While not as big as the Cleveland History Center, Carillion Historical Park, or the former Cincinnati Museum of History, the Warren County History Center Museum is large enough to tell the story of a town that once was on track to be larger than Dayton, Ohio.
The museum is more of a collection of historical artifacts than a straight story of the region. This works out well. A straight story would be interesting to some people but not much more than a few founders’ names. The collection of artifacts works to envelope the visitor in the era. The artifacts are so well arranged that they blend together into a theme more than stand out on a pedestal. The overall feeling is walking through rooms and lives from the early settlers to the roaring 20’s.
The basement houses the older collections. The first room is filled with early inhabitants’ artifacts and rocks from before any human was in the area. From there one steps forward into the cabin of the Butterworths, early settlers to the area. The cabin is on par with any living history museum in the state. The artifacts so well arranged and taken care of that it felt as if the father of the house was about to come back at any moment for dinner. Outside of the cabin room is a large collection of equipment that the settlers and early farmers would have used to conquer the land and turn Warren County into the agricultural treasure it has become. Surrounding the farm equipment are window displays that house artifacts from the time period. They are themed to every aspect of life from the mundane grooming to the occupational, like journalism, finance, and funeral arts. The lower level also contains the transportation wing with a collection of a few vehicles used to move people around throughout the history of Warren County. On the way out of the basement is the dark and forbidding Underground Railroad exhibit. The dark room only has the sounds of the night time creatures and the light of a distant house. Slowly the lights rise to reveal a display on the work done by Warren county residents to help slaves from the south escape to freedom. Included are maps of stops on the Underground Railroad and displays telling about how Warren County and Ohio dealt with the issues leading to the Civil War. This room is a must see.
The first floor is the one of the largest rooms and is the “Village Green.” This room is set up with display windows around the outside that resemble a town center. Each display recreates a shop that would be found, with real artifacts of the citizens of the time. This is where the theming and curation of the museum really takes off. Each display is surrounded by a facade and filled with artifacts that make it feel like looking into a shop window. The back room of the first floor is the temporary exhibit space with an ever changing collection of exhibits.
Upstairs is a balcony that surrounds the “Village Green” with two main rooms on each side. The main balcony feels like an overflow for not yet used items, but the 2 side rooms are some of the best of the Museum. The front room contains the 1920’s era “house.” The “house” is just a collection of rooms with items from the era. Included are mannequins with period clothing. While the rooms could feel like just a spattering of items, as with the rest of the museum they are so well themed that one is transported to the era and location of a 1920 warren county big wigs estate. The back room is the Shaker exhibit. The exhibit is one of the best exhibits on shaker life outside of a dedicated museum. Each artifact tells the story of Union Village that was just 4 miles outside of Lebanon. “There is great beauty in harmony” was a saying of the Shakers and the exhibit’s simple but well documented form helps to recreate this simple way of life.
One of the greatest parts of the museum was hidden throughout it like a treasure hunt. The “Gruesome but Truesome” exhibit are small placards in the windows that tell the more macabre details of the items inside. The information is well placed and parents with small children do not have to worry about items scaring them. Teens and the more adventurous will love to read about the larger story behind the museum’s collection.
Over all the Warren County Historic Center is a medium sized county museum with nothing extreme or major to set it apart from the larger city museums. As we say “A museum must tell a story, not just be a collection of artifacts.” The center shines with what it does with what it has. Every artifact is carefully placed, maybe not to tell a story, but to transport the visitor back in time to a different era.