BEMIDJI -- Just days ago, Emily Thabes began her new role as director of the Beltrami County Historical Society, and she's already hitting the ground running and breathing new life into the history center.
From making immediate connections across the community to updating the center’s computer system, signs are showing that Thabes will lead the organization through a progressive revamping by building partnerships and creating new ways to share local history.
“She just started, but she's already running at full gear. I think she has come in with the idea that this is a big challenge and she can do it, so I just love her ability. She is showing some real leadership,” said Sue Bruns, president of the Beltrami County Historical Society. “She's done an amazing amount of work in the few days that she's been on the job.”
Originally from West Virginia, Thabes has lived in Minnesota for a decade and now lives near Bagley with her husband John. She holds master’s degrees in library information science and interdisciplinary leadership and carries 20 years of experience in non-profit and education leadership.
She most recently worked with the Hennepin County Management Institute, Capital One Bank and Rasmussen College, where she served in various roles from campus librarian to dean of library and learning services.
“I love history, and I would say part of that comes from my dad, who is a history teacher,” Thabes said. “But more than that, I love when people are learning and when they get to experience something new about their culture -- when they get to see things from a perspective that they might not have understood before or not have known before. They have their eyes opened to something new, and I love that we have the potential to do that for the community.”
Thabes said she views her transition from library to museum as none too big, as both entities provide information to people.
“Whether that information comes in a book, a map, a photograph or a rocking chair, it still provides something to people and gives folks perspective and sometimes even enlightenment,” Thabes said. “What I really like about the potential for this role is that it's focused a lot on vision and strategy, building prioritization and breathing new life into an organization that's really filled with a lot of passion.”
And Bruns believes Thabes is just the person to shepherd all that passion.
“What we really needed was some leadership and someone to guide the historical society -- not just run the museum -- because we have a very active, enthusiastic and passionate group of people who volunteer and serve on the board,” Bruns said. “We needed someone to harness all of our energy and help us find ways of doing all the things we want to do.
“We really think that she's going to be the kind of person who can identify all the things that we know have to happen, but that we didn't know how to make happen. She's somebody who can steer us in a really good direction and have a plan and follow through.”
Thabes has an ambitious list of short-term and long-term goals for the historical society and center, located at 130 Minnesota Ave. SW in downtown Bemidji.
One of her leading focuses in the coming years is growing programming through grants as well as boosting educational outreach with colleges and K-12 schools in the Bemidji area. She said her hope is to see more children in the school system visiting and learning from the museum.
“I know that one of the things she's going to bring to the table is some real programming for us,” Bruns said. “We've had our major events, and they've all had to be fundraisers, too, because we just operate on a very small budget. But she has a lot of background in grant writing and finding ways to make things happen.”
Thabes would also like to increase the society’s volunteerism. She explained that she believes there are many in the community who enjoy history but believe they need to be historians in order to volunteer. She insisted that the society needs volunteers for all sorts of things, and there’s always the opportunity to learn as well.
She will also be overseeing a facelift of the history center, which will include an interior and exterior paint job and a renovation of exhibits that will increase space. Both Thabes and Bruns said this additional space in the museum will open up new avenues for programming and events.
“I think she's going to be really good at opening our building up more so that people can come in and use that beautiful building,” Bruns said. “We have a nice meeting room and even our gallery with some reconfiguring could be used for gatherings and things.”
For Thabes, the element she is most looking forward to in her new position is crafting and carrying out a legacy for the historical society. She said it possesses great records and a deep-rooted role in the community -- yet few people recognize that.
So, she’s looking to change that.
“There are a lot of people who don't know this is here,” Thabes said. “I'm hoping that over time we build a legacy of resources, programming and exhibits that are ingrained in the county culture so that folks think of the museum as just another place that they can go to, in addition to going to the lake. I want it to be a very natural part of what people think of when they think of the county and its arts and culture.”