Over the last 20 years, Detroit has experienced a real renaissance. It is the cultural hub of Michigan. Elana Rugh, President of the Detroit Historical Society, shares how this remarkable journey happened with the support not only of local government but businesses as well as a supportive community.
Detroit Historical Society Website
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Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:00] Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the show. My name is Cliff DuVernois, and today we are continuing our exploration of Detroit and what is going on down there. And we are fortunate to have the president and the CEO of the Detroit historical. So association with us that has a Elana Rugh. Elana. How are you?
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:00:50] I’m great. Thanks for having me today, cliff.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:53] Excellent. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and where you grew up.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:00:56] Well, I am a Michigander through and through. I grew up in the Metro Detroit area and, Bloomfield and spent my whole life here in Michigan. I’ve never lived anywhere else. spent a lot of time in Detroit, growing up as all of my grandparents and a lot of family were there. but pretty much stayed in the, in the suburbs.
I went away to school at Michigan state university with a dream of becoming the next Katie Couric or Jane Pauley. And. Being a brat. Yeah, the journalist.
And, So, you know, that’s, that’s really what I, what I plan to do. I didn’t think I would end up in the nonprofit sector. but, once I graduated, I had my first. You know, entry level job at a local Detroit TV station and quickly learned that that was not going to be for me. but, but fortunately I had,
Had the character building experience of having to pay for college. Myself and I had gotten a great job in East Lansing. I’m working for a company called, phone bank systems who back in the day before telemarketing was as awful as it is now. we did fundraising for nonprofit organizations. And, so there’s a great couple that, that own that company. And they gave me some great opportunities to work with clients like public TV and radio, and we raised money to.
To build the Michigan opera house, you know, work to raise money for the Detroit zoo, things like that. So, when it didn’t work out in broadcasting, I thought, well, maybe I’ll fall back on that and see if there are any nonprofit jobs to be had. And I was fortunate enough. Shortly after that to answer a tiny ad in the newspaper, you remember, like we used to do.
for a fundraising assistant at the national multiple sclerosis society. And I ended up spending 21 years at the ms. Society. and, You know, really was able to learn a lot about nonprofit management during that, that time. And it’s sort of gone on from there.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:46] So, I know you kinda mentioned this before getting into, getting into, you know, broadcasting and quickly realized that it was, you know, it wasn’t from you. And I think, you know, I’d like to go back and just talk about that really quick, because I think that a lot of times in life, people seem to think that they have to know exactly what it is that they have to do before they can move forward, versus just trying something.
And then maybe realizing that they don’t like it. So then you can at least cross that item off the list.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:03:15] No. That’s so true. I mean, especially when you get a degree in something and I was one of those rare kids, I think even back then, who was like, I knew what I wanted to do. So it’s kind of funny that I really didn’t. and so I had that singular path. I never changed my major, you know, I was going for that. now fortunately, you know, 30 years later, 30 plus years later, I think kids have a greater opportunity to have different internships and things like that. but that wasn’t as common.
Back then in the 80s. And so, yeah, I, I was really fortunate, I think to land. when I did in an organization, that’s still let me use those things I went to school for and I do every day. you know, certainly in my, in my role as a nonprofit leader, but, yeah, I, I agree with you. I think what did they say? Kids change their major.
Five times now, average in college.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:02] Yeah, it’s something along those lines. And I, and this last statistic that I read was that, you know, the, the average employee works at a company for two, maybe three years before they move on.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:04:11] Right. Yeah. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve only worked a small handful of places. I actually worked at the ms society twice after my first stint there. I left, and worked at Henry Ford health system in their philanthropy department, which was a tremendous experience. And I learned a lot that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t leave. but then I ended up going back to ms to become the CEO in 2007. and,
And, you know, so it’s, I’ve only worked for places in my 32 year career or something.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:40] Wow. That’s something you don’t hear a lot.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:04:42] No.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:43] I thought.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:04:43] Now is where I’ll stay until I retire.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:45] Yeah. And you also bring up another good point too. And I just, I want to circle back on this. It was, it was an interview with Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and he, he was talking about this concept of skill stacking. So, you know, even if you’re doing something that you may not be exactly crazy about the, you know, take advantage of the opportunity to learn and get exposed to the new ideas and different ideas, because really when you move onto your next job or your next position, you don’t know how that knowledge really is going to impact you going forward.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:05:13] That’s that is absolutely true. Yeah. And so many skills are transferable these days. whenever, I mean, I’m sure like you do like ask to talk to young people all the time about careers that I think that the soft skills are what’s most important these days is, you know, your ability to work with people.
