If you told younger Owen Bennett that one day he would help run the same museum he once explored on a fourth-grade field trip, he might not have believed you. But after two summers of hard work, the Wabash junior is doing just that.
Bennett ’24, a history major and political science minor, was recently hired as the assistant director of Montgomery County Historical Society at Lane Place.
Bennett has a number of responsibilities in this role. He helps manage onsite operations and finances, hosts tours for visitors, and plans community events for the local museum, all while continuing to conduct research on the 177-year-old home and its former owners, Senator Henry S. Lane and his wife, Joanna.
Digging into the past and discovering new stories about the people and the events that shaped Crawfordsville’s history is Bennett’s favorite part of the job.
“Most of studying history is just piecing things together to make sense of something we don’t really understand. I find that fascinating,” said Bennett, who’s passion for history started as a child when his grandfather would read history books and watch documentaries with him. “It’s so important for us, as a society, to understand that there were events and people who came before us that have influenced and shaped what we see today.
“I grew up here, and I went on those elementary school tours of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum and Lane Place. But up until recently, I never really understood how important these local figures (Wallace and Lane) are,” he said. “That’s been big for me. Learning more about these people and having an appreciation for the contributions they gave to our community and country overall. Then being able to take all of that information, process it, and spread it all out to the public is definitely rewarding.”
The assistant director position at Lane Place had been vacant for the past couple of years (due to the pandemic). The Montgomery County Historical Society (MCHS) Board of Directors unanimously agreed to hire Bennett for the role earlier this summer after witnessing the work he put into Lane Place the last two summers as an intern.
Last summer, as part of the Wabash Liberal Arts Immersion Program, Bennett worked for three local museums: the Carnegie Museum of Montgomery County, Lew Wallace Study, and Lane Place.
“I formed connections with the directors of each museum thanks to the help of Career Services,” Bennett said. “WLAIP members are given a stipend and a ‘second summer’ internship. At that time, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. I just knew I was interested in history, and always loved learning about the Civil War.
“Career Services introduced me to the idea of doing something with the museums,” he said. “I was all in. I connected with the three museum directors, and told them this was something I really wanted to do. They were excited, and helped me work out a schedule where I spent two days a week at the Carnegie Museum and one day each at the Lew Wallace Study and Lane Place.”
During his time at each location, Bennett learned a lot about Montgomery County’s impact on American History, from the 1800s through the 21st century. He conducted numerous research projects — one focused on the railroad system in Montgomery County for the Carnegie Museum, another on Wallace’s career in law, and the third involved digitizing the Lane Place’s Veteran Oral History Project, which features videos of local veterans from World War II to the Vietnam War.
“Owen went above and beyond in his first year as our intern and yearned to propel his knowledge forward, both as a student, and as a community-service driven local historian,” said Matt Salzman, MCHS board president and Wabash’s director of foundation, corporation, and government relations.
“Owen spent his days with MCHS not just perfecting his knowledge of the organization, but also embodying a true conduit for sharing Montgomery County history,” Salzman said. “His passion served him as a fervent seeker of uncovering lost history and forgotten stories to expand what we know and share about our communities’ roots.”
Thanks to the support from the Dill Fund, Bennett spent this summer interning for the Lew Wallace Study and Lane Place museums. Much of his work mirrored the previous summer’s and his research projects continued. But he took on a much larger role at the Lane Place.
Lane Place Executive Director Jill Coates-Matthews was on maternity leave, and asked Bennett if he could help manage museum operations.
He opened and closed the museum, hosted visitors, and answered inquiries on his own. He also had to sharpen his public speaking skills and professionalism, and quickly learn about all that goes into running a nonprofit organization.
“That was a fun experience because it took me away from just being a researcher in history, and made me realize that there's actually a lot of business and industry connected to institutions like Lane Place,” Bennett said. “I had to figure out how to be a leader in the history field, and how to run a history institution as a business — that’s something I never considered.”
Salzman said Bennett “worked so closely and seamlessly” with the board and museum volunteers during Coates-Matthews’ absence and acted in a way that was beyond an internship and more like it was his own career.
For that reason, Salzman said there was no better choice than to hire him as the new assistant director.
“Owen encapsulates so many of the qualities and contributions we hoped a candidate could bring that Jill and I felt it was an obvious decision to bring our recommendation to the full board as soon as Owen expressed interest,” he said.
Coates-Matthews, who is now returning from maternity leave, said she was thankful for all of Bennett’s help.
“He really did a great job,” she said. “It was a lot more than I think he originally anticipated, but he was up to the challenge.”
Coates-Matthews said she’s enjoyed watching Bennett over the last two years become more comfortable and confident in his abilities, especially his ability to give informative and interactive tours.
“He's great at finding interesting information and sharing it at the appropriate point where it just really hits home for people,” Coates-Matthews said. “You can tell that he has a passion for digging deeper. He’s eager to learn, and for someone who’s been in the museum profession for over a decade, it’s really refreshing to have someone as excited about history as Owen.”
Bennett has big goals for Lane Place as its new assistant director. One of which involves “bridging the gap” between the museum and Wabash. He is currently working with the College’s history department, and hopes to introduce more Wabash students to the local resources as they conduct their own research for class or for fun.
The last assistant director as young as Bennett was Chandler Lighty, a Crawfordsville native and Olivet Nazarene University graduate, who held the position from 2006 to 2007, Coates-Matthews said. Lighty went on to work for the Wabash College archives, Indiana State Library, Indiana Historical Bureau, and he now serves as the executive director of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration.
Like Lighty, Coates-Matthews said she believes Bennett will go on to accomplish big things in the future within the industry.
“He’s in school now, but he can also still explore different things at Lane Place and see what different kinds of roles there are in a museum setting that might really interest him and help him figure out exactly what he wants to do,” Coates-Matthews said. “I’ve told him many times, ‘Eventually, you’ll go on to do greater and bigger things, everyone does. But for right now, this is a good spot to be in.’”
After Wabash, Bennett hopes to get a doctorate degree in history and become a historian specializing in 19th century U.S. history.
As to whether or not he’ll stick around in his hometown after that?
“I can see myself staying around, but who knows what really will end up happening in the future,” Bennett said. “History will tell.”