Elana Rugh tackles Detroit history
Elana Rugh (pronounced "Roo") took over as executive director and CEO of the Detroit Historical Society nine months ago, putting her at the helm of two of the city's premier institutions — the Detroit Historical Museum and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle.
The Detroit News recently sat down with the Michigan State University graduate to talk history, the Motor City, and how to update a nearly 100-year-old institution.
Have you ever worked for a museum before?
Rugh: "No. I most recently worked as chief advancement officer for Detroit Country Day School, and before that I was president of the Michigan Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for 10 years."
This would seem to be a very different job.
"Frankly, before coming here I knew nothing about running a museum. I was an unorthodox candidate, but I think that was one of the things I brought to the table. My husband and I are museum junkies. So I’m learning all that, and that is so much fun."
How's it working out for you?
"It's my dream job. To pair something I love — something important — with what I do for a living was such a cool opportunity. It’s not that there aren’t tough days, but I’m always so excited. My husband Chris, who's assistant principal at Canton High School, says that's because I’m learning all the time."
Did you always intend to work in the nonprofit world?
"No. At Michigan State, I studied broadcasting. I wanted to be the next Jane Pauley. But when I realized I really didn’t want to be a TV reporter, I found a job in the nonprofit world and fell in love with it."
All museums struggle with pulling in young people. How do you see handling that?
"It's something I think about every day, and forms part of my late-night googling. Millennials aren’t coming to museums — anywhere — unless they provide unorthodox experiences for them, and I'm open to that. So starting this summer we’ll be open one evening a week, though we haven't yet picked which night."
What other changes do you see in the museum's future?
"I hope we can reopen our Woodward entrance, which has been closed for years — though nobody knows quite when that happened. It has to be re-imagined — perhaps glassed in with a café and gift shop — as a way to introduce people to the museum and pull them in.
It sounds like it'd fit with new plans for the Cultural Center's proposed DIA Plaza.
"Yes. I’m very excited about the newly re-imagined outdoor spaces in the finalist plans, with amphitheaters, play structures, and all of it, as well as the newly formed camaraderie between directors of the various institutions. The winning design, of course, will be announced June 10. It's probably a 10 year vision, but I believe it will happen."
That's a long timeline — do you think you'll still be here?
"I really think this is the job I’ll retire from. I’m 50 now, so I have another 16, 17 years at least."
Detroit Historical Museum
5401 Woodward, Detroit
Admission: free (parking in museum lot - $9)
9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Fri; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.