

In 1993 the Museum Committee and the Board of Directors of the Winnetka Historical Society merged and assumed responsibility for operating the museum. Since then the Society has continued to receive generous funding from the Winnetka Village Council; the Society is responsible for raising additional monies to finance its activities.

Museum director, Maura Rogan, plans to expand the educational programs offered to Winnetka students, hoping “ . . . the museum will become a stronger presence in the community, recognized as a necessary resource.”

One of the loftiest superlatives one can use to describe an object is to say it is of “museum quality.” The village of Winnetka is fortunate to have a quality museum.

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