Where history and culture meet

Dawn St. George brings a dazzling résumé of leadership in cultural and historical organizations to her executive director post in Port Washington

Dawn St. George visited the 1860 Light Station, one of the properties of the Port Washington Historical Society, which she will lead as executive director. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Dawn St. George’s introduction to history came at an early age growing up next to her grandparents’ farm in Wauwatosa.

She grew pumpkins and sold them along the thoroughfare of 124th Street to raise Christmas money, but it was other farm work that caught her attention.

“I would ride on the tractor on my grandpa’s lap,” she said, adding the plow overturned what turned out to be artifacts from the Paleo and Woodland Indians.

She wanted to share that knowledge with others, the incoming executive director of the Port Washington Historical Society said.

“My first love has always been education,” she said.

That led St. George to earn a teaching degree. She taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a while and went back to school to earn a doctorate and a master’s in anthropology. Her doctorate entailed work at a site of Kenyan paleontologist Richard Leakey in Zaire, Africa (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). She followed that with a post-doctorate program at the University of Iowa.

But she wanted to reach more people through new experiences.

St. George became the director of education at the Zoological Society of Milwaukee in 2006, starting a new career in museums that would lead to several stops along the way.

St. George’s experience includes working in TV and radio, director of education at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, museum director at Old World Wisconsin, deputy director of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Division of Museums and Historic Sites, going on archaeological digs as director at a museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, executive director of the Park People of Milwaukee County and most recently director of the Cedarburg History Museum.

“When you have a love for cultural organizations, you can move between them,” she said.

That wealth of experience in museums carries a similarity.

“The focus of these cultural institutions I’ve been part of has always been elementary school students,” St. George said.

She noticed the enriching experience in her first non-university job at the zoo.

“I love the idea of them — the blend of formal education in the classroom and informal education. It just enhances the educational experience,” St. George said.

That first love of education had developed additions, including archaeology and history.

That’s one reason St. George was enticed by Historical Society’s combination of the Light Station, Research Center and the Exploreum, whose education programs attract students from Ozaukee County and Milwaukee-area schools.

Planting an early seed of interest — like her grandparents’ farm did with her — is important, she said.

“I feel you can’t reach students too young.”

The nature of the Exploreum’s exhibits are also a draw.

“It’s very interactive. You want to hear those voices in the museum,” she said.

St. George said she also likes that the Exploreum’s exhibits go beyond Port and cover Lake Michigan, including water use, fishing, invasive species and commerce.

“I love the call to action on sustainable issues we can deal with,” she said.

Museums like the Exploreum also pique the interests of adults. Even tourists, St. George said, will get hooked, become members and tell others.

“You hope people with that experience go home, open up their computer and continue to learn, and then come back,” St. George said.

The Light Station, she said, offers historic preservation and education, and the Resource Center collects, records and artifacts that record of the history of Port families.

“We’re getting collections from citizens. That’s what we’re doing with cultural organizations and museums, we’re telling stories, and I love that,” she said. “That’s my grandfather’s Irish heritage. We don’t want to lose that.”

Those stories, she said, bring in families and children, who share them with their children, and the tales get passed through generations.

St. George’s experience also allows her to collaborate with others with similar passions. At the Exploreum’s members reception for “Murmurs from the Deep” exhibit, St. George connected with Mark Kuehn, the curator at Milwaukee’s North Point Lighthouse. The two hadn’t met since their early 20s and hope to collaborate on projects in the future.

The mission among many museums and cultural organizations, St. George said, is similar. While working for the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, she said, part of the job was to support smaller societies across the state.

One advantage Port has, she said, is its support.

“It is volunteer run,” St. George said of the Port Washington Historical Society, adding that the board has engaged members.

St. George lives in Mequon and enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, being a 20-year member of a book club and working out.

But she doesn’t plan on any of that replacing her passion for the missions of museums and cultural organizations.

St. George is slated to start with the Port Washington Historical Society on Monday.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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