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Aspen Historical Society celebrates 60th anniversary with a look to the past and the future

The Aspen Historical Society houses a vast collection of memorabilia at the Wheeler/Stallard Museum and adjacent archives building in Aspen’s West End. The society celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
The Aspen Historical Society houses a vast collection of memorabilia at the Wheeler/Stallard Museum and adjacent archives building in Aspen’s West End. The society celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

These days, the Aspen Historical Society is a bustling hub for walking tours, living history programs and archives about Aspen’s past.

The society has more than 80,000 historical items in their collection, one of the largest in the region; their Wheeler/Stallard Museum and adjacent Archives Building in Aspen’s West End are a trove of memorabilia dating back to the 1800s. The museum also manages other historical sites, like the Ashcroft Ghost Town and the Holden-Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum, and supplements walking tours with film screenings, author talks and theatrical performances about the past.

The historical society’s president and CEO Kelly Murphy said the organization represents generations of rich history in Aspen — and that includes the more recent past.

“I think that's something that people don't don't think of when they think of history,” Murphy said. “And I always like to say, if it happened five minutes ago, it's history.”

Murphy says engaging with history can help people connect with the Aspen community.

“I think that any appreciation of our community involves an appreciation of history because our community's identity is so rooted in its history,” Murphy said.

The society’s board president Ruth Owens agrees.

“It’s important to remember the past, but it's also important to know that everything changes, and that you have to go forward as well,” Owens said.

And now, as it celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, the organization is planning its own path forward.

Murphy hopes to maintain the society’s existing foundation of archives and historical properties while expanding its footprint, too. Plans for the Lift One Corridor at the west base of Aspen Mountain include a snowsports museum to be managed by the Aspen Historical Society.

But the organization wasn’t always poised for growth.

The Historical Society was struggling to survive in the early 2000s, bogged down by executive turnover, budget challenges and lackluster community engagement.

So in 2002, operating under the name “Heritage Aspen,” the nonprofit turned to Georgia Hanson, who remembers a few pleas from organization staff and board members like Mary Eshbaugh Hayes.

“They all hoped I would consider stepping in to rescue this society,” Hanson said.

She had moved to Aspen three decades prior, and she had a background in business and local development; she had just spent a decade working as a community liaison for Aspen Highlands developer Gerald Hines.

“I had zero museum or history credentials, other than being a museum goer,” Hanson said. “But I thought the situation was sad for the community, and I was intrigued by the possibility.”

Her leadership transformed the organization, which was renamed as the Aspen Historical Society.

During her tenure, the society garnered voter support for a tax that would provide ongoing community funding to the organization. She led successful fundraising efforts, stabilized the budget, brought on a new board, and launched new “living history” programs with local actors performing Aspen’s history on stage and throughout the community. (Some actors were recruits from the recently-closed Crystal Palace dinner theater.)

Her work with the Historical Society and dozens of other community organizations was honored this spring with an induction to the Aspen Hall of Fame.

But Hanson hardly takes all the credit for the evolution of the society.

“I'm not for one second implying that I did it by myself,” Hanson said.

Hanson spoke with Aspen Public Radio over Zoom from Mexico, where she now lives in a small town north of Puerto Vallarta. The following transcript includes excerpts from the interview and some written reflections that Hanson prepared and read aloud.

Georgia Hanson: I didn't do a single thing that the Historical Society has accomplished alone. But I also went outside the box. I just thought, “Wait a minute, you know, there's a solution here. We don't have to play by the rules.”

The fact that I hadn't journeyed through the academic discipline of museum technique likely made it easier to discover new ideas that were not constrained by stiff rules and regulations that inhibit creative solutions.

What was most exciting for me personally, what gave me the impetus to try a field where I had zero qualifications, was the opportunity to embrace and share the power of storytelling. The wisdom of the ages is passed through generations in stories.

I think we were at the very beginning of what is now a trend in museums, which is opening the doors and making it much more immersive. Unless there are rules, you know, “don't touch that,” which is what they were like when I grew up.

And I think, had I been given all those rules as a freshman in college, and then gone on through the process, they would be so embedded in my brain that, you know, “Oh, I can't even think about that.”

Plus, I tend to like to break rules. I mean, it's a natural direction for me to take. And I really, genuinely wanted to find a way for people to be able to walk through the front door, feel welcomed and comfortable, not less than.

There can be a little bit of a sort of academic, “I'm smarter than you are” [attitude] sometimes, and we didn't want any of that to happen. And happily, it doesn't, anymore.

History helps us move forward with integrity and understanding. It should at least prevent us from making the same mistakes over and over, although I'm not convinced in today's world. We all need to feel grounded to have roots. Sharing common ground is what makes an abundant community function. It creates a generosity of spirit and then kindness wins.

This transcript has been edited and condensed. 

The Aspen Historical Society celebrates its 60th anniversary with a party at the Wheeler/Stallard Museum on Monday afternoon and evening from 4 to 7 p.m. Attire from the 1960s is encouraged, and admission is free. 

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.