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Re-imagining Hennepin History Museum

September 13, 2016

When Cedar Imboden Phillips stepped into her new role as the Hennepin History Museum’s director in 2014, it was a dream in the making for the University of Minnesota graduate. Though her career had taken her to a variety of different jobs prior to the offer, she decided to stay here in Minneapolis. Between event planning, budgeting, and curating new exhibits, Phillips and her staff work tirelessly, bringing to life the stories of an older Minneapolis that most people are unaware of.

“I volunteered here in college, and so I knew it had a fantastic collection,” Phillips explains. “I also knew it was under-appreciated and not very well known. We have vast archives of journals, ledgers, historic photographs, and paper-based documents, but we also have 15,000 square feet of stuff—of objects and things relating to Hennepin County history. It is really amazing.”

Since the beginning of her academic career, Phillips knew she wanted to study history and people, receiving her undergraduate degree in history and Scandinavian studies from the University of Minnesota. She went on to get her masters degree in museum studies through the Winterthur Program in early American culture at the University of Delaware, where she learned about curating and working with historical artifacts up close and personally. “The Winterthur Program is an object based, hybrid program. It’s art history, English, anthropology, architecture, American studies… primarily it's history and art history, but they believe the approach should be interdisciplinary, which is what I wanted,” she says, connecting her master’s experience back to her interdisciplinary undergraduate studies in the College of Liberal Arts. This education set her up for a successful career in museum curation, which according to Phillips, is exactly what she wanted to do.

Her passion for the Hennepin History Museum has brought a new fire to the organization, which has almost doubled its attendance just within the past year. Through collaborations with different county programs–such as the Cycle Museum of Minnesota, which shares stories of high wheel bikes dating back to the 1880s–the museum has become a new destination for visitors and historians alike. As a way of catering to different audiences, they have created a variety of events, such as Fireside Chats  and educational summer camps for children interested in history. On the third Friday of every month, the museum hosts an “after hours” event, where adults are invited to come in and enjoy music, drinks, and activities.

Besides preserving the histories of Hennepin county, Phillips also strives to push the museum forward. “We’re laying the groundwork for the future, and I’d like us to be cutting edge,” she says, describing the museum’s commitment to expansion and public relations.“Because we’re small, we’re a little more nimble and we can move faster than the big places.” Through the creation of attention-grabbing exhibits such as “Hennepin County Wags its Tail: 150 Years of People and Their Pets,” the museum has all of the right components to draw people in. With the strategic use of social media and community outreach, they on the right track to accomplishing future goals.

The other interesting aspect of Hennepin History Museum that Phillips is especially enthusiastic about is the sheer amount of artifacts and preserved history that has yet to be researched. She and the rest of the staff are excited and hopeful that more members of the community will use the museum as a resource for their own historical studies.

“Thinking back to my own time as an undergrad, I remember looking for original research projects,” Phillips says. “We have things here in our archives and artifact collections that no one else has studied, and I think that’s really exciting. If someone wants an opportunity to do real, original research that hasn’t already been done by a million people, they can come in here. This is 15,000 square feet filled with stories.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.