Category Archives: Behind-the-Scenes

From the Office of the President: William Watts Folwell’s Desk

By Evan Walker

Today’s Object Lesson might be one of the most exciting objects so far–at least to photograph. At almost 5 feet wide by 3 feet deep, the only way to fit the entire desk in the camera frame was to turn it on its side. Then one of us stood on either side of the desk and held up a white sheet in order to get a clean background.

If you ask me, the photos of the photo shoot are almost as fun as the final artifact photo!

Taking the Photo - Evan

Above: The author demonstrates the many duties of a museum intern!

Taking the Photo - Layne and Heather

Taking the photo - Mike


This desk once stood in the office of William Watts Folwell, first president of the University of Minnesota. Born in New York in 1833, he served as an engineer in the Civil War. When he became president of the University, it had eight professors and 100 students, but he was an instrumental figure in expanding the college and making it more useful for all Minnesotans. By the time he stepped down in 1884 the U had about 960 students, and he continued as a professor and librarian for several years.

Folwell raised a few eyebrows by advocating for a full graduate program and the establishment of museums and libraries at the U, rather than only the more traditional undergraduate program focusing on Greek and Latin. He was described as “a knight errant of the new education… interested in everything from Plato to hog cholera.” Students were more familiar in their descriptions, apparently calling him “Uncle Billy”.

Another of Folwell’s accomplishments was his four-volume history of Minnesota, which he wrote over the course of nine years.

The desk itself is made from oak, with some poplar wood. Each of the 10 drawers can be locked, and there are holes on the top of the desk. These may have been used to attach more shelves or possibly other articles, like a lamp or inkwell.


About the Author

Evan Walker recently completed a summer internship at HHM. He enjoys playing tennis and sharing stories about people and events from the past. Evan will be going into his sophomore year at Luther College in the fall, studying history.


William Watts Folwell

Report of the University of Minnesota, 1884-1886

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Behind-the-Scenes in the Archives

Did you know that Hennepin History Museum is home to vast archives holding materials relating to the history of Hennepin County? We’ll be highlighting materials from the archives on this blog, but these materials are also available for use by the public; while our collection database isn’t (yet) online, we have a physical card catalog available in our reading room, and if you email our archivist, Susan Larson-Fleming, in advance with details about your research project she’ll pull out materials for you in advance (You can reach Susan at

What sorts of things do we hold? A little bit of everything, and a lot of some things. We have tens of thousands of historic photographs of people, places, and events from across the county. Our collection of historic house photographs from Minneapolis gets a lot of use. We have diaries, postcards, menus, yearbooks, cookbooks, calendars, catalogs, scrapbooks, meeting minutes, advertising ephemera, even old train tickets and schedules.

Maintaining archival materials is a little different than what you might do at home. Because our goal is preserve this materials for many generations into the future, we house all materials in acid-free materials (regular cardboard or paper can, over time, can damage archival materials); the boxes you see in this photo are all specially made for archival use. We also catalog each item so that staff and researchers know what is in the collection and where to find it.