East Tennessee History Center, 601 South Gay Street, Knoxville, August 2022
Each year for many years, the East Tennessee Historical Society, in conjunction with the Knox County Public Library has presented a history fair in Krutch Park. Disrupted by the pandemic, the groups have re-imagined the event into a smaller footprint inside the East Tennessee History Center. The one-day event happens August 20. I sat down with Warren Dockter, President and CEO of the Society, to learn more about the organization and the plans for the Hootenanny.
The East Tennessee Historic Society (a 501(c)(3)) operates the museum and facilities, including the genealogical collection, inside the East Tennessee History Center, which is owned by Knox County. Also housed there is the Knox County Public Library’s McClung Collection (rare documents and books), including the Tennessee Archive of Moving Images and Sound. They present programming, lectures, and presentations. They do educational presentations and activities for students in grades K-12. Not funded publicly, operational expenses are derived from donations and grants.
Warren has been in his position since the spring of 2021, replacing Cheryl Henderson when she retired. She recently passed away. Originally from Grainger County and grew up there and in Blount County, before moving to Great Britain where he lived for twelve years. While there he obtained his PhD in history from the University of Nottingham. He worked at the University of Cambridge as a research fellow and at Aberystwyth University in Wales as a professor of international politics.
“When this position came open, I was excited to come home. East Tennessee history is my first love. My grandfather got me interested when I was young and one of the first places we went was James White Fort and other historic homes.”
Since he entered his position at the height of the COVID pandemic, he was part of the pivoting the organization had to take to offer its programming. Their Brown Bag Lunch history presentations moved to virtual. The shift helped them to include people throughout the thirty-five counties they serve who might not otherwise have made it in person. It was an instructive shift with future ramifications.
They’ve resumed live meetings, but also share the meetings digitally. They’ve also embarked on a project to make the website more robust (redesigned by Tombras) to reach the larger online audience. They are also in the process of digitizing the Journal of East Tennessee History, which they have published since 1929. They are partnering with MUSE to put it all online and it will be online and searchable. All of it is in an effort to expand their reach.
They are also converting their large conference room into a “Zoom Room.” This will essentially allow internet broadcasts of any lectures or meetings held in the space. Knox County is helping with the conversion. “It’s a moment of change and leaping forward.”
They are also working on a significant update of the history presented in the museum. They invited a team of scholars to help them understand how they can be more inclusive in the story they tell. Part of that will be filling in holes in the story, like post-World War II history.
The group is also shifting from the traditional History Fair, which has been cancelled each of the last two years, to a very different event, happening inside the History Center on August 20. Called the History Hootenanny, sixteen authors will be present, and some will speak. Genealogical workshops will be included, as will history tours with Jack Neely and Laura Still, bus trips to area historic homes, Appalachian Music, and living history presented by some of the area homes. Friends of the Library will also have a book sale on premise.
In addition, “Guests are invited to explore the Museum, taking in the pageantry of the 1982 World’s Fair in the feature exhibition, You Should’ve Been There!; trying your hand at family friendly activities in History Headquarters; and interacting with guest interpreters from local historic houses in the signature exhibition, Voices of the Land: The People of East Tennessee; all the while enjoying live music from the Shaw Hollow Boys and Wild Blue Yonder in the Museum’s galleries.
Warren said, “One of the things people always say is that we are a hidden gem in Knoxville. I want us to be a ‘seen’ gem. It is one of the best history museums in the state. So many people don’t know we’re here and I want to drive awareness.” To do that they are planning events throughout the year which will be open to the public.