The Minnesota Historical Society has picked a new chief executive from Kentucky who brings experience telling history from multiple perspectives.
Kent Whitworth, who has led the Kentucky Historical Society for more than a decade, starts in July after current chief executive D. Stephen Elliott retires.
Whitworth, 55, has spent his entire career in the southeastern United States but said the Minnesota Historical Society's strong national reputation and its work to broaden the stories it tells about American Indians, blacks, immigrants and other marginalized populations are what attracted him. He said the Kentucky Historical Society is in the midst of a similar transformation and "it's absolutely the right thing to do."
"The power of history is unleashed when we facilitate these kinds of conversations and encourage fresh research. It's hard and it's messy," Whitworth said. "Everyone has to see themselves. It's a big task, but that's what we have to do."
Whitworth is a founder and leader of the national History Relevance campaign, a grass-roots effort endorsed by historians across the country. The campaign's premise is that history is not simply a review of the past, but something that builds personal and community identities, bolsters democracy and provides meaning and context for current events.
Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) board members said his perspective strongly aligns with their mission.
"Kent Whitworth brings a wealth of leadership experience to the Minnesota Historical Society, as well as a strong commitment to MNHS's strategic direction and its emphasis on inclusion and civic engagement," said Phyllis Goff, governing board president, in a written statement.
Whitworth will oversee the organization's nearly $60 million annual operating budget, which dwarfs the Kentucky Historical Society's $6.5 million annual budget. He'll have a base salary of $275,000.
Whitworth also has a personal connection to the region. His mother grew up in Minneapolis and he often visited his grandparents and Minnesota historical sites.
"I visited Fort Snelling as a little boy," Whitworth said. "I am so intrigued by the Fort Snelling project and the many, many more stories that project will tell."
Whitworth was born in Louisville, Ky., the son of two teachers who often took him and his twin brother sightseeing in the summer. They stopped at historic sites and landmarks, which sparked his interest in the field. During a childhood tour of Yorktown, Va., the site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War, "it dawned on me … I could do that as a living," Whitworth said.
He has led the Kentucky Historical Society since 2004, overseeing a high-profile campaign in 2009 to highlight Abraham Lincoln — a famous son of the state who's often associated with neighboring Illinois. Capturing the public's attention and fundraising is a key part of a historical society leader's job, Whitworth said.
He also has experience weathering financial pressures during what he called a funding "free fall" related to the 2008 recession. That forced the Kentucky Historical Society to rethink operations and public service, he said.
"It really sharpened us to our core," Whitworth said. "What is the relevance of history?"
The historical society's changes included shifting student visits of historic sites from passive listening tours to interactive journeys examining primary-source documents such as maps, photos and letters. In one activity, students are asked to examine a painting that depicts voting in the 19th century — What do they see? Who is represented and who is missing?
"History is perfectly aligned with critical thinking, problem solving and analytical skills. You look at primary sources and make sense of it," Whitworth said. "We are facilitating learning, conversations and dialogues."