Earlier this year I completed my third and last three-year term on the Wisconsin Historical Foundation board, where I had a bird's-eye view of our state's history caretakers in action.
I had always been a fan of the State Historical Society, dating back to the days when as a student at the UW I'd study in the second floor "reading room" in the society's headquarters building, preferring it to the Memorial Library across the street.
But my tenure on the board gave me a new appreciation for all the work that goes on behind the recording and collecting of Wisconsin's rich and colorful history — work that requires a dedicated workforce with a strong leader at the helm.
That leader for the past 13 years has been a scholarly, well-spoken and personable man named Ellsworth Brown, who became the WHS director after stints at the Chicago Historical Society, the Tennessee State Museum and the renowned Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
In those 13 years he has moved the already respected WHS up several notches, spearheading what was called the "Forward Campaign," which raised more than $77 million to make improvements not only at the society's headquarters (a restoration of the reading room, for instance) but to its many historical sites around the state and to provide seed money for a new archive facility on Madison's near east side to preserve the society's ever-growing collections for future generations. The facility, with 11 miles of shelving, was opened this month and now even contains the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile that the society acquired after the plant's closing.
What has impressed me most about Brown's tenure, however, has been his determination to include all of the state in the society's operations. Because the headquarters and the main museum are located in Madison, a perception grew that residents of the capital city enjoyed most of the benefits. Brown made sure that programs and exhibits were moved around the state and that the historical sites, from Circus World Museum to Wade House, from Villa Louis to Old World Wisconsin, received greater visibility.
Additionally, he has been the force behind efforts to replace the outdated Wisconsin Historical Society Museum on the Capitol Square (housed in the building that was once the home of Madison's most popular hardware store, Wolff, Kubly and Hirsig) with a modern interactive and technology-driven museum that could do justice to the society's vast collections.
He, unfortunately, won't be in charge when the plans are completed and the money is raised for that new building, because Brown has announced that he is retiring next March, the same month he turns 75.
In a column in the society's most recent quarterly newsletter, Brown noted he has traveled 300,000 miles over Wisconsin roads to myriad communities "that uniformly care about the powers of museums and memory to help ensure a civil society."
"The professional and daily association with amazing staff — not only skills and knowledge, but also enthusiasm, deep care, long-term commitment, imagination, a respect for our audiences and friendships — carry all of us forward," he wrote.
And no one did it better than Ellsworth Brown.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel
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