Nina Archabal

The director of the Minnesota Historical Society reflects on the past—and her future

For 23 years, the future of history was in her hands. When Nina Archabal was appointed the director of Minnesota’s historical society in 1987, the Massachusetts native saw an opportunity: to not only collect the stories of the people of Minnesota but to share those stories broadly—through exhibitions, classes, and public outreach.

Last month, at age 70, Archabal left the helm of the Minnesota Historical Society, leaving the job in the hands of an interim director. But her imprint on the institution will remain for years, if not decades, to come: The cloistered, low-profile organization that she first joined in 1977 is among the state’s largest nonprofits, with an annual budget of $60 million and nearly 700 employees. MHS operates 26 historic sites across the state, as well as the History Center in St. Paul, which opened in 1992. And its public impact is enormous, serving an estimated one million scholars, schoolchildren, and historic-site visitors every year.

In the mid-1970s, you took a leave from a job at the University of Minnesota to do some work at the society. What were your first impressions?
Frankly, I didn’t like it. It struck me as stuck in its ways. I started in November and was ready to go back to the U in February. But when the director, Russell Fridley, learned I was leaving, he asked if I would be interested in staying if things changed. I was.

Shortly thereafter, an associate director position opened up—a position for which I was uniquely unqualified and totally lacking in experience. But the amazing thing is, sometimes when you put your hat in the ring, good things happen.

Why did you stay?
I sensed that this organization had amazing potential. And that potential had largely to do with engaging the public. It was perceived as a small private society, and in many ways it behaved that way. It had a distinguished publishing tradition. It had a distinguished history. But the public dimension was undeveloped. I saw that and I thought that was where the institution had the potential to grow.

You moved here from the East Coast in the 1960s. When did your interest in local history take root?
When my husband and I first moved here, we were very curious about this place. We’d get in our little Volkswagen on weekends and drive around. I remember going up to the Mille Lacs Indian reservation. I remember visiting Lake Bemidji in winter. We took pictures of ourselves outside the car on the frozen lake and sent the photos to our parents out east saying, “Look, you can drive on the lakes!”

You grew up in Massachusetts, a state rich with colonial history.
My family lived in a beautiful little town that celebrated its 18th century history. But we were Italian Catholics, a group whose past wasn’t really reflected in those colonial stories. I thought that my own personal history was private. I thought that history was just colonial history. So when I came to Minnesota, what struck me was that all of these towns and little historical societies celebrated the history of the Germans, Scandinavians, Czechs, and others who preceded the residents of today. To me, that was an eye-opener. It had never occurred to me that immigrant history was anything more than very private history.

How has the historical society changed during your tenure?
One change is that our exhibitions have broken out a bit at the History Center. We will always present exhibitions that deal specifically with Minnesota, but we’re also beginning to become what I call “Minnesota’s place for history.” You may see an exhibition on the American presidency, or—as you’ll see shortly—an exhibition on George Washington. We recently had an exhibition on chocolate. Some perceive these exhibits as far removed from Minnesota, but the fact is that from the earliest times, Minnesotans have never been restricted by the political boundaries of the state. We have always been connected to the rest of the world: Consider the fur trade. Consider where our leaders have gone, whether it’s Humphrey or Mondale or Stassen. Minnesotans have always been engaged in the world.

State-government support has dwindled in recent years. How has that impacted the society?
When the economy suffers, the society suffers—and that’s the way it should be: We should not be immune. We should reflect the conditions of Minnesota.

Thank God, though, we also have a cushion of private dollars that helps us through some of these tough places. And the other thing that is very significant is the passage of the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, made possible by the passage of a constitutional amendment. That has allowed us not only to fund MHS activities but also to reach out to local history organizations.

How has the study of Minnesota’s past changed?
We are constantly trying to do right by the history of native peoples in this state. We have a standing Indian advisory committee that has members of every federally recognized tribe in the state, as well as spots for urban Indians, and they have guided us. But it’s not easy. In 2012, for example, we’re coming up on the very painful 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War, which ultimately led to the hanging of many Dakota men in Mankato—the largest mass execution in United States history. It’s a real stain on Minnesota. And that history is not that long ago. The families that felt the impact of that war are still with us: both native and non-native.

What are your retirement plans?
At first I thought I would go serve meals to the hungry—and I still might do that. But that’s probably not the greatest way I can contribute…. Education is where my stake has been in the ground, so I suspect that I’ll be involved in educational efforts and on boards. I’ll be leading the strategic planning effort for the International Council on Museums. I’d like to get U.S. museums more engaged with the rest of the world. The beach is not my place. The golf course is not my place. I’m staying here in Minnesota.

*Interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Joel Hoekstra writes frequently about design and architecture for Midwest Home and has contributed to a wide range of publications, including This Old House, Metropolis, ASID Icon and Architecture Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis in a 1906 Dutch Colonial that is overdue for a full remodel—or at least a coat of fresh paint.