By PATRICIA BUSCHETTE
What do you do when your world is overtaken by a pandemic? For Rachel Peterson of Renville, Covid 19 ushered in a new challenge and adventure.
In 2019, when she visited the Renville Museum, she immediately saw possibilities.
“As soon as I walked in, I knew I wanted to help. It was crowded and disorganized due to a shortage of volunteers.” said Rachel. “The few who supported the museum did everything they could to keep it alive. I saw potential where my mom did not. I asked the museum’s secretary-treasurer, Wayne Zaske if they needed volunteers.”
When Rachel later met with the board they agreed to let her take over. “I said I did not want to step on anyone’s toes.” Rachel recalled, and Eric Kronlokken, the vice-president, stuck his foot out and said, “Step away.”
Rachel’s mother, Tish Peterson, became involved. “I followed her lead and grew to share her vision. Her educational background in archiving and passion for museums serves her well.”
“This project is almost exactly what I wanted to do,” Rachel explained, “but I got to it in a roundabout way. In 2016, I was living in St. Paul and working full time as a social media specialist at Macalester College, part-time tour guide at the Summit Brewery, and attending grad school at St. Catherine’s University in the Masters of Library Science program. My focus at school was on archives, and my dream was to work in the archives of a museum.”
But it wasn’t meant to be... at that time.
“Health issues derailed my life,” she said, “and though I tried to stick with my commitments, I had to leave both jobs and quit school.”
She eventually moved back to Renville.
“My parents have been the best support system I could ask for,” she said, “I had been in Renville about a year when I went to the museum for the first time since I was little. It seemed too good to be true. I could do the kind of work I like, and make it work with my disability. I work when I am able, and as much as I am able.”
Tish worked for 35+ years as an activity director in long term care. “That role gave me the opportunity to be creative, connect with people, and make a difference in the lives of others.” Her responsibility included arranging events and creating displays throughout the nursing home.
Tish retired in 2020, but the desire to share her creativity was fulfilled through renovation, unique displays, and exhibits, all designed to engage and connect with visitors. “It became a natural extension of a career that I loved,” she said. “Plus, I get to do it all with my daughter!”
Where does one begin with such a massive task?
“Where do you start renovating a museum? The first thing I did was photograph everything.” “I took about 250 photos,”she said. “Knowing I was going to be moving everything, it helped me keep a record. In addition, it let me do redesigning work at home.”
“The next thing was finding all the paper records I could, including the accession records. I knew we would need a designated workspace – a place where I could have a table to sort and continue my work when the museum was open, so we turned the old kitchen into an office.” We then went through the storage room, which was full to the ceiling. I couldn’t create exhibits unless I understood what we had to exhibit,” she said.
The two considered their resources. “We didn’t have much to begin with, but we are both do-it-yourselfers and re-users,” Rachel pointed out. “To get started, we used our own leftover paint, cleaning supplies, and toolboxes.”
“Our biggest resource is the collection itself,” Rachel said. “It has been growing for 45 years. We have volunteers who have helped with physical projects such as clearing out the basement, and managing our Facebook page. We have funds to keep the lights on, but we rely on donors and grants for significant projects.”
The group that started the Museum in the late 1970s kept good accession records for many years,” Rachel said. “Here I find information about the collection. I have an inventory of everything in storage. Still, there’s so much more to do!” she said. “I would love to build a digital library and inventory of our photos, for instance.”
Rachel and Tish always knew the basement would need to be updated. Mold issues developed due to water seeping through the walls and cracks in the floor. “There was so much to do, that it wasn’t my first priority,” Rachel explained. “My plan was to get the main floor of the museum cleaned, redesigned and organized, the storage inventoried, and reopen, even if we had to keep the basement closed.”
A summer storm changed plans.
“The storm resulted in standing water throughout the basement,” Rachel said. “That is where our entire military collection is kept. We fought mold, but hadn’t dealt with the uniforms.” They moved everything from the basement to off-site storage.
They found a dry cleaner to determine if they could handle the job of cleaning 50+ uniforms, and appealed to the local Adwell-Garvey Legion Post 180 to help with the cost. “We were met with a generous and eager yes!” Tish said.
The challenges were many. They arranged for rental of off-site storage space after the uniforms were cleaned, obtained heavy-duty racks to handle hundreds of pounds of woolen uniforms, and obtained gloves and masks to provide volunteers with mold exposure protection.
A crew of five prepped each uniform by removing and itemizing pins, medals, ribbons, etc., photographing, itemizing, and numbering each item.
“It took Yankee ingenuity to haul the 50 uniforms upstairs,” Tish said. “They were stacked on a plastic tablecloth until it was nearly too heavy to tote, and two people carried the load like a dead body. In just a few hours, the uniforms were ready for pickup.
The museum has unique appeal for each visitor. Rachel said that when people introduce themselves, she points to things that have a connection to their family. “That’s what first drew me in.”
Tish recognized the nickname of a cheerleader in a box of photos. “I contacted the grandson of the cheerleader to confirm her identity, and learned that his grandmother died quite young, and there weren’t very many pictures of her.” They were able to identify her in school class photos. Tish calls it a combination of “Antiques Roadshow” and “Finding Your Roots.”
“When we were able to open the doors to visitors after COVID, the response was overwhelming!” Tish said. Our hours of operation are limited, but we had visitors every weekend, special tours by the nursing home residents and staff, and class reunion and school groups.” Visitors share memories stirred by the Renville timeline created on one wall, and some have been inspired to donate items. “The Renville Lions Club funded the sponsorship of the visiting sidewalk chalk artist during Sugar Beet Days, an event that gave about 90 kids the chance to beautify the sidewalk!
“I had no idea how much I would enjoy this project,” Tish said, “and how favorably our efforts would be received by the community. It is a very big undertaking, but Rachel and I rely on that old adage of “How do you eat an elephant?” and we take it one bite at a time.”
The effort to maintain the museum is assumed by Rachel’s father, Pete, who takes care of landscaping and mows the lawn.
“As for the future, I see us building a bigger volunteer base,” Rachel said. “I don’t know how, but I see the basement watertight with a working HVAC system so we can be open all year. I’d like to host more groups and to have another annual event in addition to Sugar Beet Days.”
What would you have done differently? “While it would be nice to get blessings that aren’t in disguise; God’s fingerprints are all over the project,” Tish said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Rachel considers the museum an absolute blessing. “I feel almost guilty when people thank me for my work. I am doing this for myself as much as anyone else!” she said.