Bringing local history to life
Sandy Cohen fondly remembers his first history lessons as a young child.
"I was lucky to have a grandfather who was a great storyteller," he said. "I originally grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and he would take me around the city and tell me these stories of the city. … It really brought the history to life."
The captivating tales of his hometown spawned a love of history that set him apart from his young peers.
"I was a strange little kid in the fact that I was a kid who liked going to museums," he says with a chuckle. "Most kids are forced to go to museums, oftentimes on school field trips and things like that, but I actually enjoyed them because I always loved history."
Now that youngster with a thirst for the past has taken the reins of Bowman Museum, settling into the role of executive director just last week. And while few of his future plans are high in detail, one goal he has already set is rooted in the way his grandfather breathed life into the stories of Baltimore's past.
"I think that's what history museums need to do," he remarked. "We really want to bring it to life and make it very exciting for people so that people understand what life was like for those years ago."
Cohen points out that the museum field is progressing beyond the days of an exhibit behind a glass case with a dissertation attached.
"There have been several trends in the field recently where we try to appeal to modern audiences with interactive displays and immersive environments," he said.
He hopes to embrace some of those trends and marry them with the existing foundation Bowman Museum has forged over the years while presenting the history of Crook County.
But first, he wants to get to know the museum and the community he has joined, a task he has repeated several times while ascending the ranks of the museum industry.
Cohen, who is now 57, began his journey into the museum field at Towson State University in his hometown of Baltimore. There, he earned an undergraduate degree in history.
"Most people who get a history degree end up teaching," he said. "The museum field is really an alternative career if you decide you don't want to teach."
He landed his first job at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, a ground-floor job as a museum aide that introduced him to the field and cemented his interest in pursuing it further. He then moved on to graduate school at Wright State University, where he earned a master's degree in history with an emphasis on public history.
Cohen then moved on to the New Jersey Historical Society, where he was a curator of manuscripts, a job he held for two years. He then took a job in the Washington, D.C., area as assistant museum director of the growing National Museum of American Jewish Military History.
"That was exciting," he said of the 12-year gig. "I really feel like I cut my teeth in that job. That is where I really learned, since it was a growing museum."
He then spent another dozen years in Austin, Texas, where he was hired as a supervisory museum curator at the LBJ Library and Museum.
"That was a very exciting job because the whole museum dealt with the 1960s, and I was in charge of exhibits," he said. "I was lucky because the '60s were arguably the most exciting decade of the 20th Century. Some love it, some hate it, but I never ran out of things to talk about and display."
After leaving Texas, Cohen moved west to New Mexico, where he served as museum director for the Albuquerque International Balloon Museum. Three years later, he moved to the Pacific Northwest, taking a job as the director of the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center, his last stop before coming to Prineville.
One week on the job, Cohen is spending the majority of his time at Bowman Museum familiarizing himself with the facility's volunteers and staff as well as the history and character of the community he now calls home.
"I want to represent them all, to know what they are all about, how they do things, what's important to them," he explained. "I think the worst thing any director or leader can do is come into a place thinking they know everything."
What he has managed to learn so far, by his own observation and from long-time Museum Historian Steve Lent, whom Cohen calls a wealth of knowledge and a walking encyclopedia, is that Crook County is rooted in its cowboy history and culture.
"There is a very Western aura to it," he said.
Cohen also received a quick lesson in the wildly inconsistent Central Oregon weather. Staying at a local motel with his wife of 32 years, their daughter and 7-month-old granddaughter, all of whom are joining him in Prineville, he awoke to a little surprise this past weekend.
"We pulled the curtain away from our window and there was the snow," he recalls. "You don't expect it to snow when spring is supposed to happen."
But perhaps most importantly to Cohen, it hasn't taken long to discover that Crook County residents are "amazingly friendly" and willing to go the extra mile to be helpful – and they demonstrate support for their local museum.
"It's a special thing because a lot of communities say they support their museums, but this one really has," he said. "It is really great to be a part of it."