The Society's Year in Review — 2009
A Message from Ellsworth Brown, The Ruth and Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society
Despite the challenges presented by an economy in recession throughout 2009, I am pleased to report that the Society made major headway on several important initiatives that will have a lasting and positive impact on our future. Along the way, we also had an opportunity to host major special events and present excellent programs and exhibits that are part and parcel of our mission to help people connect with the past by collecting, preserving and sharing stories.
In looking back at the work done in the year just ended, it is important to note that the Society, like so many businesses and all state agencies, has had to reduce expenditures. We have maintained an unprecedented number of vacant positions, thus meeting our budget reduction quota while avoiding layoffs of current employees. Remaining staff have met the resulting increased work load with pride and good cheer, and I especially want to thank them for rising to the task. In spite of such challenges, and because of the staff's great work, 2009 has also seen many successes, including these highlights:
- Preservation Storage Facility Contract Negotiations Completed
Late in December the final details of a state contract were settled with a pair of prestigious architecture and engineering firms that will plan and design a new state-of-the-art offsite preservation storage facility to house most of the Society's library, archival and museum collections. Engberg Anderson, a highly touted architecture, planning and interior design firm, and the SmithGroup, which has designed collection storage facilities for the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and five presidential libraries, will begin working with the Society this month to plan and design the state-of-the-art facility. This project marks a major milestone in the Society's history.
- Library Reading Room Renovation Nears Completion
As 2009 drew to a close, work on renovating and restoring the Society's grand Library Reading Room neared completion. Years in planning and seven months in construction, the long-anticipated project will create a state-of-the-art 21st-century library facility with all the grandeur of the original 19th-century architectural design. Light will stream into the room through a re-created stained-glass skylight while gold leaf and a richly colored paint scheme will bring out decorative details in ceiling coffers that have been hidden for decades. The renovated reading room will be a showplace of design excellence that combines the best of 19th-century aesthetics with 21st-century technology. The room should reopen to the public by early February.
- Wisconsin Survivors of the Holocaust Testimonies Go Online
In our continuing effort to make our collections available online, the Society has digitized recordings of interviews done with Wisconsin Holocaust survivors between 1974 and 1981. Anyone can now read and listen as these Holocaust survivors tell their poignant tales firsthand. Their experiences encompass a wide variety of responses to persecution, including emigrating abroad, hiding underground, working at forced labor, and surviving the death camps. Each interview presents a vivid eyewitness account of one person's odyssey through the Holocaust and immigration to Wisconsin.
- Wisconsin Historical Society Press Turns in Another Great Year
Books published by the Society Press won 16 regional and national awards in 2009, in addition to being finalists for 17 other awards. Society Press book sales continue to grow, with sales up more than 10 percent for the calendar year. The Press has documented Wisconsin's environmental heritage through best-selling titles on topics such as the history of deer hunting, the revitalization of the sturgeon population and the stories of great Wisconsin trees.
- Wisconsin's Historic Sites See Increases in Attendance and Revenue
The Society's historic sites saw total attendance and retail sales increase 9 percent compared to the same time in 2008 while total earned revenue was up more than 3 percent. Overall, nearly 191,000 people visited the 10 historic sites in 2009, spending more than $2 million in the process. A statewide promotion — Free Mondays in June — new special events, entertainment-focused programming, high customer satisfaction, lower gas prices and fairly consistent weather all contributed to the attendance and revenue increases.
- Wisconsin Historical Foundation Fundraising Remains Strong
The Wisconsin Historical Foundation raised more than $4.3 million in support of the Society between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009, representing a much-needed boost in a year characterized by tightly constrained state funding.
- Another Highly Successful Local History and Historic Preservation Conference
The third annual Local History and Historic Preservation Conference met in Wausau in October, setting a record attendance of 287 participants from 48 counties! The conference drew the record number by offering an increased number of sessions and workshops designed to address the needs and interests of both local historical societies and historic preservation groups. The conference received positive reviews from attendees who also provided valuable suggestions for subjects to be tackled at next year's conference. Be sure to save the date for the 2010 conference, to be held October 15-16 in Lake Geneva.
- Odd Wisconsin Exhibit Refreshed with New Content
In September the popular and offbeat exhibit, Odd Wisconsin, at the Wisconsin Historical Museum got a major facelift when curators revised about 40 percent of the exhibit's content by substituting new artifacts for ones that had been on exhibit since the previous fall. Odd Wisconsin takes a peek into the unexpected side of Wisconsin history through the stories of people, places and things that make our state uniquely "Wisconsin."
- "Red Power Roundup" Brings International Harvester Collectors Out in Droves
Late in July several thousand enthusiastic owners and collectors of trucks, tractors and cars manufactured by International Harvester or one of its descendant companies converged on Madison to take part in the 20th Annual Red Power Roundup. One of the highlights of the three-day show was a parade of select vehicles from the Alliant Energy Center to the Society's headquarters, which holds the McCormick-International Harvester Collection. The vehicles gathered in front of the Society's headquarters building (see photo above), where curious spectators had a chance to view them up close and talk with the owners about their passion for the classic machines.
- National History Day Has a National Winner in Laura Ball of Wauwatosa
In June Laura Ball, a student at University School of Milwaukee, emerged as a national first-place winner in the National History Day event in Maryland for her senior paper, "Cholera and the Pump on Broad Street: The Life and Legacy of John Snow." Laura's paper researched and documented the life and career of 19th-century British doctor John Snow, widely regarded as "the father of epidemiology." National History Day is a yearlong program designed to help middle- and high-school students learn how to conduct scholarly research using primary and secondary sources. The Society administers the program in Wisconsin.
- Fourth Annual History Makers Gala Honors Five Wisconsin Leaders
In May the Society honored the lifetime achievements of five top leaders with ties to the state during its Fourth Annual Wisconsin History Makers Gala in Milwaukee. The distinguished class of 2009 included: Richard L. Davis, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of bass, jazz history and combo improvisation; Harry C. "Buddy" Melges, chairman of Melges Boat Works, based in Zenda, Wisconsin; Stephen H. Marcus, chairman of the board of The Marcus Corporation, based in Milwaukee; Pleasant Rowland Frautschi, philanthropist and creator of the The American Girls Collection ® of historically accurate books, dolls and accessories; and philanthropist W. Jerome Frautschi, most well known for his generous gift that made possible Madison's Overture Center for the Arts.
These are but a few of the strides we have made in the past year toward a brighter future for the Society while serving our members, patrons, friends and constituents. It wouldn't be possible without the help we receive from a dedicated staff, our many volunteers, and the leadership of our Board of Curators. I also want to thank the staff of the Wisconsin Historical Foundation, who worked tirelessly throughout the year solely for the purpose of supporting the Society through fundraising, special events and the membership program. Thanks, too, to the Foundation's Board of Directors for its wise counsel and leadership.
Finally, I want you to know how gratifying it is to be able to share stories about the people, events and places that constitute our common Wisconsin heritage. I extend my thanks to everyone — and there are so many of you — who have worked to make what we do possible.
:: Posted January 4, 2010