PHOTOGRAPH BY Shane Van Boxtel/IMAGE STUDIOS
Kevin Osgood’s background is a blend of storytelling and seamanship. He spent years in television news before working with a company that created TV set designs and museum exhibits. When he returned to the news business and found himself being transferred to Green Bay, a door opened to what Osgood describes as his “perfect job:” executive director of the Door County Maritime Museum. It’s work that combines his passions for storytelling and history, his background in visual exhibits, and his love and respect for all things water. He sat down with Insight to share more.
Insight: You worked in news, but you have a passion for history that drew you to the museum industry. Where does that come from?
Osgood: I was born on the north shore of Boston, and a passion for history started when I was a kid in New England. When you get to walk the Freedom Trail in Boston while on a school field trip and the town you live in is the original site of the Salem Witch Trials and your great-grandmother lives across the street from the House of Seven Gables … I was just fascinated by American history and learned as much as I could about it. The USS Constitution, I was on it more times as a kid than I can remember. We lived on Cape Cod at one point. My mother was in real estate, so we moved around [a lot]. When I was 12, my mom and me and my sister moved to Florida and I spent my teenage years living from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico.
What role has water and the maritime industry played in your life?
Growing up on the water, the power of water is something you learn to respect. My grandfather taught me how to sail, and some of the things he said still stick with me. I joined the Navy for four years, even though I had been working in television already, as an undesignated seaman — you basically paint and work with ropes and lines and do all the maritime navigation stuff that sailors have done forever. It was fun, and teamwork was a big thing I learned there. My last couple of years there we were in the Persian Gulf a lot. I knew I didn’t want to stick around a whole lot longer, so I got out and went back and worked in television. But I’ve always stayed close to the water.
How did you end up in Northeast Wisconsin?
The only exception [to being close to water] was when I worked two years at a station in West Texas. There was a lake behind the house I rented, but due to the drought most of it dried out while I was there. But then the company transferred me to Green Bay. I clearly remember when I got to Green Bay seeing that the Door County Maritime Museum was looking for an executive director. The company had just spent money to move me here, so I was like ‘don’t think about it; don’t do it.’ Four years later, I was told by the then-executive director, ‘Hey, you should apply for my job because things are changing at the museum.’ So I did, and that’s how I got here. And it’s everything I love; it’s all the training and unique experiences I’ve had and all the other things I’ve done finally coming together — like, this is what I was meant for.
What does the Door County Maritime Museum do?
We preserve, interpret and tell the story of maritime history in Door County. We do that across two properties the museum owns and the third property the museum manages in partnership with Door County: the Cana Island Lighthouse. The museum originally started as a small museum up at Gills Rock, which is now known as Death’s Door Maritime Museum and focuses on that area. The museum expanded into Sturgeon Bay and in the 1990s built the brick building that sits on the west waterfront next to the Michigan Street Bridge. Door County Maritime Museum, in some ways, will always be the small town museum it started to be. It will always have that feel, but it’s growing into one of the premier museums not just in the region, but in the country. When I’m long gone, this museum’s still gonna be there, and that’s something pretty much everyone on the staff recognizes: that it’s bigger than us. We’re building something that’s going to outlast all of us.
You recently expanded in Sturgeon Bay with the opening of the Jim Kress Maritime Lighthouse Tower.
We’re excited about the tower and the fact that it’s really recognizing the depth of history that’s here. The tower was originally part of the plans for the [Sturgeon Bay] building but they didn’t have the money, so it became one of the long-term goals to get that tower built. It’s designed to tell the complete maritime history of Door County from geologic formation, Indigenous people, trade, navigation, commerce, the life underwater … in the end, it summarizes it all together into one cohesive statement: that we are all defined by water.
What’s the next big goal for the museum?
What we have now is a museum organization on the verge of joining the top 3% of museums in the country. There are roughly 35,000 museums in the United States and only 3% of them have accreditation from the American Association of Museums. And that’s our goal, is accreditation. There are a lot of organizations that won’t even consider funding a museum unless it’s accredited, but more importantly we would be eligible to request and display artifacts from the Smithsonian or any other AAM-accredited museum.
You recently helped a team of Washington Island students compete internationally in underwater robotics, and you have started programs like the cardboard regatta for kids. How important is that youth outreach component to your mission?
We are all about education here — the next generation understanding what came before and how they can take it to the next level. Obviously, we’re not building ships with wood. We’re building out of steel and we’re welding and there’s a lot of technology that’s involved, a lot of science that’s involved. And that’s what we want students in Northeast Wisconsin to know. You don’t have to go somewhere else to do these high-tech jobs. You can do them right here and be part of history. Just getting kids in the building is the start of it, and then we’re building the programs from conversations with the school systems and teachers themselves.
Maritime means more than oceans. How do we help people appreciate what Wisconsin means to the industry?
What Wisconsin means to the industry, what the Great Lakes mean to the industry — it’s huge. Industry would not exist without what happens on the Great Lakes. The culture and history of the lakes is unique, but it’s not all that different from the culture and history on the east and west coasts. We all came here because of the water for one reason or another, whether that was to work or to play. That’s why I think water is so powerful and cool.