Kent Whitworth is the Minnesota Historical Society’s new CEO. He’s a cheerful and optimistic fellow from Kentucky, where he headed up the Kentucky Historical Society for over a decade. Let’s all assure him that the weather is always nice and the state is always lush and colorful. Of course, he’ll find out the truth eventually, but by then he’ll be in love with the place, lacing up his snowshoes. Before that, he had a chance to chat about his views of history, museum collections and the Minnesota Vikings.
Q: It’s good that you’re coming to the MHS, instead of to a backwater state like Wisconsin or Iowa. But of course they’d say the same about us. Aren’t we all the same? Or is there something that makes Minnesota history different?
A: One of my pet peeves is artificial boundaries — they really muck up the study of history. They feel so arbitrary. But as frustrating as they can be, borders do create these fascinating sort of combinations you wouldn’t come up with otherwise. There’s a richness and an authenticity and quirkiness to this that leads to state pride and state identity. Within the state, there can be real regional rivalries, but we all close ranks more than we have to.
Q: People think historical museums are full of old, faded parchment and sepia pictures of frowning people with muskets, but anything can be historical. A shot glass from Moby Dick’s bar, a hotel key, a Native American arrowhead. What sort of nontraditional museum items would you love to acquire?
A: I’m not even sure it’s about what it is, as much as making what we’ve got more accessible. There’s more we want to find, but the immediate challenge is making what we have available.
The digitization of collections is important — if some people can’t access things virtually, they might as well not exist. But there’s no substitute for seeing the Real McCoy, putting your two feet on a historical site. I still remember going to Split Rock [Lighthouse] as a kid. That’s a secret weapon for people in public history, if you can connect with them, and don’t jam it down their throat, their journey will bring them physically to these places.
Q: Getting people’s attention in the first place sometimes takes a big hook — a date, an event. Is that necessary? Does the emphasis on marquee years given prominence by historians contort what life was really like for most people?
A: History is ubiquitous! People see their connection to the past all around them every single day, so sometimes you need these huge events to serve as attention-grabbers. But I also think that there is so much opportunity to tell equally powerful stories that may not fit into the larger narrative, that don’t fit into the quintessential themes.
As one of the board members said to me, history gets exciting when it’s personal, when you see your slice of the story, and then you can connect it to other things. I think that’s one of the things our field has realized in the last few decades — we’re in the experience business. A lot of us fell in love with the content and then took out a big stick and poked it down other people’s throats and couldn’t figure out why they didn’t like it. We have to serve up experiences centered on the people who come to learn.
Minnesota has a remarkably strong and progressive state historical society. I’m honored and humbled and excited to be joining that narrative and grateful that I’ve got some personal touch points with the history of the state, as messy as that can be. But that makes me like any other Minnesotan.
Q: Minnesotans are often seen as clannish and a bit standoffish to outsiders — the old pioneer mentality that has to size up a newcomer. You’re saying you’re no stranger to the Gopher State?
A: I have family roots in Minnesota. My mom grew up there, and her father practiced law in Minneapolis for about 50 years. We grew up vacationing in Minnesota — my grandparents had a place on Bay Lake, and we spent holidays there, as well. I understand that I don’t know cold yet, though. [He laughed.]
Q: Do you know pain? Because you need to be a Twins and Vikings fan for that.
A: I am! Not growing up in a major league community, I automatically became a Twins and Vikings fan. People in Kentucky don’t get that interlocking “TC” on the Twins logo, but in Minnesota I won’t have to adjust my casual wear at all.