Smith-Zimmermann under experienced leadership

JULIE BREU brings both training and experience to her position as director of the Smith-Zimmermann Museum. She worked as a consultant for several years before accepting the director's position in June.

Both training and experience will enable the new director of the Smith-Zimmermann Museum to lead the organization as it moves forward in response to the vision currently being developed by the board of directors.

Where do you want the museum to go? What is your vision for the museum?

Those are the questions Julie Breu asked board members when she began to act as a consultant for the organization after she and her family returned from Europe in 2018. Initially, she helped board members revise and develop governing documents.

Now, after assuming the director position in June, Breu will be working with the organization to hold focus groups, to increase organizational visibility and to increase fund-raising efforts with the goal of relocating.

"We have an amazing collection," Breu said, explaining that much could be done with it.

However, the collection has outgrown the space, and the building is not climate-controlled. This takes a toll on historic artifacts that have been entrusted to the museum.

"Ultimately, we want to better display the collection," Breu said.

In addition, she would welcome the opportunity to have more educational programming to reflect the history of area.

"We have some really amazing stories," she reported.

Breu stumbled into museum work after graduating from Bemidji State University with a degree in art history. At the time, she was aware of only two career fields she was qualified to enter -- teaching and writing books -- and neither appealed to her. A summer internship with the Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm, Minn., changed that.

"I worked there three months and got bitten by the museum bug," Breu said.

Her first paid position was part-time with the Pipestone County Museum. She later paired that with a part-time position with the Moody County Historical Society Museum in Flandreau. Her work inspired her to pursue a master's degree in museum studies at Eastern Illinois University.

"I decided I really loved the museum field and wanted to delve into it deeper," she explained.

Although she completed the coursework in nine months by taking "an extremely heavy courseload," Breu wasn't able to complete the degree in historical administration without an internship. That led her to the Siouxland Heritage Museums in Sioux Falls.

"They kept me for 15 years," she noted.

For over a decade, Breu worked as the operations manager, which included supervising part-time staff and volunteers, as well as overseeing building maintenance, including restoration projects.

"My favorite project was restoring the E. Howard clock tower," she said.

Edward Howard was a clockmaker who, with a series of partners, formed several companies between 1842 and 1882 to make not only high-grade wall clocks and tower clocks but also sewing machines, fire engines and precision balances.

After he sold his interest in his final company and retired, it continued to operate as Howard Watch & Clock Company until 1903, when it was sold.

The 1893 clock tower on the Old Courthouse Museum had not worked for years when the restoration was undertaken. Breu said she found a specialist in Connecticut to restore the clock to working order and to return periodically to ensure it continues to run properly.

Although climbing into the tower was not among her favorite tasks, Breu said she did so when consulting with the specialist.

"It was cool to be up in the tower, behind the clock faces, talking to an expert," she confessed.

In 2011, Breu became the curator of collections, but she left that position when her husband Kent was offered the opportunity to move to Belgium in 2014. They moved to Antwerp with their two children, Mitchell and Ainsley, where they lived for several years before moving to the west coast of Ireland for another couple of years.

"I kept my finger in the museum, historical world," Breu said.

She visited museums and planned trips to 22 countries for her family, and she also engaged in volunteer work. She served on the Treaty of Ghent committee, which celebrated the 200th anniversary of the signing of the treaty which ended the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain.

Breu also worked with the Peter Paul Rubens archives, updating information for their website. Rubens was a Flemish artist who lived from 1577 to 1640 and is best known for Baroque paintings with religious and mythological themes. Both his house and his archives are in Antwerp.

Fortunately, the work Breu was asked to do was in English; she said she is not bilingual.

After returning to the States, she began to seek work. In doing so, she met Ryan Burdge, archivist for the Karl E. Mundt Library at Dakota State University. He invited her to attend a board meeting for the Smith-Zimmermann Museum, where Breu recognized that she would be most helpful in the role of consultant.

Now, as director, she plans to continue the work which she began in that capacity. At present, that involves developing a vision and direction for the organization by seeking input from people in the community.

"We always had focus groups in mind. After the governing documents, we needed that public input," Breu said.

In coming months, they will be seeking input from the business community, educational community, members and the general public.

At the annual meeting, they began this process with a short survey that showed many people consider the Smith-Zimmermann to be a collecting entity. However, Breu believes it could become an educational center, especially by working with DSU.

"There is so much we can partner with. We can do some exciting things with technology," she said, talking about the way historical characters could be brought to life, making them more accessible to people of all ages.

"The stories need to be accessible for everyone," she explained.

Breu can also envision educational programs for students and life-long learners, senior projects which could be completed through volunteer internships, and displays that showcase the collection. These things are not possible in the current 7,500-square-foot facility.

While she can envision these things, she is a methodical person who believes in working on things in a step-by-step manner. Right now, working with the board to develop an organizational vision and working with volunteers to maintain the collection are her priorities.

"We are looking for volunteers," she noted, listing all the work which needs to be done.