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Humanities During the Pandemic

Kenosha Historical Society & Museums

Kenosha, Wisconsin, is a city with a rich history. Its harbor on Lake Michigan brought the very first settlers to the region and has brought many types of industry.

 

Visitors to the Kenosha Historical Society and Museums can experience this history by visiting its two buildings: the Southport Light Station Museum and the Kenosha History Center. While the former focuses on the town’s maritime and harbor history, the latter features various exhibits. By far the most popular is an exhibit about the region’s automaking history.

“There’s over 110 years of automaking here in Kenosha,” says Executive Director Chris Allen. One of first automakers in the country, Thomas B. Jeffery, started making automobiles in Kenosha in 1902. That company was sold to Nash, and eventually became AMC, or the American Motors Corporation. Every three years, Kenosha Historical Society and Museums hosts the world’s largest AMC and Nash car show. It’s a unique event that draws visitors from around the world and brings history to life—in the form of gorgeous, gleaming classic cars, of course. Events like this can also forge some unique human connections.

“In its heyday, American Motors was employing about 15,000 people here in Kenosha,” Allen explains. “There are still a lot of people here who lived and breathed that history.” He recalls listening to conversations at the car show, where former workers admire collectors’ cars and say things like, ‘Oh yeah, I put that nut and bolt on that car.’

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Historical Societies’ buildings had to temporarily close, and many popular events, including the car show, were cancelled or postponed. The revenue that usually comes from visitor donations and fees was suddenly gone. To steer his organization through the crisis, Allen applied for a CARES grant from Wisconsin Humanities.

“Our goal the whole time was to keep everybody employed,” Allen says. Seven staff members keep the Kenosha Historical Society and Museums running like a well-oiled machine, and CARES grant funds allowed them all to keep their jobs.

“The CARES grant funds have given us continuity,” Allen says. “We’re able to keep our staff employed and keep working on our mission, which is to preserve the past so we can teach the future.”

It’s a good thing, because there’s a lot of work to be done. Staff members have spent months planning a safe reopening of their brick-and-mortar buildings. At the same time, they’re planning ahead for how to hold events that will allow for plenty of physical distancing.

Of course, being an organization devoted to history means the staff is also planning for how to preserve the history of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We live in historic times,” Allen says. “2020 will go down in the history books. It’s important to collect that history so that other generations can learn from it.”

To learn more about Kenosha Historical Society and Museums, visit their website at http://www.kenoshahistorycenter.org/.

Funding for these grants has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act economic stabilization plan.