When Katie Conrad was contacted by producers of The Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum, she had museum expertise and professional curating under her belt. But when she was asked to talk on-camera about a historical figured named John Wesley Powell, she says, “I was terrified, quite honestly.”
Conrad, who graduated from WIU-QC in December 2016 with a master’s degree in WIU Museum Studies program, is the collections manager and and curator of the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah, a position she’d secured before even graduating from Western. The role includes caring for the museum’s collection and creating exhibits. But this particular museum’s focus would also soon require her to serve as an expert on a man whose “mysteries” the show wanted to highlight. Conrad was featured in the “Adventure” section referenced in the title of Season 16, Episode 6: “Eisenhower’s Crazy Convoy, Criminal Measures, and Canyon Adventure.” (The last section of that title referring to “…an explorer’s dangerous quest to be the first to uncover the secrets of the Grand Canyon.”)
“I was nervous about not knowing enough about him, because I’d only worked here three months,” she said. “I hadn’t studied him at all. The other people they feature on the show are always so well-put-together, with a lot of knowledge behind them.”
So she did what any good student would do.
“I bought three books, and I started making a timeline and memorizing all these facts,” she said. “After I read a few books about him, I felt comfortable enough to put myself in his shoes. So that helped a lot when a producer would ask me, ‘What do you think Major Powell was thinking?'”
Green River is a small town in the area near Arches National Park with a river flowing through the center of town. And as Conrad explained, it’s the river that quite literally put it on the map.
“In the 1860s, this area of the Colorado River was literally empty, and Major Powell was a great adventurer. He loved exploring, and he decided to fill in the gaps on the map. He rafted down and basically filled in the western area of the map by rafting rivers. He commissioned three boats, some men from the Civil War, and they mapped the whole way. It had never been done before, and rapids were something new they had to figure out. They lost a boat along the way, lost their food, and had to dry their flour out every night…it’s a great story.”
When the TV crew came to town, they interviewed Conrad and shot footage of one of the replicas of Powell’s boats, as well as other artifacts, and took footage of Green River.
“It was so much fun. I learned so much,” she said. “I’m flattered that my director trusted me enough to do it, and I’m happy with how it turned out. I’m happy for the museum and for the great city of Green River.”
How Did Western Send Her On Her Way?
Despite having only worked in Green River for a few months, Conrad is no stranger to Utah, having lived there all her life prior to coming to WIU-QC. A 2012 graduate of Utah State with a degree in anthropology, Conrad worked as a curatorial and developmental assistant at the Brigham City Museum. After three years there, as she began to research new career possibilities, “I would find that most of the positions required a master’s degree, so I’d end up getting an interview but not the job. I started getting discouraged,” she said. “So I started thinking about going back to school.”
It was while she was attending a professional development workshop in Salt Lake City that she met the instructor, Dr. Pamela White.
“The workshop was two or three days long, and we started talking at dinner one night,” she said. “She told me about her program, and when I talked about being concerned about money, because I was already working at a museum and didn’t want to leave that to become a student again, she told me about the graduate assistantship program.” Within a few months, Conrad had applied and been accepted into the program, and was soon on a plane to Illinois.
“Leaving Utah was the first time I’d lived by myself, and it was terrifying but extremely exciting at the same time,” she said. “My family was a big help, and I was able to get great student loans and two or three interviews for grad assistantships, one at the Putnam Museum and one at the Muscatine Art Center. Two or three days later, I had offers at both.”
Conrad accepted the assistantship at the Putnam, where she worked in the collections and exhibits department. During her time at Western, she also gained practical experience through projects and internships at sites such as the Figge Museum, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, and the International Preservation and Studies Center.
“The program was fantastic, from being able to have classes in museums, to professors who work in the field, to working on projects that you get to see come to fruition, to the books that the professors pick, the conversations you have, all the visiting people who come in and talk,” she said. “They really pushed us to get out there, go to conferences, present at conferences, and go to museums in our free time. That was great.”
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