Q&A with Passionate Preservationist Bill Stark

For more than 50 years, the LSU Rural Life Museum has transported visitors back in time to 19th century Louisiana. Through its immense collection of 18,000 artifacts and more than 30 historic structures representing farms, plantations, and households, the museum is dedicated to featuring the “hardships, toils, vision, and inspiration” of all Louisianans and their rural past. The open-air museum is located on 440 acres of land bequeathed by landscape architect Steele Burden and his siblings, Ione and Pike Burden, to offer the public a place to learn about everyday life in Louisiana.

Last year, the museum welcomed new Director Bill Stark, who will continue the Burdens’ vision of the museum while making it relevant and relatable to today’s visitors.


Why is learning about history important, especially now?

Knowing our past and having a solid grasp of it, beyond names and dates, is the basis of any understanding of the world in which we live. American history shows us there are no perfect heroes, yet flawed people can do very extraordinary and positive things. It also demonstrates how some of the most cherished aspects of our culture come from tragic circumstances. The Acadian exile from Canada, the European settlement and American expansion driving Native Americans from their ancestral lands, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade were all causes of countless deaths and abuses. Yet, these tragic circumstances also set the stage for the development of foods, music, and arts unique to Louisiana; the culture that developed is one we look to with pride and gives us a deep sense of community. It is not about glossing over the flawed nature of individuals or suggesting the untold suffering was worth it so we can enjoy jazz and blues. Rather, it is about coming to grips with the fact that all of history contributes to what and who we are today. Ultimately, an understanding of history can humble and humanize ourselves and others.

How has your past shaped who you are today?

Growing up in Portland, Michigan, I was always fascinated by my grandfathers and, particularly, their stories from World War II. One, a career officer in the U.S. Army would share personal stories intermixed with discussion of what his unit was doing and the broader history of the war. All were tinged with a sense of purpose and duty. My other grandfather joined the Navy after a war-related civilian project he was working on ended. His recollections were markedly different and often relayed the humor, uncertainty, and occasional chaos of being thrust into a large and growing military.

Essentially, I was presented with two perspectives on the war: one resembled The Longest Day and the other, Catch-22. This taught me two simple lessons. First, perspective shapes our understanding. It wasn’t like my grandfathers had vastly different world views; however, their respective positions in the military gave them different frameworks for understanding the war. Secondly, and more impactful to me, a broader understanding of how we fit into a situation can provide context and meaning for our place in the world. That notion has certainly shaped how I approach the lessons of history. Although I did not realize it at the time, the beginning of my curiosity about history was developed by having a close connection to people like my grandfathers, who were there as history was being made. I saw how they could have very different perspectives on the same historic period; this knowledge and experience influences me professionally to strive to present history in a nuanced, textured, and holistic manner.

Tell us how you came to the LSU Rural Life Museum.

I attended Michigan State University before moving south in pursuit of my career in museum administration. Ultimately, my wife and career opportunities brought me to Baton Rouge. I like to say I’m “married” to Louisiana.

Luckily, I have a history teacher for a wife and a 9-year-old daughter with more curiosity and intelligence than most her age. We are all afflicted with wanderlust and that makes our travels and cultural adventure-seeking a joy for us all.

Prior to coming to Baton Rouge, I spent five years as the assistant director of the McFaddin-Ward House in Beaumont, Texas.

Then, I was the division director over the Capitol Park Museum in Baton Rouge and later served as the division director over all Louisiana State Museum sites outside of New Orleans.

I became director of the LSU Rural Life Museum in July 2020 after spending two years as the associate director.

At its core, this museum reflects the hardships, toils, vision, and inspiration of all Louisianans and our rural past.

Bill StarkDirector, LSU Rural Life Museum and Windrush Gardens
William Stark


old photo of re-enactment

LSU Rural Life Museum features interactive demonstrations and displays from its collection on 440 acres of land in Baton Rouge

– Credit: LSU

The LSU Rural Life Museum has been in operation for 50 years. What is your vision for the museum during your tenure?

Steele Burden, the LSU Rural Life Museum’s founder, laid out a solid vision for the museum. Some of the wording is not what we would use today, but the essence is there. At its core, this museum reflects the hardships, toils, vision, and inspiration of all Louisianans and our rural past. The key to the museum’s growth and development is ensuring the vision remains relevant and relatable to today’s visitors and their lives. The LSU Rural Life Museum will stay true to Burden’s vision by taking an expansive view of his concepts and the museum’s mission. We will continue to look at the culture, skills, and environment that shaped Louisiana. We will do so, however, with a renewed emphasis on diverse perspectives and experiences, the adaptation to land and climate, and the interplay between these elements that make Louisiana unique within the nation. I see the LSU Rural Life Museum as a key component in linking us, as individuals, to our shared history of immigration and migration; fortitude and ingenuity; tragedy and oppression; and adaptation and resilience. The material is already in our collection. We just need to pull these stories from the objects we care for and make these connections for our visitors to experience.

What can visitors to the museum expect in the future?

We have recently completed an interpretive roadmap for the LSU Rural Life Museum. In addition to adding more layers to our interpretation, we are implementing new tours and programs around the expanded vision for the museum. Currently, we are working to tell a more holistic story of slavery and the continued oppression that followed as it relates to the museum’s mission. These changes are reflected in our interpretive labels and tours as well as in future programming and exhibitions. Our aim is to do this with a more complete and balanced representation of all the historic cultures found in Louisiana. We are expanding our interpretation to better relate how we have historically lived within the Gulf Coast environment. At the same time, we seek to enhance the connection between the efforts and education at the museum and the LSU AgCenter’s Botanic Gardens.

Beyond the visitor experience, the museum has a renewed emphasis on engagement with LSU’s academic units and, particularly, the students. We have expanded our internship program and now have opportunities for hands-on learning in everything from collections care, educational programs, development, marketing, and design initiatives. Our next steps will seek to expand the use of the museum as a center for undergraduate and graduate research alongside opportunities for LSU’s faculty.


What do you hope visitors to the LSU Rural Life Museum walk away with?

I hope visitors walk away with an appreciation for the importance of preserving the past. Likewise, we look to instill a better understanding of the struggles, ingenuity, skills, and resilience of all Louisianans who came before us. It is Louisianans’ often tragic circumstances that brought this unique blend of cultures together.

How is the museum one-of-a-kind?

There are other outdoor museums and museums that address 18th and 19th century history. However, the number shrinks rapidly when you consider the setting amid the 440 acres that is Burden Museum and Gardens. It is very rare that a museum is located within a property that includes botanic gardens focused on the working classes, the lives of the enslaved, and a broad range of cultural groups. Most museum-gardens combinations are the result of a singularly wealthy family or individual. In the LSU Rural Life Museum, the elites of society are noticeably absent from the everyday interpretation. When you combine all of this with the museum’s connection to the educational and research capabilities of LSU, you realize this is truly a one-of-a-kind museum.

Throughout the year, the LSU Rural Life Museum hosts tours and special events. Learn more at lsu.edu/rurallife.