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November 27, 2017 FOCUS: Nonprofits

After two decades, Kane reshapes Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Katherine Kane Executive Director, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Q&A talks to Katherine Kane, executive director at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, who will be stepping down from her post next spring after 20 years leading the organization.

Q. You'll be retiring next spring after two decades as the executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. What have been some of the bigger changes at the center over the last 20 years?

A. The Stowe Center is a completely different organization than it was, and has gone from an insular historic house to an internationally known museum with innovative programming, setting a national standard emulated by museums around the country. And we bring tourists and locals to our site in Hartford for experiences they don't have elsewhere.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was internationally famous, best known for her novel “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” which challenged America's views about slavery. The Stowe Center uses Harriet Beecher Stowe's life and work as an example and catalyst inspiring people to create positive change.

The Stowe Center is in demand for conversation-based programs built around issues Stowe wrote about that are still with us. “Salons at Stowe” are community conversations bringing people together around solving an issue. And we host school groups at the Stowe Center and visit classrooms around the region.

After 50 years and millions of feet, the Stowe House interior has also been completely renovated and full of items she had in her home. With new research and discoveries, the house closely reflects Stowe's vision of her home. We wanted to tell Harriet Beecher Stowe's story and show the impact of her work. Now visitors can listen to Stowe's words and sit in her parlor among her possessions.

Q. Has the Center's business model changed at all over the last two decades? It seems like nonprofit fundraising has become a much tougher task these days. How has the Stowe Center adapted?

A. The Stowe Center's business model is much more audience-oriented and the revenue stream has changed accordingly. We have a mix of revenue sources, and are fortunate to have enthusiastic supporters.

Given the financial climate, we are trying to work smarter not harder in fundraising. Every museum has to find its niche, connecting audience interests with the site's history and artifacts.

Q. How do you get a younger audience interested in a history-based tourist attraction like the Stowe Center?

A. Young people are informed, connected and interested in issues. History is actually about the present rather than the past and we find young people respond to this approach.

We look for entry points that are meaningful to them, and they are eager to share their views. Connecting the past and present, we tell stories about Stowe's time, and children make connections to their world. Each program has a “call to action” — a “what will you do?” question.

Students from elementary school through college visit to take the new interactive tour, which connects Stowe's life and 19th-century issues to things that are relevant today. The “Stowe to Go” program goes to schools, community centers and libraries facilitating conversations that bring young people together to talk about topics affecting them.

At the annual Student Stowe Prize event, we honor one high school and one college student writing for social change. The winning students will receive their award at the Big Tent Jubilee in June. We are accepting applications until Feb. 2.

And, of course, the Stowe Center is active on social media.

Q. The Stowe Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018. Are there any special events planned? 

A. Founded by preservationist Katharine Seymour Day, Stowe's grandniece, the Stowe House opened in 1968, a year of turmoil around the world. It was one of the first museums centered on a woman.

In 2018, after 50 years of public service, the Stowe Center has a lot to celebrate. We'll be announcing details soon.

Q. What's the biggest challenge the next Stowe Center executive director will have to deal with?

A. Museums are not repositories for old ideas and objects, they are vibrant community anchors helping people understand how history informs today and shape a positive future.

Stowe Center programs are more meaningful than ever, providing direction for people who want to be civically engaged. With cultural fragmentation, things that were once bipartisan are now divisive. We present multiple perspectives and encourage critical thinking. The best way to recognize Stowe is continuing to work on issues she wrote about.

Q. What do you plan to do during retirement?

A. I'll continue my volunteer role as board chair of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and will accept some consulting invitations. And I look forward to interesting travel and time with family and friends.

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