Archive for Friday, March 4, 2011

Douglas County Historical Society welcomes new director Steve Nowak

The new director of the Douglas County Historical Society, Steve Nowak, talks about his vision for the Watkins Community Museum of History. Nowak, who came from the Toledo Museum of Art, took over as director Feb. 28, 2011.

March 4, 2011


Steven Nowak is the new executive director of the Watkins Community Museum of History and the Douglas County Historical Society.

Steven Nowak is the new executive director of the Watkins Community Museum of History and the Douglas County Historical Society.

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.


mom_of_three 6 years, 11 months ago

“What has surprised me the most is the real interest and passion people have for Civil War and early territorial history,” he said. "

That's because your experience lies with art, and not history. A historian would be not surprised, especially with our area. Good luck in your new job.

irvan moore 6 years, 11 months ago

nobody in Douglas county with the background to do this?

Kookamooka 6 years, 11 months ago

No. Background and expertise, it would seem, are two different things.

blindrabbit 6 years, 11 months ago

The Museum needs a good "cleaning out", and I don't imply it is dirty, it is non-relevant. Still would like an explanation of what happened to some of the historical collections that have seemed to disappear over the years. With emphasis on the "Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area", to be housed in the old Carnegie Library, particularly interested in the rather extensive historical gun collection (D. C. Historical Society) had at one time. I've heard rumors as to what happened to the collection (involving one of the former board members). That collection should have been worth "bookoo" dollars; and would have been very appropriate for the FFNHA.

Would just like to know!!

Kookamooka 6 years, 11 months ago

I'm glad we have someone who is going to breathe life into that rusty, dusty old place. It's about time! The Antique mall had more interesting collections than the Watkins, and not only could you touch the stuff, you could BUY it! Please make that place relevant. It's the BEST building in downtown. Now if a magical fairy would wave its want so the community can raise the funds to wrest the Masonic Lodge from our cities biggest blighter-Doug Compton, Lawrence would be a historic destination. I'm sure Compton has plans to tear it down and build a 10 story multi family housing unit with retail. (that-by the way-no one will be able to afford to rent!)

Anon 6 years, 11 months ago

A National search was held to fill this position. We posted the opening on a number of local and national websites and museum/history related list serves. Almost 50 applications were received, including several local individuals. The quality of the application pool was very high. The committee (four board members plus three community members) cut the list to 12, did phone screening and then invited two finalists to visit Lawrence for interviews that included a public presentation and Q&A session. The hiring committee then reviewed all comments received from the public and made a recommendation to the full board. The board voted unanimously to hire Steve. --Dale Slusser, board president

blindrabbit 6 years, 11 months ago

Anon- Dave Slusser, board president: Please answer my inquiries in my earlier post! I have a feeling this might be a little embarrassing!

Tyson Travis 6 years, 11 months ago

Welcome aboard! Hope you can help out. Just a note for the article writer, I grew up in Lawrence and always thought the Watkins Bank Bldg. dated from 1888, if so wouldn't this make the museum bldg. 123 years old vs. 126?

BigPrune 6 years, 11 months ago

is the museum handicap accessible? the last time i was in there they had some nice cardboard displays showing our history Zzzzzzzzzzzz. it was right after i visited the heresasucka (sp?) park which used to be a perfectly nice park before it was turned japanese. an expense i'm sure justified in its re-creation, oh yes.

Kookamooka 6 years, 11 months ago

I just hope it's a museum for ALL residents of Dg. Cnty. Not just educated old people. Make if fun for kids. History is, actually, pretty fun.

FlintlockRifle 6 years, 11 months ago

We had a real good director a few years ago named Steve, hope this Steve knows as much as the last Steve about our old town and states history, good luck and welcome to Lawrence.

pimarkos 6 years, 11 months ago

congratulations!! It is wonderful that we have some one to watch over the history of Douglas County and the "treasures" that people have donated to the museum. May it flourish under your care.

jennb 6 years, 11 months ago

Dear Steve best of luck in your new endeavor! For those of us who had the privilege of serving under you in Toledo, we know you will do a fantastic job for your hometown region! Your interest in Decorative Arts and all things that relate to "stuff" will serve the people well since you've given so many tours and lectures about items that people use in their homes and why they collect what they collect. Your ability to create educational programs and fun activities for children will make the Watkins Museum a great place to go for families and school children. I know you will enhance what has already been established. We miss you but are so proud of you! Jennifer

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