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New captain steers Legacy Museum

As the new executive director of the Legacy of the Lakes Museum and Gardens, Carol Swenson plans to broaden the story the museum tells of who used Minnesota lakes and how. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press) 1 / 2
Carol Swenson, who once taught in Alexandria schools, has taken the top job at the Legacy of the Lakes Museum and Gardens. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press) 2 / 2

For the first time since the Legacy of the Lakes Museum and Gardens opened its doors in 2004, a new executive director has taken the helm.

Carol Swenson, a veteran of local history efforts in west-central Minnesota as well as in the Twin Cities, has joined the museum this month part-time while she completes a project in St. Paul. She expects to be at the museum full-time this fall.

Swenson replaces Bruce Olson, the dynamic director who helped launch the museum and who plans to retire this fall.

"Carol has the experience and the ability to take the museum to a different level and it'll be a different museum in three to five years, and that's good," Olson said.

"I've known her for many years. I've known her to be an intelligent, professional person with integrity. She has the experience and skills to really make a difference, and I support her."

Expanded exhibits planned

Begun as a way to showcase lake life, the museum has expanded, changing its name from the original Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum and adding music, education, art exhibits, gardens and event hosting. Olson said that Swenson will be the key to improving the museum's ability to plan long-term and create more consistency in its exhibits.

With its display of vintage, high-end luxury watercraft, the museum has strongly portrayed one particular niche of lake users, some of whom traveled long distances to the lakes to seek refuge from the summer heat.

Swenson sees opportunity to bring new voices and perspectives into the mix of exhibits, such as what the lakes have meant to Native Americans and how the working class contributed to boat building.

"Lakes really define Minnesota," she said. "That's one of the areas the board is interested in, is telling that story, of thinking about lake culture more broadly. ... We really hope to look at the diverse picture, what lakes mean to a variety of different groups."

Olson agreed, saying there is room to bring in many other kinds of memories, such as camping and family gatherings on lakeshore, as well as such present-day issues such as climate change.

Other things that will take Swenson's attention: Teaming up with similar museums around the country to share revolving exhibits; properly cataloguing artifacts in storage; and developing a collections policy.

Ties to area

Swenson is no stranger to the lakes area. She grew up on a farm 60 miles to the south and taught junior high in Alexandria in the 1970s. An encounter during an oral history workshop led her to the Otter Tail County Historical Society in Fergus Falls, which she directed for seven years.

It was her first foray into local history, and she began at a time when, triggered by the nation's bicentennial, local history museums began to find better ways to preserve archives and artifacts. She discovered a passion for local history.

"I really enjoy local history and feel it's an important to celebrate the history of a community," she said. "We are so mobile now that people moving into a community really like to know the history and what has happened here."

She arrives at a time when the number of museum visitors has been growing.

More than 5,000 visitors passed through its doors in 2017, breaking the museum's attendance record, said assistant director Becca Maciej. The museum has seen a steady increase in attendance over the past seven years, she said.

Swenson praised the way museum staff have set up exhibits and interpretations in the past.

"Coming in from the outside, even though I know the community and area really well, it's very impressive in how involved the community is in the museum, in volunteering here and the support it gets in a variety of ways," she said. "I hope Alexandria knows how lucky it is to have a resource like this."