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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Interpreting local history

  • Recently, a Kansas State Penitentiary execution hood was donated to the Museum's collection.
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  • Recently, a Kansas State Penitentiary execution hood was donated to the Museum's collection. It is not exactly a hood — it consists of a panel of black fabric with an elastic band at the top to secure the fabric over the inmate's face.
    Previously, someone donated sections of rope used in 1938 to hang Robert Suhay at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth for murdering Special Agent Wimberly W. Baker.
    Bank robbers, Suhay and his cohort Glen John Applegate mortally wounded Baker at the post office in Topeka on April 16, 1937. These items may be considered "creepy" to most.
    Over the years, we have received criticism for the plan to display the Kansas State Penitentiary gallows at the future Kansas Regional Prisons Museum.
    One called it "morbid." Yet, in my approaching eight years of service as Site Supervisor of the Lansing Historical Museum, I have never received a complaint for our Civil War saber and pistol which are on display.
    Why do people classify these two artifacts as "cool" instead of "creepy?"
    All of these items are steeped in a history of violence.
    While giving a presentation at Emporia State University, one of the philosophy professors questioned the decision to display the gallows.
    I explained that in 1997, I took a school trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Years later, I do not remember the texts I read that day. However, I vividly remember standing inside one of the cattle cars that was used to transport Jewish men, women, and children to their deaths.
    I can only imagine how terrified they were and how they suffered, packed into those cattle cars.
    While these artifacts are "creepy" to some, they are an important part of teaching and understanding history.
    If we gloss over all of the ugly and heartbreaking moments in history, how would we learn what our ancestors went through? We would not appreciate what we have today if we did not know what sacrifices our ancestors made for future generations.
    The presentation of history in a museum is not something historians take lightly. Museum staff can spend months, if not years, researching the selection of text, images, and artifacts for the exhibits. In some instances, the same cannot be said for mass media in a world of late-breaking stories.
    It is not ethical for us to glorify the crimes committed by inmates. We take great strides to make sure we do not glorify the inmates. When we created the documentary, The Kansas State Penitentiary: An Institution and a Neighbor, we sought advice from the prison administration.
    We did not show the faces of the inmates who did not have media clearance.
    Page 2 of 2 - We have a respect for the victims of crimes as well as the family members of inmates. We also have an obligation to educate the public about our history.
    We are dedicated to interpreting history with care and concern for the public.
    Since we have children visit the Museum, we try to keep the exhibits at a "PG rating."
    No matter how hard we try, there will always be people who object to some of the content of our history.
    Perhaps the history brings up painful memories or they just do not agree with it for whatever reason.
    As always, we welcome constructive input for Museum exhibits and programs.
    With the upcoming "Created Equal" film discussion series, it is important for community members to become involved in exploring our civil rights history and sharing it with those who are too young to remember the struggles from that era.
    Laura Phillipi is the Lansing Historical Museum site supervisor

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