These museums bring the past to life
IF IT’S TRUE THAT “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Kentucky’s history museums are determined there will be no reruns in this state.
These museums work to archive and display local and Kentucky history, providing glimpses into the past and ensuring that future generations will have better insight into what Kentuckians then and now felt and experienced.
Highlighting local flavor
The Kentucky Coal Museum in Benham has been located since 1994 in a former coal company store to show what life was like in Kentucky coal mining communities years ago.
Exhibits show a hospital, commissary, bathhouse, mine, school, home, barbershop and diner, reminiscent of the ones miners and their families frequented. There are hard hats, lanterns and mining memorabilia, tributes to mining disaster victims, a Loretta Lynn exhibit and more.
Amanda Hughes, curator of the Harlan County museum, says it’s important to keep coal mining communities’ heritage intact, especially for younger generations.
“Even though a kid may not be raised right now with coal mining in his family, his family may not be actively mining, his grandparents and great-grandparents maybe did,” she says.
At the other end of the state at Western Kentucky University, the Kentucky Museum’s latest exhibit focuses on Bowling Green native son Duncan Hines, the cake mix magnate and avid traveler. The exhibit, through August 2025, reveals that this entrepreneur’s life involved much more than cake mixes.
Hines developed a successful road-tripping guide listing safe lodging and dining options for travelers.
“He was kind of like Yelp before we had those kinds of things,” museum director Brent Bjorkman says.
Another exhibit has hometown ties: Gazing Deeply: The Art and Science of Mammoth Cave runs through the end of this year, exploring connections between art and science and highlighting natural landscapes.
Other stars are the 750 folk art pieces on display through June 2025, and what Bjorkman describes as the largest quilt collection in the state. In September, Stitches in Time: 200 Years of Kentucky Quilts opens, with 30 quilts on display. Next year, the museum will shine a light on Kentucky’s contributions to music history.
With stately columns towering at its entrance, the Georgetown and Scott County Museum was founded in 1992 by members of the Scott County Historical Society, Director Mary Ruth Stevens says.
The museum’s exhibits detail county history from 1773 to the present. Current exhibits include Scott County Businesses Then & Now, and one about the former Georgetown Post Office—a building the museum now occupies. An exhibit on the local railroads is forthcoming.
Also spotlighted are native son Archie Burchfield of Stamping Ground, a former national croquet champion; and “native bird” Pete the Crow, a famous talking crow who lived in Georgetown in the 1800s and is memorialized here in animatronic form.
It’s vital to share Scott County’s slice of history with locals and visitors alike, Stevens says: “It’s just so important for everyone to know history … where we came from, where our city, where our towns and where our local county came from.”
The Frankfort troika
Under the Kentucky Historical Society’s umbrella is a trio of museums—the Old State Capitol, the Kentucky Military History Museum and the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, all in Frankfort.
At the Thomas D. Clark Center, the newest of the three, KHS Executive Director Scott Alvey says, “You can experience a variety of things from genealogical and academic research in our research library, and we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 square feet of exhibition space.” Topics of those exhibits include the settlement of Kentucky, the history of its governors, and a recent addition, Our Stories, Our Service: Kentucky’s Women Veterans. (Read more about this newest exhibit on page 9.)
Alvey says each of Kentucky’s regions and areas has unique culture and diversity, and visitors of all ages can gain perspective and understanding at the center of what it’s like to be a Kentuckian.
History in a historic setting
Historic in its own right, the Filson Historical Society in Louisville was founded in 1884 by a group committed to collecting and preserving snippets of the region’s history, Community Engagement Specialist Emma Bryan says.
The Ferguson Mansion, used as a home in the early 1900s, is now part of Filson’s campus, which includes a carriage house and the Owsley Brown II History Center with event and storage space.
The mansion’s first floor is preserved as a house museum in the grand style in which it was constructed. The second floor contains research space and special collections, and other floors store paper-based items like manuscripts, Bryan says.
A biennial photo exhibition debuts next February through September, focusing on photographs of pets in the Filson archives throughout history. The public will have opportunities to submit photos of their own pets, Bryan adds.
“We think that learning about our past, our shared past and our collective past will help us learn who we are today,” she says, adding that efforts to preserve what’s happening today will illuminate the present for the future.
231 Main St., Benham
229 E. Main St., Georgetown
100 W. Broadway St., Frankfort
1444 Kentucky St., Bowling Green
1310 S. 3rd St., Louisville
125 S. 2nd St., Danville
200 W. Water St., Glasgow
201 W. Dixie Ave., Elizabethtown
215 Sutton St., Maysville
Comprises the Civil War Museum, Women’s Museum of the Civil War, Gen. Hal Moore Military Museum
310 E. Broadway, Bardstown
Owen County Historical Society
206 N. Main St., Owenton
Facebook: Owen County Historical Society
829 W. Main St., Louisville
117 S. Water St., Paducah
SHANNON CLINTON, an Elizabethtown native, has been a freelance writer in Kentucky and beyond for 24 years.