Preserving, protecting and presenting history in a pandemic

County historical societies, while shut to the public since late March, have not been idle during the COVID-19 pandemic. The mission of collecting and preserving history has continued and now some societies and museums are starting the process of reopening.

Nicole Elzenga, director of the Renville County Historical, explains the changes she and staff have made to the museum to make it as safe as possible for visitors. The museum is now open by appointment only, after being closed for weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other county historical societies in the area are also beginning the process of reopening. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR โ€” These are historic times. No matter where one lives the coronavirus pandemic has changed much of everyday life. In the months, years and decades to come people will want to look back to see how the COVID-19 outbreak played out in society. For the historians of the future to have access to that information, the historians of today need to collect it.

At the county level that will fall primarily to the county historical societies.

"History, everyday is being created, whether we know it or not," said Celeste Suter, director of the Chippewa County Historical Society in Montevideo. "It is kind of scary. It feels like such a big responsibility to be documenting what is going on."

Museums closed

The county societies been going through an unparalleled time, with the pandemic shutting their doors to the public since late March. The decision to close wasn't necessarily difficult for some of the societies, as many of their members, employees and visitors are older and fall into high risk categories regarding COVID-19. Societies also canceled most of their events and programming for the spring and fall.

"I didn't want to expose people to this," Suter said.


Recently the Governor's Executive Order has allowed museums to begin to reopen at limited capacity. The Renville County Historical Society in Morton has opened its doors, by appointment only. There have been changes made to the museum, including removing items visitors were allowed to touch, recommending wearing masks while in the museum and deciding which outbuildings could still be available for viewing.

"We've been having huge discussions about this. Things you haven't had to deal with before," said Nicole Elzenga, director of the Renville County Historical Society.

Kandiyohi County plans to reopen on July 1 and is currently working on getting the Willmar museum ready for visitors while allowing for social distancing. They have also had to make changes to how the society will mark the county's 150th anniversary. A lot of what was supposed to have been done this year will now take place in 2021.

"It is just going to be a little bit different," said Jill Wohnoutka, director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.

The Chippewa County Historical Society, along with the Swensson Farm and the historic village will remain closed for the time being.

"We are not going to make a decision to open until sometime in July," Suter said, adding the decision will also depend on the number of cases in the county and whether they've been on the downward slide for at least two weeks. "Our utmost priority is the health of our staff, volunteers and our visitors."

Keeping history alive

The historical societies have been trying to keep the public engaged, mostly through social media channels. Societies have participated in events such as the Museum Alphabet and are sharing the county history by highlighting historic markers, sharing information about photos or items at the museum and even offering online jigsaw puzzles for the public to interact with.

"They are learning. Our mission is to tell the story and this is a way to tell the story," Wohnoutka said.


Due to the pandemic, the annual visits by school children were canceled, along with many other events and programs. The hope is all of those things will start back up, but society directors are also making plans if they don't.

"I am trying to plan out some virtual events," Elzenga said.

So far the societies are doing alright financially, though cancellations have hurt. Memberships, donations and Paycheck Protection loans have helped in the short term. Suter is more worried if the Chippewa County's two biggest events โ€” the horse power show at the Swensson Farm and Christmas in the Village โ€” are called off later this year.

"If we can't hold those, it might become a concern," Suter said.

With the extra time the closures have created, the society staff have been able to turn their attention to projects that usually get pushed to the side during the busy season.

"We are really focusing on maintenance and upkeep," Suter said.

Saving today's history for tomorrow

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Minnesota, the directors of the historical societies began looking to the past, specifically the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918-1919 and the polio outbreaks of the 1950s, to share the history with the public and perhaps put on exhibits. Unfortunately there wasn't a lot to find, as the newspapers, photos and artifacts of the time were not preserved.

"When history happens in your backyard, you sometimes forget about it, it is not remembered," Elzenga said.


The societies are hoping to avoid that with COVID-19. They have been preserving local newspapers and collecting artifacts.

"I am thinking of the person in 50 or 75 years who wants to do an exhibit on COVID-19," Wohnoutka said. "Because this will be one of those things they will want to tell the story again and again."

The historical societies are also asking for the public's help.

"There is nothing like the personal accounts that really invoke emotion in people and it helps people learn about the topic," Wohnoutka said.

Those who would like to share their stories with their respective county historical societies should visit the websites and social media pages, or give the society a call. The Kandiyohi and Renville County historical societies have COVID-19 questionnaires on their website, while Chippewa County has a list of questions available on its Facebook page.

"We are trying to gather this information, on how this is impacting peoples' lives," Suter said. "We're trying to track that. It is definitely part of history."

While being closed has put a damper on what is usually a busy season for historical societies, it has also given them an opportunity to serve their communities in other ways. Organizers hope it will show the public how they can assist the historical societies, by being on the front lines of history and helping to record it.

"We really have to collect everyday like we are in a historic time," Wohnoutka said. "We need to collect it while it is happening or it is lost forever."


The historical societies are looking forward to the day they can reopen their doors fully and welcome the public back. Until then they will continue their missions of collecting and telling their county's histories.

"We certainly miss our visitors," Suter said. "That is why we are here, to share history with people."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email or direct 320-214-4373.

What To Read Next
Get Local