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In Focus

Wyoming's Marcia Wolter Britton

By Melissa Forbes | HUMANITIES, March/April 2005 | Volume 26, Number 2

With almost three times as many cattle as people and spanning 97,809 square miles, Wyoming is frontier country.

"Some people who come to visit from more populated areas actually are frightened by the remoteness, but I think that for a lot of us who live in these western states, that's what we enjoy, the remoteness," says Marcia Wolter Britton, the executive director of the Wyoming Council for the Humanities.

While it might seem difficult to run a humanities program in such far-flung circumstances, Britton says that in many ways, it is just the opposite. She quotes her predecessor, who described Wyoming as one long main street where everyone knows one another.

"The cultural opportunities can be limited, but they are also more engaging because they are so important to the population in these states," she says. "So I think we tend to pay more attention to what we do have and treasure these experiences."

She believes that this kind of environment helps the council's visibility and pushes it to join forces with other cultural organizations.

Britton has worked with several humanities organizations and museums, most recently as the director of the state museum system in Nevada and at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Before that, at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, she helped launch a program called Heritage Outbound, which brought together geologists, archaeologists, artists, and American Indian specialists to lead outdoor field trips for the public. She also helped to organize North Dakota's statewide local history council, which, among other projects, documented all church structures throughout the state with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In becoming the Wyoming council's director in 2003, Britton began a series of surveys in towns across the state to discover what topics were most important to Wyoming's citizens. "We wanted to listen to the ground, to the grassroots, and see what people were thinking," she says.

As a result, the council has created "A Wyoming Conversation," in partnership with Wyoming Public Radio, the Wyoming Community Foundation, the University of Wyoming, and Wyoming Public Television. From January through June 2005, discussions will be broadcast on public radio with state and local leaders on topics such as ways of sharing Wyoming's heritage with newcomers, balancing development with preservation, and addressing the interests of ethnic groups.

Britton herself has lived in several western states, including Nevada, North Dakota, and Montana as well as Wyoming. She says the experience has given her a strong sense of the area's identity. "I think there is a lot of opportunity for regional projects," she says, "for us to address relevant issues as a group."

She points to a seven state project four years ago called "Moving Waters: The Colorado River and the West." The project included book discussions, a radio documentary, and a traveling exhibition exploring the role that the Colorado River has played in the states it touches. Britton says that this is an example of the regional programming she aspires to.

After growing up in California and Minnesota, Britton went on to earn two master's degrees: one in anthropology from Wayne State University in Detroit and the other in history museum studies and American folk culture from the Cooperstown Graduate Program at the State University of New York, Oneonta. Her affection for museum work hasn't waned; she continues to volunteer as a national board member for the Museum Education Roundtable, based in Washington, D.C.

About the Author

Melissa Forbes, a senior at Seattle Pacific University, was an intern at NEH.