Katharine Hensler

Katharine Hensler, the new director of the Riley County Historical Museum, grew up with a love of history because of her parents. “They would take us places and just connect the history,” she said. “History to us was like an adventure.”

When Katharine Hensler was a child growing up in Pennsylvania, her parents would take her and her two siblings on trips. Her parents, an educator and an outdoorsman, both loved history and took their children to historic sites, national parks and battlefields.

“I’ve still never been to Disney World,” she said. “My parents would not take us to places like that. We would go to Gettysburg National Battlefield. … We would walk through, and they would tell us stories.”

Hensler, the new director of the Riley County Historical Museum, said these experiences instilled a love of history. She learned about the region, from legends to how towns got their names.

“They would take us places and just connect the history,” she said. “History to us was like an adventure.”

Hensler began her new job on May 31, and as she settles in, Hensler said preserving history is a way to learn what mistakes people have made in the past and make better decisions in the future.

“Decisions are a driver of history,” she said. “If we don’t understand our history, we are not as equipped to make decisions that affect everybody or understand how our decisions will affect everyone.”

Hensler, 41, has worked in museums in Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina, Washington state and Kansas for more than 19 years. She learned about writing grants, building partnerships with businesses and government officials, and the importance of connecting with donors as well as the broader community.

While working in North Carolina, she met her husband, Craig Neill, online. He was deployed with the Army and stationed at Fort Bragg.

“It was a great adventure, but it was very challenging from a professional vantage point, every two, three, four years having to give up jobs you’ve loved and hope the next place has a museum,” she said.

They landed in Kansas when Neill got stationed at Fort Riley. She moved to Manhattan in 2017 and got a job at the Flint Hills Discovery Center. In 2019, Hensler’s husband received orders to move to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Hensler got a job at a museum there, but then Neill found out he was being deployed. Hensler decided to stay in Manhattan after all during the deployment.

“We found connection here we hadn’t felt any other place we’d lived,” Hensler said.

She took a job at Fort Riley working with public works and housing. Hensler said she loved her job at Fort Riley but decided to leave because she felt the Riley County job was such a good opportunity.

“I wouldn’t apply to anything, but this is the perfect opportunity in the community in which we want to stay,” she said.

Hensler said it is impossible to come into the job with the depth of knowledge of longtime museum director Cheryl Collins, who died last year, and the community knew how consistent Collins was.

“She was well loved,” Hensler said. “She had amazing wealth of knowledge about the community and its history,”

Hensler said the museum has a very large collection that mostly comes from people who have lived in the community. She wants people who donate items to the museum to know that the staff will care for it.

“We want to make sure we provide a safe and enduring location for those donations,” she said. “We want the community to know that what they donate to the museum is going to be well cared for, and it’s going to leave an enduring legacy we can share with the community for years to come.”

Some of Hensler’s biggest areas of interest in history are early American history, a period that extends roughly from the beginning of colonization to the War of 1812, and ancient European history. She participated in a research project in Sardinia about an ancient culture there that might have inspired Plato’s vision of Atlantis.

Hensler also has worked in areas related to misrepresented and marginalized groups, including African-Americans, women and Jewish people. She said she feels passionate about telling these stories because it can help the human race avoid repeating mistakes.

“I think those parts of history are really important to tell the stories so we as a human race do not make those mistakes again, or we can respect why other cultures may have feelings we don’t understand,” Hensler said.

She said preserving history and continuing to tell stories is important to how society can make decisions in the present, because history is made by human beings every day.

“We’re making history day to day with every decision we make,” Hensler said. “If people would learn what’s happened before, it may prevent making some of the foolish decisions we make.”

Further, by learning about how some people hurt others in the past, Hensler said we can teach future generations to be more empathetic to others in the present.

“Young people who have been introduced to their history and told why this part of their culture or heritage is important, they have more likelihood of growing up to respect that and ultimately pass it on to their own children or their own peers,” Hensler said. “There’s a lot we can do to change the world by learning about history and heritage and where we came from.”