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Collecting Objects that Tell Kentucky History

Our state mandate charges the Kentucky Historical Society with telling the story of the people and events that are associated with the Commonwealth. We do that in many ways, including our collections. Most people expect to see pioneer artifacts or Civil War materials when they visit a history museum.

We have our fair share of those, but we want to make sure that our collections tell Kentucky’s whole story—from pioneer days to modern times; from farmer to politician. We want to provide complete stories. Muhammad Ali, the world’s greatest boxer, was also a humanitarian, civil rights advocate and peacemaker. Do we have something that tells all aspects of his story? What about environmental issues? Do we have materials that explain the arguments for and against mountain top removal? We want the items we acquire to represent people from all walks of life and periods of our history.

As part of our widening scope of collecting, we recently brought in a 1994 Corvette ZR-1 (industrial history) and a mirror that belonged to Belle Brezing, infamous madam from Lexington (social and business history). Life is messy, complicated, sometimes chaotic and never black and white. That is why our museum collections include hypodermic needles confiscated from drug-using prisoners, Nazi flags WWII soldiers from Kentucky captured, mourning clothes from the 19th century and mini-skirts from the 1960s. Incense burner? How about a pair of men’s thong underwear? “Medicinal” bourbon from prohibition? Yeah, we have all of that, too. The same applies for documents.

Our archival collection includes a diversity of items ranging from letters written by slaves to love letters from World War II, Victorian scrapbooks to photographs from the Lexington Narcotics farm. Having Abraham Lincoln’s watch is pretty darn cool, but having posters from the Women’s March last January in Lexington is just as awesome. Photographs from an eastern Kentucky missionary show us the sometimes-grueling lives of folks during the early 20th century, while a pair of baby shoes that belonged to a governor’s daughter tells the story of privilege from around the same time.

When we understand that history and its physical representatives are forever changing, we can see the need for museums to be more aware of what they are collecting. Demographics change, landscapes are transformed and the political environment varies from year to year. But all of that makes Kentucky, Kentucky. We are the sum of our parts, and it is Kentucky Historical Society’s job to collect the items that tell the stories of all of those parts.


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