Why do you do what you do?
I fell in love with history in high school because I had an absolutely amazing American history teacher. When I went to college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. There’s a joke among history majors — if you don’t want to be a teacher or a lawyer, your family will not understand how you will ever make a living. We were encouraged to do internships, so I called my local historical society in Rome, N.Y., and asked if I could come work for them. Shortly after I started, I had an epiphany. I remember thinking, “You can get PAID to do this?”
Becoming a curator was a perfect fit for me, because I never wanted to teach in a classroom setting, but I did want to bring history to life for ordinary people. I think of myself as a storyteller. History is just telling stories that happen to be true. And who doesn’t love a good story? If you approach history as an endless litany of names, dates and places, you put people to sleep. But if you talk about suffragists being spit on, President McKinley agonizing over the decision to go to war as a Civil War veteran himself, or corsets crushing women’s organs, history suddenly becomes more than what you read about in a textbook.
You have to make connections for people, ask them to imagine themselves in a historical context, make history’s greatest figures real to them. I like to excite people about history who never thought they’d enjoy it. In my job, I get to see the firsthand witnesses to history — original documents, vintage clothing, furniture, and so much more. I hold history in my hands every single day. I am so lucky to have a job I truly love.
What is on your bucket list?
The top thing on my bucket list right now is finding a literary agent and getting my novel published. I love to travel. My husband and I have often talked about taking a train trip across Canada, with an Alaskan cruise at the end. I want to master Julia Child’s sauces, learn to read a knitting pattern, and start a craft business selling artificial floral wreaths.
The biggest thing I’ve checked off my bucket list in the past few years is buying our first home and planting a vegetable garden. With so much in my life to be grateful for, my bucket list is surprisingly short.
What is on your mind?
I want to live in a world where we respect each other’s differences, take care of our planet, encourage kids to follow their dreams, pour our resources into curing disease, build stronger neighborhoods and communities and practice kindness whenever we can. There are so many more good people in the world than bad. Think of all we could accomplish if we just focused more on the positive things in life! Because I study the past for a living, I think I have more faith that things will turn out OK in the end. We have overcome natural disasters, economic catastrophes and unspeakable tragedies many times before. Too often we only see what’s in front of us in the present. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but I do think finding natural cycles in our collective past can provide some comfort in uncertain times.
Education: Graduated summa cum laude from Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., with a major in American history and a minor in creative writing. Received a Master of Arts degree in history museum studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program.
Career: Served as curator of collections at the Historical Society of Rockland County in New City, N.Y., before taking the position of curator at the Wm. McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in October 2001. She is the author of three books,“Canton:A Journey Through Time,”“Canton’s West Lawn Cemetery” and “Canton’s Pioneers in Flight.” She is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Mount Union.
Family: Married to Christopher Kenney, director of education at the Wm. McKinley Presidential Library & Museum; two cats, Snickers and KitKat.