Vicky Van Harlingen serves as the executive director of the Warren County Historical Society. She said that she loves museums and grew up visiting history museums.
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As a child, she says, her favorite museum to visit was the Cincinnati Natural History Museum. She brings that same passion to her role.
She has served as the executive director of the Warren County Historical Society for more than a decade. In her position, she does everything from hiring and marketing to managing staff and overseeing the facilities.
We caught up with Van Harlingen to find out more.
Q: Tell us about yourself?
A: I’m the executive director, Warren County Historical Society, which is basically the business manager. The executive director sets the tone for what kind of programs and exhibitions the museum will offer, and that’s a big part of my job. But I’m also in charge of budgeting, hiring, managing staff, marketing and the facilities — everything that goes on business-wise with the museum.
I was born and raised in this area and I’ve lived here on and off, most of my life. I live out in the country, east of town, and I raise beef cattle. So, I have a totally separate life from the museum life when I’m at home.
I’ve always wanted to do this. I knew the original director, the woman who was instrumental in founding the historical society and this museum, Hazel Spencer Phillips. I knew her as a small child. My parents were members here, and they were friends with her and her husband. So, I grew up coming to this museum and I’ve been involved with it since the time I was very young.
I have always loved museums. My parents love museums, and they took us to history museums growing up. I do remember as a child, my favorite museum was the Cincinnati Natural History Museum. We would go to museums all over the country, and I really liked the work that they did and thought I’d like to be a museum director.
I’m old enough, that when I went to college, they didn’t have such degrees, so I got a degree in American Studies from Wittenberg University in Springfield. Then, I went to Miami University for an MBA (Master of Business Administration) in Marketing Management. My focus was on marketing for nonprofits. They let me tailor the program a little bit, instead of a traditional MBA. I spent more time on researching and marketing for nonprofits.
Then I realized that if I wanted to make a career of it, I needed to go to a big city, and I didn’t want to go to a big city. So I got a job out of graduate school in business and spent a few years doing that. For a while. I came back, and I was the director in my late 20s, early 30s, and then I got the bug for technology and went to work for IBM, Hewlett Packard and few IT companies, and I spent about 25 years doing that. Then, I got older, and this was an opportunity that came up.
I was on the board, and the director that was here quit, and the board looked at me and said, “You did this once before, can you do it again?” And, I thought “Why not?” It will be a nice, semi-retirement job (ha-ha).
So I’ll be here 10 years in January in this position. … I served here originally from 1980 to 1985, and I came back in January of 2008.
The Warren County Historical Society owns and operates Harmon Museum, which is our primary museum, and it contains our archive and research library, and Glendower Historic Mansion, which was our original museum, and then the Lebanon Conference and Banquet Center, which is a 1936 WPA (Works Progress Administration) historic post office that we took over and turned into a conference center. And, in the lower levels, we have our vaults, our curators’ offices and our work rooms. So, it’s an umbrella organization with three historic properties, and it takes a lot of work to keep them going. Visit www.wchsmuseum.org to find out more.
Q: What is a typical day like for you?
A: Wearing six different hats. We open the doors about 9 a.m., and the volunteers come in, and they all get to the various jobs that they are doing. The phone rings constantly, and people have all kinds of questions about all kinds of things — from “Who was Jeremiah Morrow?” (who was the governor of Ohio in the early nineteenth century) to “Do I think the chicken salad at the Golden Lamb is any good?” or “When’s the horse parade?” We also get a lot of history research questions and questions about genealogy, and we have quite an archive and library of that information, so we do a lot of research.
We work with the schools, and develop school tours, so we have groups of school children come in. We have people coming in to do research, or to donate things. Every week, somebody comes in and donates some of their family memorabilia, which we love. We inventory it, and tell all the stories we can about it. It’s a lot of fun.
We also decide what we’re going to do for our exhibits. “What are we going to do for our summer exhibit?” and how are going to put that together, or “Who will be the next speaker for a particular program?” and how are we going to decorate the Glendower Historic Mansion for Christmas, or for summer, and so it’s constant planning, and we’re always planning a year in advance.
We also do a lot of outreach into the community. Also, we have a lot of other good cultural nonprofits here that we try to collaborate with — the arts council, the theater, Main Street Lebanon, Lebanon Mason Monroe Railroad and The Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce. It’s a very connected kind of business.
Q: What do you love the most about your job?
A: What I love most is the history side of it, or the artifacts side of it. People come in, and they enjoy it. They walk in the door, and they look around, and start going through the museum, and they come back, and they go, and this is literally their words every time, “I had no idea this was here.”
And, the perception of a historical society or museum in today’s world is it’s a dusty old place full of dusty old people. We are anything but that.
We’re just now starting to talk to people about the fact that we’re an art museum as well as a history museum. We have a fabulous art collection, which we didn’t do too much with until recently when we had a couple new volunteer curators that are art historians, and artists in their own right. One of them teaches fine arts at Sinclair Community College, and we’ve had our eyes opened to this art collection. And, we’re so excited to share it. People are coming in now, and we’re talking to them about it, and they are appreciating it and enjoying it.
But the people that love the history are probably our favorites. But, it’s getting people engaged, and they want to know about everything we have, and they’re interested in the stories that we’re telling. It’s very gratifying. We sell-out everything we do. It’s wonderful to know people are enjoying it, and that they are thinking about something other than shopping or video games. And, kids love us, too. That’s another thing. We are very tactile here. If we don’t want you to touch it, we’ll put it behind glass, so go ahead and touch it. We want them to explore, enjoy their experience, and to ask questions.
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