It’s everything is just relational. in regardless of what industry you’re in, those things can transfer across the board.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:05:34] So, what I want to do is I want to ask you a question, cause it sounds like. From what you shared before. Is you were born just outside of Detroit. We’ll just say Detroit. So you were, you were born there, you were raised there. You have stayed there. What is it about Detroit? That you said, you know, you’ve just, you’re just basically major life there.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:05:55] Right. well I think, you know, I think a lot of lifelong Metro to traders feel the same way. you know, I mean when your roots are here. Right. So that’s, that’s probably the most important thing, having family around, but, you know, especially in the last 15 years or so, I’ve just been so enamored with Detroit, the city, you know, the, the gritty city, the comeback city, and being part of that in my current role, I’m really kind of cemented that for me, but we were always a family that went downtown to the symphony or to the museums and things like that.
And, and so, you know, I, we travel a ton and I love to travel to go to different museums and other places. But, this, this will always be home. And I think it’s just the caliber of people. It’s the Midwestern friendly values. and the neighborly feel of all of it.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:06:44] And from. From your perspective cause it’s you have a very, so I all right, so I’m going to step back. Let me ask that question again.
So the Detroit historical society beyond the obvious kind of talk to us about what the role is of the society in Detroit.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:07:01] Sure. Sure. Well, first real quick clip, I’ll tell you what we do. So my job is to oversee, on behalf of this city. our museums into care for the artifacts of the city of Detroit. So, we run the Detroit historical museum, which is on Woodward and Midtown, kitty corner from the DIA and next to the library there.
we also run the Dawson great lakes museum, which is on Belle isle. That’s our maritime museum. And then we, care for, almost 300,000 artifacts that are important to the city of
Cliff Duvernois: [00:07:31] Whoa, 300,000.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:07:33] Yes. And they were stored in a warehouse at historic Fort Wayne. And we have an amazing collections and curatorial team out there that keeps all of that inventory and now digitized. So people can go online and, and enjoy, you know, for free, Learning about the city of Detroit through the actual artifacts. so we run museums. We, we feel that we’re all about education.
So our role, our, our mission actually specifically is that we tell, we tell Detroit stories and why they matter. And, you know, we all know that phrase, that people who ignore history are bound to repeat it. and it is it’s so true. history is remarkably important and it can be a powerful teacher.
And so, you know, especially in times like this, our time to collect on the AR work, to collect and tell Detroit stories during this time is more important than ever. So we take these artifacts. And, use them to tell stories that not only educate school kids, you know, every third and fourth grader from the city of Detroit and many districts from around.
Come to learn about the founding of Detroit. in our frontiers to factories exhibits that starts in 1701 when the French arrived, for Beaver trading, essentially. And met with the native Americans and it all kind of began there. but, you know, through the story of the motor city and all of that, the story of the building of industry on the story of the underground railroad, we also tell the story of the riots of 1967 and how important that was. So, you know, many compelling things, there’s some serious stories of some really fun stories that we tell ’em.
But, you know, we would like to engage people. I think, that every visit to Detroit should start with a visit to the Detroit historical museum. So you have context for everything else that you’ll experience.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:09:20] That’s excellent. And I want to make sure that we, that we absolutely circle back on that. The one of the key phrases that you, that you mentioned earlier of course, is that if you don’t, if you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it. So I’ve got, I, I share a quick story here with you. So.
I left Michigan. About 22 years ago, I moved to Southern California. And at that point in time, Detroit was. Not on anybody’s list to go and visit a, had a very, very poor reputation, especially at a national level. for Detroit to get there, that area. I mean, just, you know, just you and I just speculating here, you know, what do you think were made like maybe some of the things that happened in Detroit to first of all, get it to that point.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:10:03] Certainly racial unrest is a huge part of the problems of Detroit and the subsequent economic issues. I think both of those things go hand in hand. You know, there was a significant riot in the forties. so going back as far as then, when you think about the way Detroit was founded, we are the absolute, you know, we don’t, we don’t call it the melting pot. We call it the salad bowl because people didn’t all morph together. Right.
There’s all different sorts of people from all around the world came here. in through the 1920s. you know, really, grew started to grow industry here and, as the different groups came together, racism was a constant issue and the, you know, the divisiveness, a lot of which we’re seeing again today,
One of our most compelling exhibits is about the unrest in 1967. And it’s called 67 perspectives. For a reason. And that’s that, that people who were on the same street the same day, had a very different perception and perspective about what happened. And I think that’s typical for Detroit as a whole, you know, they have have nots.
