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In Depth: Behind The Scenes At The Thomas D. Clark History Center

Visitors to the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort can learn all about the commonwealth’s rich and sometimes controversial heritage through interactive exhibits, knowledgeable tour guides and of course authentic artifacts.  But as Alan Lytle recently discovered, the museum space is just a fraction of the total square footage the history center utilizes to tell Kentucky’s story.

Kentucky Historical Society Executive Director Kent Whitworth happily gave us a behind the scenes tour of the history center campus, including the massive 8,000 square foot combination warehouse and processing lab.

"You literally see everything from spinning wheels, to firearms, to the first lottery machine...it's some of the finest museum collection storage  in the country and we have the people of Kentucky to thank for that," Whitworth said.

Also on our tour was Ford Bell, the President of the American Alliance of Museums. He was in town to help the history center celebrate its A.A.M. re-accreditation.

"An accredited museum should be taking good care of the collections, it should be financially stable, but what it really comes down to is how are you impacting your community?"

Whitworth says once an object makes it to a display case, you never know how people are going to react to it.

"We looked at the Civil War through the eyes of eight different Kentuckians and their tough choices and then we asked what would you do?  This illustrates the power of artifacts and primary resources because you can get so close to not only what they did but what they were feeling and what they were thinking about....the why in all this," Whitworth explained.

One item in particular should be familiar to movie and history buffs…a pocket watch once owned by President Abraham Lincoln, which was featured in the 2012 Steven Spielberg film.

"When they first contacted us and said will you wind the watch, we were aghast, I mean are you kidding, this is a historical artifact...but then, my colleagues said it's in pristine condition, our gut tells us that it would be OK, and they tapped outside resources and they determined that it might be good for the watch.  So, they turned it to a quarter, maybe a half turn, and that watch ran maybe for twenty minutes without missing a beat," Whitworth said.

From irreplaceable timepieces, to timeless treasures, the historical society works to preserve as much of it as possible for future generations. 

"You can't save everything.  That may sound like heresy to some but because you're in the forever business and the care and feeding of these things in perpetuity is time consuming and expensive, so we've got to use discretion," said Whitworth.

One major project being undertaken right now involves cataloging some 30,000 materials associated with the Berea-based Churchill Weavers. 

"They created a prototype to do the lining inside the Mercury space suits, you go on Greyhound buses and they made the blankets for that, back in the 1960's the Johnny Carson show had a contract with Churchill Weavers to provide gifts to guests," said Whitworth.

Project registrar Deb Van Horn says it's a tremendous undertaking.

"Right now we are going back through the items and making sure the information is what it says it is.  We're getting to see a lot of cool different patterns and everything,"  said Van Horn.

But the history center would not be able to do all of this without the help of a wide variety of volunteers, including retired teacher Rosie Dorting.

"I just answered an ad in the newspaper and I thought, well I have a loom up in my attic and it was like, yes, this is perfect for me," Dorting said.

"One of the things we pride ourselves on is our volun-teens program.  It's a group of high schoolers that provide the backbone to our "Camp Artyfact" program which is presented in the fall and spring breaks as well as five or six weeks in the summer.  It's really neat because they tend to just take over the place," Whitworth said.

And even in an increasingly digital society, Ford Bell says museums, and the people who keep them going will always have a valuable role to play.

"Museums are engaged with their communities.  They are educational institutions first and foremost.  They are research institutions, but they are also community institutions and they strengthen communities in many, many ways," Bell said.

Additional information on the Clark History Center is available here.


Credit Kentucky Historical Society
Visitors can see and hear a pocket watch once owned by Abraham Lincoln which was featured in the Steven Spielberg film.