Historians Facing Risk or Opportunity - A Response on the State Historical Society of Iowa

Tyler Priest's picture

I appreciate Jennifer Van Haaften's commentary about the State Historical Society of Iowa.  However, the emotion I would associate with the transformation of the Iowa Historical Society is not excitement, but grief.  Before further discussion on this, it is important to get the facts on the table.  Here is a white paper issued by the Save Iowa History Alliance that provides the full details of the existential threat to SHSI, based on public information and extensive discussions with patrons, Iowa history professionals, and retired or dismissed SHSI staff:


It is possible and desirable for historical societies to do a better job of marketing the importance and utility of their collections.  In this case, the marketing that is happening is not for collections, but for the Department of Cultural Affairs and director running it.  The current DCA leadership, which mismanages SHSI, cares nothing about the collections or even about history.  The director is a highly-connected political appointee who has in turn appointed managers with no experience or credentials in the fields of history, archives, or library science.  How can the DCA be “an advocate of understanding Iowa’s past” if its leaders have no training or expertise in studying or preserving the past?  

Here is a breakdown of who is running DCA/SHSI:

•    DCA Director Mary Cownie (formerly an Iowa Republican Party communications staffer and community relations specialist for Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino) has no background or experience in history, archives, or library science.  She is married to State Representative Peter Cownie (R-West Des Moines).  She is also the daughter-in-law of Des Moines cable television and real estate multimillionaire, Jim Cownie, one of the largest Republican political donors in the state and the co-chair Governor Terry Branstad’s 2014 inauguration committee.  In 2013, after a change in the Iowa administrative code turned state employees who act as bureau chiefs or program managers into “at will” employees who can be dismissed for any reason and without warning, Cownie fired Carol Kirsch, director of the SHSI libraries and archives in Des Moines and Iowa City.  Kirsch had extensive background and training in archives management and was a strong advocate for collections. Many other competent and experienced professionals have been dismissed or pressured to leave.  Cownie went on to appoint managers with no experience or credentials in the fields of history, archives, or library science.: 

•    DCA Deputy Director Chris Kramer (former fundraiser for the Science Center of Iowa) has no background or experience in history, archives, or library science.

•    SHSI Administrator and Director of the State Historical Museum Susan Kloewer (former vice president of membership at the Science Center of Iowa, with degrees in advertising and public administration) has no background or experience in history, archives, or library science. She has taken over two positions that were previously one, and SHSI no longer has its own Director.

•    State Archivist Tony Jahn (formerly a visitor and tourism specialist and then a corporate archivist for the Marshall Fields and Target corporations) has no formal archival training and no experience administering federal grants or managing vast and complex state libraries and archives.  Jahn was hired after public criticism of the DCA for operating between 2009 and 2014 with no State Archivist, despite an Iowa Code requirement that the agency retain a professional archivist to oversee state collections.

The ultimate objective of the $80 million renovation of the State Historical Building is to create a glorified welcome center and tourist trap that will stand as a tribute to Mary Cownie’s close family friend, mentor, and political ally, Governor Terry Branstad.  Honoring him in this way also promotes the political aspirations of Peter and Mary Cownie, not to mention the real estate interests of Jim Cownie that encircle the State Historical Building in the East Village of Des Moines.

The situation in Iowa is depressing.

A larger problem. Most of us make archives and libraries our priority, but we are few in number. Historical societies depend on museum displays for crowds. To a lesser extent, university archives and special collections face a similar challenge. Often they are empty, almost never crowded.