Webinar: Interpreting Native American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites

The Interpreting Native American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites webinar will provide strategies for engaging with Native Americans beyond the legal framework of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), in order to work collaboratively, share authority, and incorporate multiple ways of knowing about the past into all interpretation about Native people, objects, histories, and cultures.

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Iowa State Curator Jerome Thompson Retires

AASLH Member Since 1985
and 2014 Leadership in History Award Winner for Individual Achievement

DES MOINES – The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) announced the retirement of State Curator Jerome Thompson, who has served in nearly every leadership position during his 33-year career with the State Historical Society of Iowa (SHSI), a division of DCA. Thompson’s retirement is effective July 2, 2015.

“I want to thank Jerome for his service to Iowans and the State Historical Society of Iowa,” DCA Director Mary Cownie said. “Jerome has had a long and successful career and has been a bedrock not only for the department but also as a steward for Iowa history and for Iowans across the state for more than three decades. We are grateful for his exceptional service to Iowans and we wish him all the best in retirement.”

“Jerome has been a trusted friend, colleague and advisor to Iowans, groups, organizations and others involved with Iowa history during the course of his career,” SHSI Administrator Susan Kloewer said. “I invite all Iowans to join me in thanking him for his commitment and passion for our state’s history. We congratulate him on a distinguished and rewarding career, and wish him well in retirement.”

An Ames native, Thompson graduated from Iowa State University in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and a minor in Journalism/Mass Communications. In 1977, he received a Master of Arts in Museum Science with an emphasis in Archaeology from Texas Tech University.

He took his first position with the Minnesota Historical Society, working at Fort Snelling – a historic site in Minneapolis/St.Paul – until July 4, 1978.

“On July 5th, I got on a plane in Minneapolis at 7 a.m., landed in Des Moines at 7:45 a.m., and started my new job at Terrace Hill at 8 a.m.,” Thompson said. “I arrived just as the tours at Terrace Hill were getting underway and reviewed site documents for the rehabilitation work being done at the Governor’s Mansion.”

In 1982, Thompson became Sites Coordinator for the State Historical Society of Iowa, where he managed Iowa’s three historic sites – Montauk, Toolesboro Mounds and Abbie Gardner Sharp Cabin. During the next 18 years, he oversaw the addition of five more historic sites to the state’s collection: the Matthew Edel Blacksmith Shop, Blood Run National Historic Landmark, American Gothic House, the Western Historic Trails Center and Plum Grove.

In 1986, he also became Director of the State Historical Museum of Iowa and managed the development of exhibitions at the new State Historical Building, which opened to the public in 1987.

In 2004, he was named State Curator, a role that returned him to managing the day-to-day activities at SHSI’s eight historic sites and providing technical assistance and advise to Iowa’s local historical organizations. He also filled the roles of SHSI’s Interim State Archivist and Interim Administrator. He also served on the board of the Iowa Museum Association in numerous capacities, including president in 1990-1992.

Among his many career highlights, Thompson identifies several milestones:

  • Opening the new State Historical Building in 1987
  • The award-winning “Hay Days: The Horse in Iowa History” and “A Few of Our Favorite Things: 100 Creations of the 20th Century” museum exhibitions that received recognition from the American Association for State and Local History
  • Hosting one of the first World Food Prize conferences and award ceremonies in the State Historical Building in 1994 that offered him an opportunity to take President Jimmy Carter, Hugh Sidey and Norman Borlaug on a tour of museum exhibits. Sidey was a Greenfield, Iowa, native and journalist who covered the White House and American Presidency for nearly 50 years. Borlaug was a Cresco, Iowa, native and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom

Thompson, however, finds his greatest professional accomplishment closer to home.

“The repatriation of human remains and cultural objects back to our Native American tribes and working with the Iowa Tribe of Kansas, Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, Winnebago, Meskwaki and Lower Sioux Dakota has been deeply rewarding,” he said. “We’re talking about items that were brought into the (SHSI) collection beginning in the late 1800s through the 1950s. Those items need to be treated respectfully and repatriated, and not treated as scientific specimens.”

In retirement, Thompson plans to fish for trout in Northeast Iowa; volunteer for projects; travel with his wife, Gretchen; and visit his son, Grant, who is working toward a doctorate in horticulture at Cornell University.

