By Stuart W. Sanders,
Next month, the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its headquarters, the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, located at 100 W. Broadway St., in Frankfort, Kentucky. The building is one of a trio of sites in downtown Frankfort that make up the Kentucky History Center & Museums (KHC&M), operated by KHS.
Through the years, students, history enthusiasts, tourists and researchers have come to KHC&M to learn about the commonwealth’s robust past. As such, KHC&M serves as an important educational resource that also contributes to regional tourism development.
In addition to those benefits, KHC&M has made a lifelong impact on Kentuckians.
Jennifer Disponette, KHS’s 25-year-old student engagement coordinator, is emblematic of its enduring importance.
Born in Frankfort, Disponette moved to Lawrenceburg at age 5. Although she primarily grew up in Anderson County, she spent summers in Frankfort with her family. She first visited KHC&M in 1999, the year that its anchor building opened.
“While I don’t remember the details of my first visit, I recently talked to my mom about it,” she said. “I evidently loved everything about it. It was just really exciting and I was fascinated by the entire place.”
During that first visit, Disponette spent a lot of time in the center’s museum in front of the replica of a 1960s living room, because it reminded her of her great-grandmother’s home.
Seeing how the center inspired her daughter, for the next three years Disponette’s mother took her to the museum every Tuesday, where she explored touch carts and participated in educational programs.
Little did she know that these weekly visits would have a great impact.
KHC&M influenced Disponette’s deep respect for former Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins, whose portrait hangs in the Hall of Governors exhibit at the museum. The bluegrass state’s only female governor soon became one of Disponette’s historical heroes.
“This is the first place that I saw a portrait of Martha Layne Collins, who has become such a huge role model for me,” Disponette said. “It stuck with me that she was the only woman in the Hall of Governors. This is where I first saw her and this is where I first learned about her.”
The museum also influenced her educational choices. Disponette graduated from Transylvania University in 2016 with a degree in history and education.
“This museum showed me that history is fun, accessible and hands-on. Coming here every Tuesday for three years really impacted me. It built a bedrock for future exploration,” she said.
Upon her graduation from college, Disponette initially wanted to be a teacher. “KHS showed me that I could do history — that I could teach history — and that I had a place where I could bring my students. This was a place that I loved and held dear. As a child it was what I wanted to see on Tuesdays with my mom. It was what we did together and it was always important to me.”
After visiting a friend who worked at a museum in Wyoming, however, she gravitated toward museum education.
“The hustle and bustle of the museum and the camaraderie that I saw in that atmosphere really sparked my interest,” she said. She then applied for a job at the Kentucky Historical Society.
“It just felt that it was meant to be when I saw the job posting,” she said.
At KHS, Disponette coordinates educational programs at community events, schools and libraries. She also runs the “History Habits” program for preschoolers. One of her goals is to give the students a sense of ownership about KHC&M.
“I remember how important this place was to me and how I wanted to come here every day when I was child. I want that for them, too, where it just feels comfortable and it feels safe. I definitely want KHS to feel like a second home to them,” she said. “I see kids have that same spark that I had and it’s really awesome, actually.”
Watching students’ love of history grow gives her hope for Kentucky’s future.
“Kentucky is so diverse, but there’s one thread that keeps us together: It’s this pride for our state,” she said. “It’s thinking that Kentucky is the greatest place on the face of the earth, and that’s so magical. We have this common thread, and where does that come from? It’s from our shared past. And we can use that past to make Kentucky even better. KHS has the ability and the capacity and the will to facilitate that, and I think that’s important.”
Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s History Advocate. This is his first monthly column for FRANK. If the Kentucky History Center & Museums has made an impact on you, please let us know by tweeting us at @kyhistsoc or by sharing your memories on our Facebook page.