Artwork, flags, guns, paper dolls / Debra Hiebert passionate about Harvey County museum

Debra Hiebert, in foreground, leads the Murder at the Manor Mystery Night, which was a murder mystery event, in February.

There was a murder at a Newton museum about a year and a half ago, and director Debra Hiebert found it to be a happy time.

And it was.

The dastardly deed happened during Murder at the Manor Mystery Night, where patrons donned costumes and characters with names such as Shugga Ann Flower, the baker; and smarmy defense attorney Willa Lyalot. It was all in the spirit of having a great time, as it was a murder mystery event at the Harvey County Historical Museum and Archives, 203 N. Main St. It ended with Susan Garofalo (London Wilton) being the ?victim,? and the baker as the killer.

?It was just a fun way to use a historic building,? said Hiebert, who thinks the evening was the most fun event they?ve had there.

Hiebert has been director of the museum, which is housed in the old Carnegie Library, built in 1903, since July 2006, taking over the position vacated by Roger N. Wilson.

Hiebert seems to be passionate about the museum, enjoying many aspects of the place. For example, in March in the Schroeder Gallery, an exhibit called ?Stuff We Love: Favorites from Our Collection? was up, and it?s something Hiebert likes. Volunteers, board members, staff and friends of the museum individually chose items from the museum collection to put on display, which will be up through Dec. 5.

?In this eclectic exhibit, visitors can find handmade Barbie clothes, an early radio-controlled airplane, artwork, a quilt, a gun and more,? the museum website stated.

Hiebert has several items she chose in that exhibit, including an airplane and a very long and skinny 1922 United States flag banner.

?I loved this artifact from the first moment I saw it ? it?s such a beautiful textile,? Hiebert has written on a card near the banner. ?Then when I read the block printing on the flag and the history we have of it, that was even better ? such a great story of support from past Harvey County residents, and knowing that similar support still happens today, with local congregations sending resources to schools, hospitals and other institutions around the world.?

The silk banner, dated Nov. 24, 1921, was sent from a church in Poland to a church in Newton as a thank-you gift.

The exhibit also has a bed coverlet that looks brand new ? except for the fact that it was cut in half ? dating from the late 1800s, paper dolls from the 1920s of a family where only the mom and two small children look happy, and a bust of Abra?ham Lincoln.

?It?s fun to walk through because it is so diverse,? Hiebert said of the exhibit, which was curated by Kris Schmucker.

Another aspect of the job Hiebert enjoys is a program where she takes a box of non-fragile items from the museum to various groups, such as a middle school and Asbury Park, a retirement community. She has people guess what the objects are and then lets them tell how they acquired this knowledge.

?That one?s fun because it?s very hands-on; we do everything together,? Hiebert said.

Debra Hiebert has been director of the Harvey County Museum and Archives in Newton since July 2006. Here?s she sits near an exhibit of aprons.

Another exhibit, ?Serving Harvey County,? which also had programs to go along with it, also was hands-on for the public. The exhibit highlighted various professions. The museum took objects to Pages when it was open in downtown Newton and had the public guess what the objects were, or come up with something from their imaginations. People could write their thoughts on a large plastic posterboard.

Hiebert also seemed excited about a new Retro Corner in the museum. The rotating exhibit, ?Fancy-Dress Kitchen: Aprons,? will be on display through Dec. 5. Another exhibit, which is a Small Space rotating exhibit, ?A Colorful Kitchen: 100 Years of Pyrex,? also will be on display through Dec. 5.

The Retro Corner includes exhibits the museum has had in the past 20-25 years.

?We?re just showcasing old exhibits that people still ask us about,? Hiebert said. ?We?re just taking that opportunity to have that small-space exhibit.?

The exhibits aren?t updated ? they?re displayed like they were at the time they originally were up, and they also have some of the old text plates, which explain what?s in the exhibit.

