Christian Overland – New Historical Society Director Says “It’s like coming home.”

In February, Christian Overland became the new Ruth & Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Overland has a long and successful history in museums and collections and came to Wisconsin from the Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. Overland is originally a Minnesota native; received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, then did his graduate work at The Cooperstown Graduate Program in New York. Overland said he grew up in Minnesota but spent a great deal of his childhood in Wisconsin, whether it was skiing in Cable, riding bikes on the Elroy-Sparta trail, camping in the bluffs, going to a family cabin in Hayward, or spending his annual family gathering in Wisconsin Dells. When the Wisconsin Historical Society approached Overland about coming to run the Wisconsin Historical Society, Overland said, “It was like coming home.”

When talking about his role as Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Overland shows a genuine enthusiasm for everything about Wisconsin and the unique place Wisconsin has in the nation and in preserving the past and looking to the future. Overland started his discussion of the Wisconsin Historical Society by highlighting that Wisconsin has the only national history collection of any state in the union, established in 1846 (before Wisconsin became a state in 1848.) Overland emphasized that the Historical Society building dates back to 1900 and is at the corner of the UW–Madison campus.

Overland highlighted many programs at the Wisconsin Historical Society including:

  • The Wisconsin 4th grade history textbook Wisconsin: Our State, Our Story emphasizing that the book is a “bench mark text book” and that other states aren’t as “lucky” to have such a book and such a valuable program.
  • The Film Collection at UW Madison.
  • The Historical Sites – including: Black Point Estate and Gardens, Circus World, Madeline Island, Villas Louis and Wisconsin Dells. (More sites and information may be found on the website.) Overland said the Historic Sites are unique and everyone should know how important they are.

Overland praised the Historical Society staff saying the office and members aren’t just “reactionary” and work to take care of things after they have become historic but highlighting that the staff looks at what the state has and makes an effort to help people understand the significance of what’s out there and what could be saved and preserved.  Overland talked about the value in Historical Society employees like Jim Draeger, the State Historic Preservation Officer. Draeger is the author of several books, including: Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars & Breweries and Fill ‘er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations. Overland said Draeger is a valuable asset to the Historical Society and brings a renewed interest to fun and interesting topics. Overland said Draeger and Tamara Thomsen are both examples of the excellent staff at the Wisconsin Historical Society and says there are many more wonderful employees.

Tamara Thomsen, is a Wisconsin Historical Society Underwater Archaeologist. Overland said Wisconsin has three underwater archaeologists, something not found in many other places (More here about the Maritime Preservation Program). Overland said Thomsen is world renowned, and in 2014 was inducted into the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame. Thomsen’s and the Maritime Preservation Program’s hard work have resulted in 41 Great Lakes shipwrecks being added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Maritime Preservation and Archaeology initiative was started in Wisconsin in 1988, after the passage of the U.S. Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987. The program encompasses the Great Lakes and for Wisconsin specifically Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. Overland said the Historical Society has been contacted and worked in conjunction with others working on preserving the Titanic and other historic wrecks.

When asked about the public’s recent interest in family genealogy, Overland said the Historical Society is ranked third in the nation for genealogic collections. Overland discussed the partnership the Historical Society has with Ancestory.com saying the more the Historic Society digitalizes and makes available through Ancestory.com the more information the general public can learn about their family and their history. Overland said the Historical Society is working on making state occupational licenses available online and through Ancestory.com.  “Imagine being able to go online and find the actual license showing your ancestor was a barber,” Overland said. The Historical Society offers webinars and workshops on genealogy and Society staff are always willing to help. Overland said DNA Tourism is something people are excited about, and with new technology, you can make worldwide connections.

Overland discussed some of the challenges of having a large collection and only being able to share parts of it with the public at any given time.  Overland discussed his excitement for building a new Historical Society Museum to make more of the history of Wisconsin and the Historical Society collections available to be seen. Overland said one thing the Historical Society is working on is digitalizing the collections so people can see them online and through digital media in the museum. Overland said the Historical Museum works to change displays in an effort to bring new items to the public for view, and the Historical Society does traveling displays (similar to the one in the capitol for the Centennial Celebration). Overland emphasized the collaboration the Historic Society has with its affiliates in all 72 counties and discussed the use of loaning collections to the affiliates to bring more awareness to items. Overland said the UW System has a sharing document agreement with the Historical Society allowing people to go to their local UW campus to request that documents be sent to the campus for inspection and review. Overland said the organization is working to talk with the media to do more interviews and shows about the collections. Overland wants to work with “influencers” to help bring the collections to the people.

Overland said one of the challenges facing the Historical Society is there are always great ideas and programs they want to offer, but they are limited by bandwidth, staffing, resources, and budgets. Overland highlighted the work the Historical Society has started doing to build a new museum on the Capitol square, saying it is important to him that the museum be a reflection of all 72 counties and a portal to everyone in the state.  Overland said funding is always a challenge but highlighted the work the Wisconsin Historical Society Foundation does in a public-private relationship to support the functions of the organization. Overland said getting the word out about all the collections and services offered by the Historical Society can be a challenge, but he wants to bring the great work of the organization to “every dining table” in Wisconsin.

Overland ended the interview by saying, “Everyone should know how significant the Wisconsin Collection and the Wisconsin Historical Society is. I want people to understand the expertise and professionalism of the staff at the Historical Society.”  Overland said several times that the Historical Society is for the citizens of Wisconsin and beyond.