Our View: Expanded historical gaze ties into future

Archivist Krista Lewis oversees the cataloging of items in the Olmsted History Center archives.

With an anniversary to celebrate and an end to a recent string of personnel changes that stymied events, fundraising and visitor numbers, the History Center of Olmsted County is in a good place to carry out its mission of helping the community understand its past and how that ties into its future.

For 90 years, the Historical Society of Olmsted County has distilled wisdom out of knowledge and artifacts. Incoming society president Doug Boese wants to spread that wealth to more people.

The society has named a handful of goals moving forward, including structural updates to buildings on its campus, more frequent exhibit rotations and a push to document more of the area's immigrant groups. The society's sale of the historic Mayowood mansion frees it from significant financial responsibilities, and its aim to parlay that freedom into an expanded focus on community outreach and involvement is laudable. The center holds Movies Under the Stars in July and August and hosts the annual Hambone Music fest, but despite those events and others, a large swath of the public simply doesn't know what's out there.

"Grandma's attic," a vault of documents at the center known as a treasure trove for genealogy researchers, has helped numerous people connect to the narratives of their ancestors, thanks to zealous tending by volunteer archivists.

Rochester's history is a fabric rich with immigrant groups yet to gain representation in the center's records, though. Among groups the center hopes to include are Russian Jews, Eastern Bloc immigrants, Somalis, Sudanese, Ethiopian and Hmong peoples. Adding their stories to the impressive archive is a goal we salute.


Boese aims to "try to make history more alive for the younger generation, especially for some of the more recent immigrants. What happened with the northern Europeans in the 1700s, 1800s, early 1900s, does it affect them? Probably not."

He says the community will see some similarities between the reasons immigrant groups moved to Rochester, such as religious persecution and economic opportunity. Drawing parallels between different immigrant groups is just as important as drawing parallels between past and present eras.

The center also plans to display things from the more recent past, another good play for more visitors. In an era where TV shows like "Mad Men" and "Fargo" mine the kitsch and style of decades past, the move could draw in a new audience, hungry to understand contextual details.

Similarly, a traveling exhibit of Hmong textiles, coming in January, is a way to bridge the distance between today's youth and the dramatic stories of their elders. Boese wants to involve the local Hmong population in coordination with the exhibit to add some local context.

The expanding effort helps us look to our past while facing continued change today, which is why we like what Boese had said: "I think it's important for people to understand where you came from and why you're here, so that you can really understand what the world is about."

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