Although many of her duties are administrative, such as working on the budget, finances, staffing and marketing (except the blog and Facebook page), Hiebert also has been involved with an exhibit that opened March 21. It?s called ?Fifty Years of Service: the Harvey County Court?house.? Hiebert did the online exhibit portion of that project, which includes oral interviews with area folks talking about the old and new courthouses. One of those people is John Waltner, Harvey County administrator. That exhibit will be up for three years, and Hiebert hoped to have the online exhibit up by the end of March.

Hiebert does enjoy her work.

?There?s a lot of variety,? she said. ?Sometimes that?s good, and sometimes that?s bad.?

She said it can be bad because sometimes things she doesn?t enjoy doing so much get put on the back burner while she works on things she likes. She never works on the same thing everyday.

Another aspect of her job she enjoys is telling stories of community people. She said museum displays are less about artifacts these days and more about stories that need to be told or questions that need to be asked in the whole museum world, which is changing.

?Our museum is not like any other museum,? Hiebert said. ?We have similarities to other places, which is a benefit and a challenge at the same time.?

For instance, she said in Clay County, 95 percent of the residents either grew up there or married someone there. So, they?re interested in the stories from long ago, because they themselves could have a tie to that story, perhaps through relatives.

This isn?t so with Harvey County ? a much lower percentage of people are from this county. People are interested in stories as they pertain to issues people face today. For example, the museum had a World War I display, which dealt with immigration and language. These still are issues we deal with today in Harvey County, Hiebert said.

?We can?t just tell stories about the past,? Hiebert said. ?We have to (tie those into) what?s going on today.?

Another example of tying the past into contemporary issues is when Arnie McCloud presented a program in February on Frances Anderson, a man who grew up in Newton, moved away and lived his life as a female billiards player.

?He lived as a woman for 30 years,? Hiebert said. This was in the late 1890s to early 1900s.

Although Hiebert likes her job, she listed some challenges.

?When you have a 110-year-old building, that?s always a challenge, and trying to make that transition to serve today?s Harvey County community and be relevant,? she said.

When she started in 2006, the front gallery area had already been renovated, which included removing plywood from the swooping windows.

?When I started, that was one of the things we kept going,? Hiebert said about the renovations, which make the place more welcoming.

In 2007, she talked to the board and staff, and they decided the Harvey County Hall, which is on the west side of the main floor, needed some love. Plywood also covered those windows, and the ceiling was an industrial sickly green.

?It was just kind of coma-like,? Hiebert said about the gallery.

In addition, offices were in there, which cut down on exhibit space. They raised money for the project, put low-emission glass in the 13 windows, repainted, moved the offices and added blinds. The restored room opened in October 2007.

?It made a huge difference in how the room looks with the natural light and the paint,? she said.

The last project they completed was putting up new storm windows the past two years, replacing the storm windows from the 1960s. The new storm windows help preserve the window wood and help the building look better, as well as lowering heating and cooling bills, Hiebert said. They did a tax-credit program to pay for a great deal of it, which was a $20,000 project. On the main floor alone, there are 26 windows.

Hiebert also has been working on a tax credit for a gutter restoration project.

?It has to be done because if you don?t, you get leaks inside,? Hiebert said.

The director didn?t start her career in museums. In fact, she has a bachelor?s degree in biology from Missouri Valley College, where she also studied communications. One of the early jobs she had in Kansas was being a seasonal naturalist for the Kansas Depart?ment of Wildlife and Parks during three summers. For that job, she did natural history programs.

?It?s education, but not classroom formal,? Hiebert said. ?You don?t have to have the same certificates as a classroom teacher.?

Other places Hiebert has worked include Botanica The Wichita Gardens as director of education and Rock Springs 4-H Center near Junction City as program manager. Both jobs included administration work in addition to public programs. She?s been involved with informal education during her years of employment, as well as giving programs with her husband, Keven Hiebert, on Indian Wars and fur trade.

?He does most of it anymore,? Hiebert said.

Article and photos by Wendy Nugent

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