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New museum leader wants to bring past alive for the young

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Carrie Birge, the new director of the Johnson County Museum of History, poses Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 inside the museum. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Carrie Birge, the new director of the Johnson County Museum of History, poses Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 inside the museum. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Carrie Birge, the new director of the Johnson County Museum of History, poses Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 inside the museum. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Carrie Birge, the new director of the Johnson County Museum of History, poses Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 inside the museum. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Tucked in glass cases and displays of the Johnson County Museum of History are artifacts dating back to the 1820s.

Spear points, Civil War rifles and World War II soldiers’ uniforms are arranged in separate exhibits. Each relic is valuable in bringing a period of history alive.

That’s because every item in the museum is connected to the lives and stories of real people.

“It’s not just a bunch of dusty cases and an old gun rack. There are real connections to real people, to anyone who comes in,” said Carrie Birge.

Tapping into those personal tales is Birge’s focus as the new director of the Johnson County Museum of History. She has done everything from working with NASA on exhibits on space to putting together programs on the history of Putnam County.

The challenge facing her is balancing respect and interest for history while creating new exhibits for the next generation of museum patrons.

“History is the most human of all of the humanities. People forget in terms of museums. They go to museums to learn about where they came from, but also how they relate to the past,” Birge said. “The biggest challenge is reminding people that their past is important to them.”

The museum already has a respectable attendance for a county facility, bringing more than 700 people in each month, she said. So the challenge will be getting people who have never considered the museum to walk through the door.

Part of that is appealing to young adults, Birge said.

“It’s not just about expanding the visitorship, but expanding the donor base into that demographic. When I look at people my age going into museums, I see a future donor base,” she said.

One of her ideas is offering a tiered membership program aimed at young people. The cost would be below that of a regular membership, and provide hip activities every few months.

The Birge File

Age: 27

Home: Indianapolis

Education: Graduated with degrees in history and English literature from DePauw University; received a master’s degree inhistory at St. Louis University

Experience: Previously worked at the Putnam County Museum in Greencastle, and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Fun fact: Hosted a radio show in college with her twin sister, Katie

Ideas such as a “Calvary and Cocktails” night, where visitors could learn about Civil War while enjoying classic cocktails from the 1860s, or a humorous screening of old dating films could get more people excited about the museum.

“There are a lot of good things that museums are doing out there for that demographic, and I think I have a creative eye for that type of thing, so that’s what we’re looking at,” Birge said. “That’s my big thing for the year, getting that demographic up.”

The museum is also planning some unique new exhibits, including one on prom and school dances over the years. A video games exhibit could link adults who grew up when Nintendo and Atari was just getting started with their kids who are up-to-date with all of the newest systems.

“We want to have exhibits that appeal to everyone. We want you to come in with your grandparents. We want a kid playing on an Atari next to his dad, who grew up playing it,” Birge said.

As a student at DePauw University, Birge, 27, majored in history and English literature, while also focusing on museum studies.

She was involved in a scholarship program that required 10 hours of volunteer work each week. One of the jobs she found intriguing was donating her time at the Putnam County Museum.

Over 1½ years, she did everything from giving tours to processing loan agreements to interviewing firemen for an exhibit and picking up materials.

“I loved doing all of those things at once. It kept things fresh, and you didn’t fall into a routine,” Birge said. “I also loved learning about the people. County museums are cool because they’re so local.”

After graduation, she attended graduate school at St. Louis University, earning a master’s degree in history. Jobs were in short supply, though.

Originally from Jasper, Birge decided to move back to Indiana. Bouncing around retail jobs, she eventually landed a temporary job with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Eventually, that became a full-time position. Birge was with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis for almost three years, serving as the public and youth programs coordinator.

She was in charge of 41 different activities for adults and children. Through an apprentice program, she also trained teens who were interested in museum work.

“I got to work with people from NASA and Hot Wheels and LEGO and National Geographic on exhibits we were putting in, and that was great,” she said. “But it was exhausting.”

Looking for something else, Birge focused on jobs in St. Louis as well as Indiana. When Brenda Cundiff stepped down as director of the Johnson County Museum, she saw an ideal opportunity and community to work in.

When she interviewed with a museum committee to fill the vacancy, she impressed members with her past experience, said Lyman Snyder, a member of the museum board who interviewed Birge.

Her time with a well-known institution such as the Children’s Museum was invaluable, but seeing how much she volunteered was also important.

“Within our organization, the volunteers are more important than anyone realizes,” Snyder said. “It’s one thing to be a paid staff member, but she also exhibited that she knew how to volunteer at a museum. That will give her the dimension of working with our own volunteers.”

She has worked side-by-side with David Pfeiffer, the museum’s curator. He has helped her learn the way the museum operates, and some of the people and events in county history that a newcomer would need to know.

“A lot of it was helping her know all the people in the area, getting her to different events, getting to know people,” Pfeiffer said. “She’s got a lot of energy, not afraid to tackle a lot of projects head on.”

Every day, she sets aside about 30 minutes to read county history books.

Birge also has taken a weekend driving tour of the county, traveling the backroads from Nineveh to Edinburgh to Rockwell and White River Township.

“Now I understand where everything is in every nook and cranny,” she said.

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