The Douglas County Historical Society will hold a reception for the public to meet its new director Steve Nowak. The reception will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Watkins Museum, 1047 Mass.
Steve Nowak’s new “office” is a 126-year-old former bank with stained-glass windows, intricately carved wooden window sills and brass door hinges.
As the new director of the Douglas County Historical Society, Nowak is tasked with encouraging others to visit that office, the Watkins Community Museum of History, and the artifacts it holds.
Monday was the first day on the job for Nowak, who came to Lawrence from Ohio with more than 22 years of experience at the Toledo Museum of Art.
Dale Slusser, president of the Douglas County Historical Society Board, said the board was looking for someone who could provide programming, increase educational outreach efforts and curate exhibits. Nowak had all of those skills, and Slusser hopes they will breathe new life into the museum.
“What we really need at this moment in history of the historical society is a leader with confidence who can lead us through some pretty dramatic transformations,” Slusser said.
During the past decade, the museum has struggled with declining membership and funding. Since 2008 the historical society and museum have been without a full-time leader. At that time, museum director Rebecca Phipps was dismissed as the board attempted to reorganize the nonprofit. Former Lawrence City Manager Mike Wildgen has acted as interim director since, making sure the bills were paid and handling other business for the society.
With Nowak, Slusser said the historical society hopes to focus on creating programming and changing exhibitions at the museum.
“The cornerstone is educational — and to do that you have to get people into the building,” Slusser said.
In Toledo, Nowak was most recently director of education and community outreach and a curatorial consultant in decorative arts. He oversaw school tours, teacher resources, art classes, public programs and outreach programs.
In Lawrence, Nowak hopes to create resources that can be used in classrooms throughout the state and is working with a class at Kansas University for a museum exhibit that will include public involvement.
While Nowak’s experience lies with art, not history, he said a history museum’s artifacts aren’t that much different from pieces in an art museum.
“You look at things and learn to read them in such a way that tells you what was important and what (people’s) aspirations were, what they believed and what life was like 100 years ago,” Nowak said.
One area where Nowak has some catching up to do is uncovering Lawrence’s rich history. The St. Louis native already has been given a long list of reading recommendations. And he has quickly learned that Lawrence residents take the city’s early days seriously.
“What has surprised me the most is the real interest and passion people have for Civil War and early territorial history,” he said.