The demise of neighborhoods like paradise Valley and black bottom, which were, you know, wonderful places of culture and community for, African-Americans and others, which were. you know, demolished to build freeways. it’s been a constant, you know, economic and racial battle. So I think that,
You know, really back through the seventies and eighties, I think that’s probably the timeframe that you’re thinking about what it was really tough downtown.
Coleman young was mayor and. you know, a lot of good things were starting to happen then to the Renaissance center was built. and, you know, things started to come back a lot of architectural gems down there and, different companies moving in. but it really hasn’t been until, you know, the last 20 years or so I think that the right investment has been made. but then, you know, I can say in the next breath, the same issues, as wonderful as things are getting in some parts of the city, there’s a lot of the same issues still exist.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:12:08] And for this kind of like, you know, just. I’m gonna throw this term out there, for this rebirth of Detroit, to get it to where it is today, cause I, every time I’m going to Detroit now, I just, I haven’t, I have an awesome time. I’m always having a great time when I’m there. I’m not.
you know, it’s just nice to shake off that old vision of Detroit and being able to say, you know what, this really is, you know, the, the cultural center of Michigan I’ll make that statement. what is, what is some of those, what would you say would make maybe some of those, either key decisions or key investments that were made that has really brought Detroit to where it is today?
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:12:44] Sure. Well, you know, my favorite is the riverfront. we, we are close with the folks at the riverfront Conservancy and if folks have not been down there. to see what was completely blighted before, you know, these abandoned industrial areas that you would not have wanted to go. Near, is, is so incredibly revitalized right now. And then that’s spread out into the neighborhoods around that area. and you know, you can barely afford a house in some of those areas there.
so the riverfront, I think was huge, when the Superbowl was coming into town, you know, if you recall that there were, you know, a couple billion dollars worth of projects, and I believe that that helped at that time. and, and you really can’t diminish, you know, the support of organizations like the downtown development authority and the Detroit economic growth corporation, you know, really finding.
The business owners to pull them together. To revitalize these historic buildings. I mean, I think Detroit has some of the most beautiful historic buildings in the country for sure.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:47] Yes. And yeah, I love seeing those shots from, you mentioned before about Belle isle. I love seeing those photographs of, downtown Detroit. I just think that. You know, to me, it’s just, it’s absolutely captivating. You mentioned this before about, the DIA Detroit Institute of art. Is there a couple, couple of months ago. And you know, that whole area is just, you know, it’s just beautiful and I’m loving that museum.
And it’s, it’s really nice to be able to go and see, like, especially like on the wall, they have like a history of, you know, people that have made various donations and stuff. And. It’s really. To me anyways. Very inspiring that even through the good times, even through the bad times, People’s generosity in donating to Detroit believing in Detroit, maybe not so much for what it was in that moment, but what it could be.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:14:41] Yeah, exactly. You know, what an interesting thing that I’m happy to, include our listeners on is, there’s some, there’s an amazing project happening right now called Detroit square. And we’re really happy to be part of it. There are 12 institutions, in the area around of Midtown that include the Detroit historical museum, the Detroit public library that the DIA.
the Michigan science center, the Charles H. Wright museum of African-American history. And then also, there’s the scarab club and the international center and, three universities, a Wayne state university, the university of Michigan and CCS. And so we are, working together with Midtown Detroit, inc. and, have, this has been happening over the last three years or so on, but they had an international design competition really to,
Expand in and, the outdoor spaces. To encourage a real, you know, community feel and kind of a brand for the cultural district where, people would have, you know, there’ll be a shared parking solution. A wayfinding, we would market events together and really activate the outdoor spaces between all of our institutions. There’s a lot of green space there. So we have been so excited about what this could mean for us.
We’re one of the only cities that has a, you know, a cohesive at least, you know, physically close group of museums and, educational institutions that isn’t officially partnering together. So it’s such a cool opportunity and this is something people are going to start to hear a lot about. And I invite everyone to key in, on that and come down and visit all of the institutions. When, when we’re ready, this will be a long-term project.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:16:22] Sure thing. And it sounds like from what you’re talking about there, that there really is. A lot of collaboration that’s going on between these big institutions.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:16:32] Yes. Yeah, exactly. And I think this is the first time it’s really happened. There’ve been kind of one-off partnerships on things. I know when we did our, exhibition on the 67 uprising, other institutions kind of get in on this, but this is brought all of us together in a great way. with a lot of enthusiasm.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:16:49] Where do you think that this spirit of collaboration has come from?
