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John Brown Exhibit at Watkins Museum Attracts Many Visitors

Abby Shepherd

John Brown is a recognizable figure throughout Kansas, and especially in Lawrence. Brown is so notable that Watkins Museum of History, located on Mass. St., dedicated an exhibit to him, Encountering John Brown, as well as two accompanying exhibits. The exhibit opened in early September. 

The exhibit was curated by Overland Traveling Exhibits, a company based in Newton, Kan. that creates exhibits for local museums to rent. Watkins Museum provided input on the duration of the exhibit, like making the text historically accurate. The exhibit traced the origins of Brown’s ideology, by following his life path and examining important figures he encountered along the way, like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. 

Brown is most famous for his abolitionist work, as well as his controversial tactics, like those used in the Pottawatomie Massacre and Harper’s Ferry raid

Will Haynes, director of engagement and learning at Watkins Museum, acknowledged Brown’s controversial legacy, and the need to accurately portray it. 

“John Brown remains relevant as an American activist who really gave his life to an important cause, the cause of ending slavery,” Haynes said. “He went above and beyond the law, and he remains controversial to this day. As the exhibit shows, he was a very dedicated and driven person, and he built up a large following.”

The exhibit followed a linear path and featured original art of historical figures by Brad Sneed, an illustrator based in Overland Park, Kan. 

“It uses the theme of a set of encounters by John Brown and a variety of people he met in his life and in his campaign to end slavery, people like Harriet Tubman and Robert E. Lee,” Haynes said. “It uses that theme to branch off into these other topics in his life and to tell the story of his life.” 

Watkins also did promotion for the exhibits, including a social media campaign with Kerry Altenbernd, who portrays John Brown in events across the area. 

“We’ve also done 11 public events on various topics tied to the exhibit,” Haynes said. “We’ve had 17 tours, field trips, and a couple of digital events, we’ve done a digital tour or two as well.”

The exhibits had a good turnout, with over 1,000 people buying tickets for Encountering John Brown. Encountering John Brown closed Nov. 6, John Brown’s War: Bleeding Kansas and the Battle of Black Jack closed Nov. 13, and Armed With Knowledge: The Scientific Testing of Old Sacramento will be available until Feb. 12. 

Haynes encourages those in the Lawrence and KU community to visit the museum and all the exhibits offered. 

“People will come away from this exhibit with an appreciation of how dynamic and how influential [Brown] was,” Haynes said.