State Historical Museum Curator Leo Landis will add the duties of State Curator to his current position and SHSI will be hiring a Sites Manager this summer to oversee Iowa’s eight historic sites.

More information about the State Historical Society of Iowa is available at www.iowahistory.org.


Everybody Has to Eat Lunch, and Other Lessons on Stakeholder Engagement

I’ve written a couple of posts recently about a program at the Alexander Ramsey House in Saint Paul called History Happy Hour. History Happy Hour is one of the new programs at a dynamic site with a very rich history that came out of a revitalization project. The Ramsey Redevelopment Project used audience research and stakeholder engagement to explore options for new programs and interpretations, new revenue streams, and new operations.

August 8 Blog Post

A thing to know about Alexander Ramsey is that his legacy is a checkered one. He was a father, a husband, a popular politician, but was also responsible for some of the most controversial American Indian treaties and policies in our early state history. His words, decisions and policies are still talked about, often cited in letters to the editor about our state’s relationship with tribal governments and Native peoples. For many people, the words “Alexander Ramsey” are emotionally charged. So when we started working on a revitalization project for the house museum bearing his name, we made it a priority to include perspectives from local American Indian communities in the process - in our surveys, focus groups and as a member or members of our advisory steering committee. This was a consultant-led project, but I was responsible for finding potential steering committee members.

I got in touch with a local group called Saint Paul Indians in Action and they were kind enough to let me attend one of their meetings and put the steering committee membership request on the table for members’ consideration. It was, frankly, terrifying because I knew what kind of reception I’d probably get. I went and tried to explain what we were up to: trying to find a more sustainable future for this historic site; trying to tell a fuller story; trying to include the community as much as possible. The response was tepid at best. One man looked me right in the eyes and told me that this historical figure was responsible for the extermination of his people. Everyone else was pretty quiet. But one man named John asked me a couple of follow-up questions and voiced his belief that history is important and that the people who get to tell the stories are in a powerful position. He introduced himself to me after the meeting; I got his email address and followed up a couple of days later. I asked John whether he would consider being a part of our advisory steering committee. He responded by inviting me to lunch to talk about it.

That first lunch was gut-wrenching. He was really challenging me, the organization I work for, and the validity of a house museum and a project that I was really excited and passionate about. But we continued to meet over the next months. Long story short, John eventually agreed to be a member of the committee (though he took issue with a lot of the basic principles of the project and voiced those concerns regularly). That project ended, but we still meet for lunch about once a month. He asked me recently what, if anything, I’ve learned from him. Good question. Here’s what I think I’ve learned.

Ask for help. John told me that the reason he agreed to even listen to what I had to say was that he respected the courage it took for me to sit in that room of strangers and ask for help. It sounds obvious, but in retrospect it was a pretty terrifying moment that I could have easily avoided. This has made me realize the importance of being professionally, intellectually, and emotionally vulnerable.

Ask real questions. Ask open-ended questions. Before ever asking the group to be a part of the project, I probably should have asked them what they think about the historical figure. Or about history. Or about what matters to them.

Cultural differences matter and you should know about them. John gave me a great book about working with Indian people that laid out some basic cultural differences I didn’t know existed. Like maybe don’t always look people in the eyes. Or interrupt them to “add something” because you’re excited. And just because someone isn’t speaking up or voicing an opinion, it doesn’t mean that they agree with you. You just haven’t asked them the right question yet.

Relationships are important. When I ask John how my organization can be better about building a relationship with American Indian communities, he says that more of us should be doing what the two of us are doing: having lunch, getting to know each other and talking – sometimes about history and sometimes not. I let him know that people will say they’re too busy – especially for something with no clear outcome. He said, “Everybody has to eat lunch.” Which is true.

Be willing to start down a path even when you’re not sure where it will take you. John says that a problem at my organization is that we work according to projects. We want clearly defined timelines and outcomes. We’re uncomfortable starting conversations or building relationships that might be extraneous to our daily work. But this is necessary if we want to build sustainable bridges with community groups. Because then it feels more like real investment instead of superficial pandering to enlist people in your own projects.

Be patient. It’s not always clear what community engagement or relationship-building is doing for you. But we should try to trust the process. Even – and maybe especially - when it isn’t a process that we’ve defined ourselves.


Rachel Abbott is Program Associate for Historic Sites and Museums at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. You can visit the Alexander Ramsey House during the AASLH Annual Meeting September 17-20.