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Filson Historical Society

John Filson was a schoolteacher and land surveyor who published a map of Kentucky and a book about his travels through the area in the 1780s. He’s now considered Kentucky’s first historian. The Filson Historical Society in Louisville exists today to document the history of Louisville and the Ohio River Valley.

The Filson collects and stores documents, photographs, and artifacts. There are items that were brought over from Europe by eventual Kentucky settlers that date back to the 1600s.

Craig Buthod, President and CEO of the Filson Historical Society, explains that maintaining a robust archive is part of the society’s purpose.

“You wouldn’t know in 1925 or 1948 which of those pieces would be important to save, so you over-save,” says Buthod. “While the Filson may be guilty of over-saving from time to time, it’s really a joy when that over-saving results in someone having the material they need.”

As the archive has grown, the Filson’s board of directors saw that it would be necessary to expand the space. They launched a project to double the size of the storage space.

“Working through the expansion could be challenging, but one thing I’m very proud to say is that we did not ever close our doors,” says Jennifer Cole, Manager of Collections Access. “We were able to keep the collections completely safe, that were here on campus during the whole expansion, and things that we knew could not be housed here we sent into offsite storage.”

The expansion confirmed the Filson’s dedication to its location between Third and Fourth Streets in Old Louisville. They’ve added programming spaces where audiences can come and hear lectures and presentations from scholars.

“A lot of houses in Old Louisville were broken up into apartments or had become run down, but this building has stayed pristine,” says Buthod. “It’s preserved history, and that’s what the Filson is about. Architects did a fine job of integrating the old and the new, and there are places in this building you can stand and see a room just as it was in 1906 and have a new space at the same time. The major research area of the Filson has very old features including beautiful artwork, and new steel and glass enclosure around the research area. So you get the juxtaposition of old and new. It’s very comforting and it’s also exciting.”

The expansion allows delicate artifacts to be moved from exhibit to archive safely thanks to climate-controlled pedways.

“It’s important to give people a better understanding of what it is we’re doing,” says Cole. “Just because a painting isn’t on a wall in an office or in an exhibit doesn’t mean it’s away somewhere. It’s right here, it’s in our stacks, and people can really see that.

“The expansion, giving us the ability to have more exhibit space, is really making more of a personal connection with the community in terms of the Filson holdings,” Cole continues. “A lot of people are not excited or connected to a piece of paper or a document or even a book that you can hold in your hand, whereas a photograph, or a painting, or a three-dimensional object becomes personal so much more quickly.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2311, which originally aired on May 5, 2018. Click here to watch the full episode.