A Historical Society that brings in innovative practices to celebrate history, culture, and community
by Rick Swanson
For 91 years the Historical Society of Cheshire County has been collecting, preserving, and communicating the history of Cheshire County. The Society’s headquarters are located at 246 Main Street in Keene, and we operate a historic house museum just down the street at 339 Main Street in one of Keene’s most historic buildings – the Wyman Tavern (1762).
We do all the things that other historical societies do – from archives to re-enactments. We do 150 programs per year that reach 9,000 people and help them find their place in history. And that’s not all we do. We also focus on the history that’s happening today – for example, immigration, which is one of the defining issues of our time.
The museum world is changing and we are changing with it. We fully recognize that people will not return again and again to museums that are just repositories of “old stuff”. Today people support organizations where the public can come to make discoveries about local history and culture, form connections to the past, and create their own sense of place. Our partnerships with artists, writers, and musicians are key ingredients to make that happen.
We are also committed to helping local and regional artists find markets for their work. Our Museum Shop showcases locally made items such as John Ryan’s reproductions of Shaker boxes, Meg Kupiec’s hand-woven baskets, Wayne Miller’s woodcarvings, and Lark Leonard’s birchbark ornaments.
In 2017, the Historical Society and Marlborough artist Alicia Drakiotes received a Ewing Arts Award for our collaboration on the 64 Miles art exhibit and the Treasured Places art exhibit. The Treasured Places exhibit was noteworthy not only for featuring the region’s artists, but also for bringing together the region’s communities at the intersection where art, conservation, and history meet. This year we are collaborating again with Drakiotes on the All Around Monadnock exhibit.
Look for the “Laughing Coyote” sculpture by Wendy Kemperer on the front lawn of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, and then stop inside to see the All Around Monadnock exhibit. Admission is free. The artwork features settings such as Historic Harrisville, Alyson’s Orchard, Rosaly’s Garden, Contoocook Lake, Granite Lake, the hawk watch site on the Wapack Trail, Maple Avenue in Keene, Hill Top Farm in Stoddard, and Earth Haven Farm in Marlborough. There are paintings of animals, flowers, covered bridges, churches, and squares. Other locations depicted include Dublin, Jaffrey, Marlow, Fitzwilliam, and Westmoreland. And of course it features Mount Monadnock.
Visitors can point their smartphones at QR codes next to 29 of the paintings to listen to recordings of the artists talking about what inspires them to create art. Keene High School’s Grace Phippard and Macy Woudenberg interviewed the artists to produce the QR codes. Or those who prefer the written word can read artist’s statements. Each visitor gets one vote for people’s choice award. Many of the artworks are for sale if people would rather vote with their checkbooks.
Also in conjunction with the All Around Monadnock exhibit, on Wednesday, August 8 at 7 pm, artist and author Francelia Clark will give a talk about the book she wrote with Pam Godin and Shelley Mozier -- “Circle Around the Mountain: Time Travel with Horses.” The book is a tale of a trip Clark and her companions took on horseback around Monadnock traveling on roads used by settlers long ago.
Besides with artists and makers, we have been engaging several different cultural segments of our community. We’ve had a Finnish Bread Bakeoff, an exhibit on the local Jewish experience and, a celebration of the Hindu Holi Festival of colors, a lecture series on indigenous people into the 21st century, a program on the Franco-American experience, and an evening of Italian love songs. At programs such as these, people can get to know someone from another culture and begin to trust that person. Especially now, when our lives are becoming virtual echo chambers, communities across our state need more than ever to make real human connections.
Our collaborations with cultural groups have been highlights – such as the Keene India Association and the Finnish Heritage Society-Sovittaja. Other partnerships have been struck with the business community, schools, other museums, musicians, the Jonathan Daniels Center for Social Responsibility, local historical societies, the YMCA, the Colonial Theater, the Farmers’ Market, and more.
This year the Historical Society acquired another historic building next door to the Wyman Tavern. The new building is being renovated to serve as a welcome center for the Historical Society and the region. It will also be a venue for new programs.
Look for the welcome center to open next year as part of our cultural heritage center campus. We look forward to being able to offer more for our community, and we are excited to continue developing partnerships and innovative programs that welcome everyone.
We at the Historical Society of Cheshire County owe special thanks to our sponsors: Monadnock Paper Mills, C & S Wholesale Grocers, and the Putnam Foundation.