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:16:54] well, I think there’s a few things. One is, is really the leadership of Sue mosey who heads Midtown Detroit, inc. And, and of the city, city leadership who are interested in just maximizing what we have here. We have such amazing institutions here. you know, we have a Oh a world-class symphony and I’m an opera house.
And we have a historical museum and the Motown museum and one of the best African American museums in the world. And, we’re not co-marketing. And so this, the idea really came from the Detroit Institute of arts, their CEO I’m Salvatore, solar pons is from Spain and he was envisioning changing the outside of the DIA to be more of a Plaza.
Where people could gather. So that’s really where that idea started just with that nugget. And then realizing when they looked out their front door, there were all of these other institutions. And so. The organization of Midtown Detroit help pull all of that together. And it really was much bigger, has become much bigger than I think Salvador ever imagined it would be.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:17:57] Yeah. That’s that’s actually pretty cool. And that actually explains a lot of what I saw when, when I was down there at the DIA. So yeah, it was just, you know, like I said, it’s, you know, I’m carrying a perspective, that’s 20 years out of date. So, you know, to be able to go down there, go to the DIA and kind of like look around and it’s just like, I would have never envisioned this being in Detroit, but I’m glad it’s here.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:18:21] Right. Well, I think cliff, that your story is. is, is very, you know, typical of people that if you, if you grew up around here where you were from out of town and you kind of heard what you heard about it, you know, they used to call Detroit the murder capital of the world. And, that’s what, that’s what stuck in people’s heads, you know, sort of this gangster kind of mentality. And, certainly things are not perfect downtown, but, there’s a real effort made being made right now. That’s underway. It’s going to take a long time, but we’re certainly on the right path. So I don’t blame you at all. I think it’s very natural for, you know, that perception to have stuck in your head and.
And I’m happy and grateful that you invited me on to talk about it. And I encourage everybody to just come down and check it out.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:19:04] Yeah, I’ll have to tell this to, to people that I don’t have a vested interest in being right. And I love to be proved wrong, you know, time and again, you know, I’m one of these weird people that I love. I love to challenge my perceptions. And this is one here, like I said, you know, just going down to Detroit after 20 years and just seeing what was going on, I was just, I was like, this is just cool. You know? So it’s no problem.
For me at all to, to jump in the car and make the, make the 90 minute Trek to Detroit and have an absolutely wonderful, wonderful
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:19:37] good. Well, next time you come down, I’d love to give you a tour of the historical museum too.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:19:42] Dawn and Hey, let’s talk about that museum, if yeah. So talk to me about like, you know, when was, when was the museum actually founded, who actually had the idea for her to talk to me a little bit about that?
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:19:53] Sure. Well, the, the Detroit historical society was actually founded in 1921. So we are about to celebrate our Centennial. and it was founded by, really a group of, Of local Detroiters. You know, this is typical of museums, that it would be people with some wealth who had, you know, collected the history of their company’s Clarence Burton was really the first one that invited a group of people together at the newly opened Detroit public library to have a meeting in December of 1921.
to talk about the founding of a historical society. sometime in the next couple of years, they actually did create a museum, you know, up until then they just sort of had their own papers and artifacts. the museum was in bar alum tower, which is now called Cadillac tower. Downtown is recently it’s being refurbished right now.
but the museum was on the 23rd floor of Cadillac tower and they, would Herald it is the highest museum in the world. And it was honestly just a couple of little suites that had, I’ve seen pictures. It was like a spinning wheel in there. And. A lot of paper documents that people could look through. but the Detroit historical museum was not built until 1951.
So that’s when we opened. and there’ve been several significant renovations. Constant changes to exhibitions, you know? absolutely. And, you know, now we’re, at this point, as we are pondering our Centennial, that we’re really realizing that it’s time to reimagine the Detroit historical museum, for the next 100 years of visitors. So it’s a pretty.
A weighty proposal. we feel a lot of responsibility around that, but you know, certainly, Detroit looks very different in its population, and residents than it did when. The museum was built in 1951.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:47] Yes.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:21:48] You know, all of our exhibits are reflective of that. And then when Detroit was walked through, they see themselves reflected in our exhibits. In our stories.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:56] Yeah, and you bring up a really good point because as basically a society that is responsible for collecting more or less recording, The history. That is an awesome responsibility to make sure that your not skewing what it is. Just, just capturing what is going on. and then letting people draw their own conclusions.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:22:21] Yeah, but also, you know, And making sure at the same time that you’re telling both sides of the story. so that sometimes that requires telling stories that are hard to tell that some people might not want us to tell. but it’s. It is really incumbent upon museums to do this. And I’ll. Quick story cliff. I was fortunate enough to be invited to Dubrovnik Croatia last fall.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:22:43] Beautiful city.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:22:44] there was a, an international competition for museums that we were invited to, participate in based on the Detroit 67 exhibition. and so we, we actually came in second place in the world for that exhibit, which was so exciting. Yes. and we were, we were a very good company. These were all museums that were already award-winning in their own countries, but I had this cool opportunity just about a year into the job to be able to meet museum CEOs from around the world. And everybody’s dealing with the same thing. and, and really it’s around.
