New Director of Historic Waco Foundation Seeks to Expand Reach | Local News
Erik Swanson, the new executive director of the Historic Waco Foundation, sees the homes central to the foundation’s mission as platforms to house and encourage broader views of Waco’s history.
“These homes are well situated to do that. I want to see what aspects of community we get and what aspects we don’t get,” Swanson said.
He will take up his post as executive director of the foundation on March 14, succeeding Jill Barrow, who retired as executive director in January after more than four years at the helm. Swanson will transition to the foundation after a period as a curator and exhibits coordinator for Baylor University Libraries, during which he produced more than 80 exhibits and presentations.
He plans to continue the direction the foundation has taken in recent years by addressing a larger Waco story than that confined by its homes and the families who lived there.
“It’s time for us to get off the porches of these homes,” said Foundation Board Chairman Clint Lynch.
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The Waco Historical Foundation manages and maintains three 19th and 20th century homes: East Terrace House at 100 Mill St., McCulloch House at 407 Columbus Ave. and Earle-Napier-Kinnard House at 814 S. Fourth St. Its offices are located at a fourth house, the Hoffmann House next to the Earle-Napier-Kinnard House. The 154-year-old Fort House at 503 S. Fourth St., a historic Waco Foundation property for many years, was sold in 2019 to Magnolia’s Chip and Joanna Gaines.
Swanson said the homes serve as an entry point to part of Waco’s history, a story that includes the community the homes were in as well as the people who built and lived in the homes. He cited the example of a front door to an 1850s house away from the flow of people in the house, a seemingly odd place until you realize it was meant for workers enslaved, not to the owners of the house.
“Here, the design of the house was influenced by the times they lived in,” he said.
It was this broader view of historical interpretation that drew Swanson to museum studies. He attended Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in history with a minor in anthropology and Civil War studies, but a stint at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library proved the spark that kept him going. pushed towards museum work.
A brief period of work in the library’s archives was “miserable”, but a transfer to the museum part of the library, where he encountered collaborations on projects and contact with historical objects, pointed him towards museum work. He left the Reagan Library in 2013 to begin graduate studies in Baylor’s Museum Studies program, graduating in 2015 and subsequently working at Baylor Libraries.
His time at Baylor and Waco introduced him to the Historic Waco Foundation and the history of Waco. So when an opportunity presented itself for the post of director after a candidate unexpectedly turned down the board’s offer, he took it.
In the coming weeks, Swanson aims to find out who is visiting the foundation’s homes and why, as well as who is not visiting.
“Waco has grown exponentially, with more diverse people and people who want their stories told,” he said. “Who is our new audience and who is our target audience?”
As part of making the programs accessible to a wider community, Swanson hopes to see bilingual labeling on future exhibits.
This continues the direction the foundation has pursued in recent years, from former director Don Davis, who retired in 2017, to Barrow, board chairman Lynch said.
“We’re still going to take care of the homes, but there’s more to Waco’s story than the families in these homes,” Lynch said. “We want to consider all aspects of Waco’s history, including the African American community, the Hispanic community – any community.”
Lynch said home exhibits over the past few years have demonstrated this broader view. An exhibit on the east patio on home building techniques and tools was not limited to this house, but to homes in Waco during that time. A look at debutante balls didn’t stop at the white elite’s Hedonia Club and Cotton Palace Pageant, but included African-American debutante ball Jack and Jill of America and Hispanic quinceañeras.
Both Lynch and Swanson praised the work of previous director Barrow, a former director of the Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center and a teacher at Rapoport Academy. Barrow has come out of retirement from those positions to lead the organization over the past four difficult years. This period saw the COVID-19 pandemic close the foundation’s houses for a time, then reduce visitors and revenue for months after that. The expansion of Interstate 35 through downtown Waco and the construction of downtown streets also interrupted visitor access to the Earle-Napier-Kinnard and Hoffmann houses for more than a year.
Barrow not only helped the foundation pivot to online programs and activities when COVID-19 protocols limited in-person visits, but also kept tabs on the budget. She and her board have also created a strategic plan that sets four goals for the future of the organization: financial security, digital growth, improved visitor experience and public engagement, including more diverse communities.
“Her passion would wear you down at times, but she rose to every challenge,” Lynch said of the former director.
Swanson hopes to build on the foundation’s use of technology in virtual exhibits and cell phone tours.
“One of the things the pandemic has taught us is that museums need to be flexible,” he said.
The fate of the Helen Marie Taylor Museum of Waco History after the recent death of its founder and owner Helen Marie Taylor could be a part of the foundation’s future. Taylor and former manager Davis discussed a possible collaboration, but could not agree on how it would work. Swanson declined to speculate, and Lynch said the foundation is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Waco really needs a history museum,” he said. “It would be great to consolidate Waco’s history in one place.”
Swanson is looking forward to heading into the future in the coming weeks and in more ways than one. He will marry Amy Runyon, Rare Book Catalog Librarian for Baylor Libraries, on April 24.
Although the Historic Waco Foundation is concerned with the past, it has a future, he said.
“History is happening all the time,” Swanson said. “Museums play a role in interpreting this history.”