Richmond native returns to lead Wayne County history museum
RICHMOND, Ind. (AP) — For Karen Shank-Chapman, the artifacts that fill the Wayne County Historical Museum are more than just relics of ages past. Each item is one passage in the story of life in the county and beyond.
To her, the museum offers a chance for everyone to find a connection to their own family history.
“I really believe that anyone can walk through our door and find a part of themselves here that maybe they didn’t know was here to begin with, and that is so awesome,” she said.
It’s a belief born from her own experience as a little girl growing up in Richmond. It’s part of the pull that she felt during her years living in Indianapolis later in life. A persistent tug that kept her finding excuses for making work “field trips” to Wayne County.
And it’s a conviction that has only been reinforcedThis is an AP-Indiana Exchange story. since she took over as the Wayne County Historical Museum’s executive director on May 3.
“I am a self-proclaimed museum geek. It’s in my blood,” Shank-Chapman said. “My family — especially those from Wayne County — have had a very deep connection to the history of the area. So I kind of grew up hearing those stories and things like that.”
One of her earliest memories is coming to the museum with her “papaw” and seeing the Egyptian mummy. Her dad also would take her on rainy weekend days when the itch to get out and do something made everyone a little squirrelly.
“We would come and we would have such a wonderful time just talking and learning,” Shank-Chapman said.
When she was in fourth grade, Shank-Chapman joined the history club at Seton — called Little Hoosiers — at the encouragement of her teacher, the late Brenda King.
“Through that I developed a true appreciation for the wonders of Wayne County, and for the first time, I realized that I was part of that story too,” she said.
Her Little Hoosiers certificate hangs in her office, a reminder that she’s walking the right path for her life.
“While Mrs. King is no longer with us, I would like to think she would be proud to know one of her Little Hoosiers was not only inspired by her but is now sharing history with other kids from Wayne County,” Shank-Chapman said.
After her parents separated when she was 12, Shank-Chapman moved to Indianapolis with her mom, while still making visits to Wayne County to see her dad and other family.
She eventually graduated from high school and went to IUPUI to get a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and archaeology, the latter of which was inspired by her trips to see the museum’s mummy.
Shank-Chapman later received a grant to go to New Orleans and document oral histories of those who had returned home after Hurricane Katrina, “which I could kind of relate to because I felt that same connection to Richmond myself.”
″(New Orleans) is another place that kind of speaks to my heart,” Shank-Chapman said. “I see a lot of connections between Richmond and New Orleans, especially with the jazz.”
After that, she pursued a master’s degree in museum studies from IUPUI, leading to a job as an educator at the Indiana State Museum. There, she found opportunities to tell “countless” stories about Wayne County.
“My friends always teased me because not only was I constantly talking about this place, but I was bringing all of my colleagues here regularly for ‘field trips’ from work,” Shank-Chapman said before bursting out laughing.
It was a friend of hers that alerted Shank-Chapman to the open director position at the Wayne County Historical Museum. Jim Harlan, the museum’s leader for 13 years, was retiring.
“I had a friend of mine tell me, ‘You’ll never guess what position just opened up, and if you don’t apply for it, I might have to come over there and force you to,’” Shank-Chapman said.
The two worked to put together Shank-Chapman’s cover letter and resume, believing that although she hadn’t been a museum director yet, she had all the skills necessary to do the job.
“I sent it off with my fingers crossed, and believe it or not, I got a call to come in for an interview. I just immediately felt like this was the right place at the right time,” she said.
As she got to know the volunteers and board members that make the museum work day in and day out, Shank-Chapman became more convinced this was the place for her.
“To find that many people who are this vested in this museum and that love it and are so passionate about it, that is a rarity you don’t find in many places at all. So I definitely wanted to be part of that,” she said.
The call with the job offer came on April 1, the significance of which was not lost on Shank-Chapman when she answered the phone.
“When they called to offer me the job, it was April Fool’s Day, so I was kind of like, ‘Are you guys serious?’,” she laughed.
“It has exceeded my expectations. I was able to kind of walk right in and feel right at home.”
Shank-Chapman has spent her first weeks in the job starting to get herself out into the community. One of her most important tasks is fundraising for the museum, making sure there’s enough money coming in to not only keep the building in operation but provide programming and other events.
“Luckily, I still have a lot of community connections here, but you can never have too many,” she said.
As for her vision of the museum’s overall mission, Shank-Chapman wants to emulate founder Julia Meek Gaar.
“I really believe in her mission to not only educate Wayne County residents about the rest of the world but to bring Wayne County to the rest of the world and really make those connections,” she said.
“I truly believe that anybody that may visit this museum from anywhere in the world can find a connection to themselves here.”
In the months and years to come, Shank-Chapman would like to increase programming to offer more events such as a summer camp next year. She also wants to revitalize and rehouse many of the collections and get the items organized for more exhibits.
A new storage facility recently was constructed one block north of the main museum building. Much of the furniture collection is housed there in a climate-friendly environment. An older building next door to the new one was torn down this week to make room for another parking lot.
But for now, Shank-Chapman continues to settle in at the museum, having finally answered that steady call to come home.
“I think that the history and the connection is what it is on the surface, but I believe there’s some deeper reason,” she said. “I feel like everything has come full circle now. Everything that I have been interested in and studied and read and wrote about in my lifetime, it all makes sense.”
Source: (Richmond) Palladium-Item
Information from: Palladium-Item, http://www.pal-item.com