Ensuring that all of the stories are told in the right way. And, that requires sometimes editing what is in museums, that, you know, was. know, maybe appropriate at one time, but now, you know, there are stories that are missing. So this is really, you know, come to the forefront for us and we take it very seriously. So we work with.
almost a hundred different partners from around the city. From all different groups, all of the different ethnic groups that are represented. Members of the community to help us determine going forward, what changes need to be made and what new exhibitions do we need to, to present to people?
Cliff Duvernois: [00:23:55] Excellent. And let’s chat a little bit about some of the You know, some of the exhibits that are going on and, I’ll kind of put you on the spot here, but this is, you know, this is something that, that I ask, usually ask all my guests. You know, for somebody that’s, you know, coming to Detroit and they’re like, you know what, I’m going to go check out the Detroit historical museum.
Talk to me about maybe three things that you yourself would either highly recommend that they take a look at, when they come in maybe three things that people aren’t looking at, that they should look at. What, what would be those three things?
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:24:27] Well, I three is hard, but I will do my best. so as far as our, so we have both signature exhibitions that are up all the time, and then we have changing exhibitions, which rotate all the time. So, I would say the, the most popular exhibit that people remember from childhood, which is kind of untouchable in our space is the streets of old Detroit.
And this is in the lower level of the museum and it tells the story of Detroit, you know, really from the beginning, It is. you kind of step into the past and you experienced the city’s transformation from a rural frontier town into the industrial age. And we have three quarter sized storefronts that you can go into.
Like a sander store and that kind of a thing. So, you know, you get to experience that. So that’s pretty magical. and, people tend to really remember that. And when we look online, you know, when people post reviews and stuff, there’s a lot of pictures of the streets of old Detroit. for sure. you know, and, and also real popular is our, our America’s motor city exhibition. So when people think about Detroit, they think about cars.
And we have a large footprint dedicated to telling the story of the companies in the families that built Detroit. And we’re actually in the next few months going to be launching an exhibit to celebrate a hundred years of Fisher body, working with the Fisher family in general motors on that. And, you know, so everyone in Detroit has been touched by the automotive industry. So that’s, that’s pretty cool. We actually have, a body drop there from, an old plant.
that, was from the Clark street assembly plant when it closed in 1987. And that sort of the showpiece. Of that exhibition. and kids love that too. Very very cool. And the third thing I’m going to pick as our other museum, the Dawson great lakes museum, which is right on the banks of the Detroit river. We have a new, just finished a two-and-a-half million dollar outdoor enhancement project.
we have the bow anchor from the Edmund Fitzgerald. And tell the story of the maritime story, of the great lakes and, and, you know, specifically the Detroit river. And, it’s a, it’s a fabulous little museum that you shouldn’t miss.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:26:35] Definitely. Definitely. And those actually sound really cool. And I’m going to put those on my list. So when I come down there, you need to make sure that I see those.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:26:42] Great.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:26:43] Excellent. So a lotta, if somebody is listening to this and they want to, they want to follow what it is that, the historical society is doing, or maybe, you know, check out, some of the things that you have online, where would be the best place for them to do that.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:26:55] Sure. well, all of our events are always, everything’s always on our website, which is Detroit historical.org. That’s the best place to contact us. We’re also. You know, real easy to find on, you know, on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. and, you know, we encourage people to, you know, also sign up to.
not only just, you know, get information about us, but to become a member. that’s really reasonable. We actually have free memberships for residents of Detroit Hamtramck and Highland park.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:27:21] Nice.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:27:22] that’s another way. you know, also we have a really cool museum store with a lot of exclusive Detroit stuff that you can’t get and you can get to that website off of our, Main website as well.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:27:33] Excellent. And for our audience, we will have all those links in the show notes down below Elana. It’s been great having you on the podcast today. I love talking about Detroit, so thank you so much, for, for scratching my itch for me. Thank you so much.
Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society: [00:27:48] Well, thank you. Great time. And I look forward to seeing you downtown.