Birmingham Museum wins MI Historical Society honor

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 6, 2021

 Visitors listen to the story of one of the city’s earliest residents, John West Hunter, buried at Greenwood Cemetery.

Visitors listen to the story of one of the city’s earliest residents, John West Hunter, buried at Greenwood Cemetery.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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BIRMINGHAM — The Historical Society of Michigan announced the winners of its annual State History Awards, and the list includes a big honor for the Birmingham Museum.

Around 20 winners were to be celebrated at the Michigan History Conference Sept. 24-25 during an online ceremony. Distinguished volunteer service, professional service, books, special programs and events, and a coveted lifetime achievement award will be among the honors.

The society has chosen to honor the Birmingham Museum as the 2021 winner in the institutions category.

“With a professional staff of three people, along with help from volunteers and college interns, the Birmingham Museum is a modest-size institution that has a big impact. The museum has embraced an inclusive approach to its exhibits and programs, emphasizing people over objects in telling Birmingham’s story and attracting involved audience members,” the Historical Society of Michigan wrote in a press release. “In addition to its on-site exhibits, the museum has a lively social media presence, stages off-site exhibits in public venues, hosts virtual exhibits, leads public programming for people of all ages and has a robust publications program.”

Leslie Pielack, the director of the Birmingham Museum, said her staff was excited to hear they had received the honor. They were nominated by a member of the Friends of Birmingham Museum group.

“The institutional award usually goes to larger historical museums and organizations. We’re on the smaller end of that, so we’re very pleased, because it suggests we’re able to accomplish a lot that larger institutions are doing and doing an effective job telling Birmingham’s story,” she said.

During the height of pandemic shutdowns, the Birmingham Museum made a number of efforts to keep the community interested and involved in programing. The staff moved many of its in-person exhibitions online to be viewed virtually, ramped up their social media presence with live-streamed historical discussions and artifact presentations, and later the museum introduced Pop-Up Porch Exhibits on Fridays, where guests could enjoy some of the museum’s favorite amenities in the open air.

“In our case, community engagement (was a) significant part of the award,” Pielack said.

Nearby, the Southfield Historical Society took the award in the local societies category.     

The society highlighted the exhibition “The Potawatomi of Southfield,” opened in 2018 in collaboration with the Ziibiwing Center and Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.

“This marked the culmination of years of work and a future of inclusive programming and historical action, including a successful petition to replace Southfield’s Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” said the Historical Society of Michigan in its press release.

Indigenous and Black people have been in the spotlight at the Birmingham Museum, too. For the past several months, the museum staff has been digging into the city’s past to find stories of the earliest residents of the Birmingham area, particularly Native Americans and early Black settlers.

“We plan to do a lot more with that content,” Pielack said. “Multicultural heritage is a big part of our next exhibit, which will run into next year and will include various vignettes with stories of some of these people we’re learning about. Their stories are fascinating, and the people are fascinating. How much they contributed is more than we ever imagined.”

The research began during the height of the pandemic last year, when a local historian, George Getschman, made it something of a project to track down the residents buried in Greenwood Cemetery in unmarked graves. Among them were George and Eliza Taylor, former slaves who followed the Underground Railroad to Michigan in the 1850s. They would eventually buy a home on Bates Street and become the first Black property owners in Birmingham.

“Their story was the beginning of our going into this area, and the stories related to them and the Underground Railroad,” Pielack said. “Hopefully, we’ll have enough of these stories to share with people to get them as excited as we are.”

Along with full-scale and pop-up exhibitions, the museum is getting ready to bring back its annual lecture series at the Baldwin Public Library. The first will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 14, when Pielack discusses the infamous 1825 murders of the Utter family.

“Cmdr. Scott Grewe will be with me, looking at what happened and what we know, and how a modern police approach to the events might kind of suggest certain conclusions we could draw,” she said.

The in-person occupancy for the lecture will be limited to preserve social distancing, but guests without a seat can live stream the talk from home on Zoom. To register or get a link for “Night with the Museum: The Utter Murders,” visit baldwinlib.org and click on the calendar.

On Nov. 4, the BPL lecture will be an in-depth look at the indigenous people of the city’s past, particularly along the Saginaw Trail — better known now as Woodward Avenue.

The 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award went to Kalamazoo resident and Michigan railroad historian Graydon Meints. Roland Winter, of Marshall, earned the Distinguished Volunteer Service Award, and Frank Boyles, of Mount Pleasant, received the Distinguished Professional Service Award.

The nonprofit Historical Society of Michigan is the state’s oldest cultural organization, founded in 1828.

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