Archive for Sunday, March 16, 2003

New director brings order to museum

March 16, 2003


Nearly a month into her job as director of the Watkins Community Museum of History, Rebecca Phipps knows that her work is virtually imperceptible to the general public.

But as her subtle changes -- a policy shift here, a reorganization effort there -- work their way through the Douglas County-owned building at 1047 Mass., it seems museum patrons and countless others have had other ideas.

"I've had a lot of people call me, a lot of letters from people welcoming me to the community," said Phipps, who started Feb. 18 at the museum. "People have been really excited about making changes and the future of the museum. It's just been real positive."

Phipps' hiring opens up a new chapter for the Douglas County Historical Society, whose leaders hope to close the book on a dark period in the museum's storied history.

Phipps, 28, is the museum's first full-time director since the demotion and departure of longtime administrator and historian Steve Jansen, whose tenure sharply divided the historical society's membership and riled some of the group's biggest contributors.

In the end, pressure from Douglas County commissioners -- whose tax-supported annual contribution of $58,000 accounts for more than a third of the museum's overall budget -- forced the society's board to make a change. No longer could society leaders endure dwindling donations, disorganized displays and a downturn in community investment.

"I'm happy," said Jere McElhaney, a Douglas County commissioner. "I'm glad we've gotten off center ground and are moving in a new direction. "It's going to take time, but there was a need for change. It was only obvious. And now we're definitely headed in the right direction."

Leading the way is Phipps, who was curator and assistant director of the Carroll House Museum in Leavenworth, where she oversaw and managed a collection of 36,000 photographic prints and negatives, many captured in glass.

Meticulously organized, Phipps is bringing an increased sense of order to resources at Watkins. Among her first orders of business was to retool the way materials were filed.

"Previously, the filing system was alphabetical," she said, noting that finding materials about a particular insurance agent in the early 1900s would require looking in a variety of different files: the agent's name, the company's name or a particular topic, such as medical insurance.

"Now, the filing system is more by subject," she said. "Now anything dealing with insurance of any kind is under a general topic: insurance. That's something people may not notice, but the way it's set up now ensures that every document pertaining to insurance will be in one location, instead of three or four."

Phipps said she also was busy revising the museum's "outdated" policy for reproducing copies of photos, documents and other materials. The museum's basement-level community room will get a fresh coat or two of paint during the next two months, helped along by donated materials and labor.

And Phipps said that's only the beginning.

"Ideally, within a year, we'll do a massive fund-raising campaign," she said. "There are a lot of things to be dealing with, and they're varying in size, significance and priority. Any place that's been without a director for this long will have a lot of issues that have not been dealt with."

She doesn't hide from the list of tasks, which seems to grow with each passing day.

"It's not frustrating," Phipps said. "It's to be expected."

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