by NATHANIEL NELSON
With Mark Peterson’s retirement mere weeks away, the Winona County Historical Society (WCHS) has announced that iy will welcome Genia Hesser as the organization’s new executive director. Hesser has some large shoes to fill with Peterson’s departure after more than 30 years, but her history of museum work and enthusiasm for the job sets her up well for success.
Hesser, a native of Rochester, Minn., discovered her love for museums while attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. She studied abroad for awhile, working toward degrees in English and history, which is where she discovered that she wanted to find a way to work in museums as her career.
“While I was working on my undergrad in English, I traveled to Europe and had lots of classes based in museums,” she said. “I fell in love with that, and that way of learning.”
She held a summer job at the Minnesota Historical Society before graduating summa cum laude at Eastern Illinois University with a Master of Arts degree in historical administration. From there, she worked as the site supervisor for the Fort Buford State Historic Site in North Dakota for three years, eventually moving on to become the curator of exhibits for the Historical Society of North Dakota.
“Museums are one of the best public education spaces outside the classroom,” Hesser said. “It’s where everyone can learn and delve into what it’s like to be a part of the community, and how our history shapes our daily lives.”
Hesser said she is excited to move back to Southeast Minnesota and get to work, become acquainted with a new community and work together with the society’s staff and board. She also explained that the WCHS has a reputation of being a strong historical organization in an area known for its reverence of its history.
“I was really impressed with the growth of Winona County Historical Society and what it’s done over the past few years, and the passion that the staff and the board has for the organization to continue to grow and to reach out to the community,” Hesser said. “I’m interested in using that enthusiasm and that strong foundation in seeing where we can go.”
According to Peterson, Hesser was the clear choice for the society’s board of directors, following a long search process with 60 applicants and several stages.
“It was a very competitive process, and there were some very qualified people. She impressed them with her enthusiasm, her skills, her leadership, and I think they found that it was a fairly easy decision,” Peterson said.
Like Hesser, Peterson came into the job from outside the area. He grew up in Minnesota, but prior to moving to Winona, he had lived in Oregon, which was a big change of pace.
“There’s an expectation that the director of the historical society knows the history of the county and the community, so I got to work learning that history,” Peterson said. He recalled spending evenings and weekends researching and learning about the Winona area’s past for months, quickly figuring out what made Winona tick for all these years.
“There’s a lot to learn, and I’m still learning the history. I’ll never know it all. That’s one of the fun things about the job,” Peterson said.
Hesser will have to do the same, but on top of that, she will be replacing the longest-serving executive director in WCHS history.
“That’s absolutely terrifying,” Hesser joked. “But really, it’s intimidating to know [I’m] going into that. I’m not going to be able to fill his shoes, so I’m going to wear my own.”
Peterson said Hesser has her work cut out for her, as the society plans on renovating its exhibit gallery, improving the county fairgrounds and continuing to build on its collection and inventory. However, he said he thinks she’s up to the task.
“I think she’s stepping into the organization at a good time, and there’s definitely challenges and the work is never all done,” Peterson said. “I’m sure she’ll have her own ideas of what she wants to do, but I feel comfortable stepping away and putting it into her hands and the hands of the staff and board.”
While Hesser said she is excited to begin building a new chapter in WCHS’ history, she also explained that the job is a new chapter in her own life. Joined by her husband of 16 years, two children, a cat and a dog, Hesser will be returning to the place she calls home.
“I’m excited to be home. I know it sounds very cliche, but it’s a familiar place. I grew up skiing at Mount Frontenac. I traveled these roads. I still get upset that my dad gets to have Pepin Falls cider every fall and I don’t,” Hesser said. “And even though I don’t know the community specifically, Minnesota is a culture that I know and love and I’m excited to be a part of that again.”