America’s Credit Union Museum Inspires the Movement’s Future by Preserving the Past

The museum is focused on collecting and digitally archiving credit unions’ stories so it may share them with virtual visitors.

12/10/2019

America’s Credit Union Museum is home to the nation’s first credit union. It’s rich history is helping to inspire the future of the Credit Union Movement.

Last week, Anthem explored the history of America’s Credit Union Museum with Shawn Gilfedder, a museum board member and President/CEO of Kitsap Credit Union. This week, we look to the museum’s future with Stephanie Smith, Executive Director of America’s Credit Union.

The museum, located in Manchester, New Hampshire, is home to the nation’s first credit union, opened in 1908 as St. Mary’s Cooperative Credit Association. To learn more about the museum, visit it online and read last week’s Anthem story. Scroll down to watch a video about the museum.

Anthem: Can you tell us what visitors see and learn when they visit the museum?

Stephanie: The building where Attorney Joseph Boivin first managed the credit union’s business became America’s Credit Union Museum in 2002. The building serves as a historical and educational site for the Credit Union Movement. You can visit the original office and imagine you are there when the first deposits were made. The building was generously donated by owners Armand and Joanne Lemire to a non-profit foundation in 1994. Mr. Lemire served on the Board of Directors at St. Mary’s Bank from 1994 until his death in 2003.

The first floor of the museum is the historic birthplace of the Movement and considered our sacred space where the very first credit union transactions within the United States took place. The first-floor rooms have been restored to a close replica of the space in 1908, affording visitors the opportunity to completely immerse themselves in the history of our founding.

The second floor is what we consider the intersection of the Movement. On the museum side, the exhibits include a large display, which highlights the Estes Park Convention in 1934, where the Credit Union National Association was established, less than 60 days after the Credit Union Act was signed on June 26, 1934, making it possible to organize credit unions anywhere in America. Original documents and ephemera from the convention are located here. It holds the largest of our exhibit spaces, including rooms that speak to the impact of advocacy and grassroots activities that have shaped the industry over the past 100 years. In addition to these exhibits, the second floor hosts the “Hall of States,” where our goal is to have every state represented with an exhibit that showcases the significant impact that state has had on credit union history. Our newest exhibit in this space was installed for and with the Northwest Credit Union Association.

This floor also features our newest expansion, the CUNA Research Center. Opened in 2018, the CUNA Research Center and the Ensweiler Research Library houses the physical collection of state archives on permanent loan from CUNA. In addition to expanded exhibit space created by the CUNA Research Center, we have added an executive board room and research library. 

Museum Room

The museum’s newly renovated conference center and event space is available and can accommodate up to 90 people.

The third floor is home to our newly renovated conference center and event space. Here we welcome boards of directors from across the country to host their strategic planning sessions, annual board meetings, and training events. It seats 60 classroom style and can accommodate 90 for a reception. The conference center overlooks the original mills of Manchester, as well as the newest headquarters for St. Mary’s Bank. To stand on the porch of the third-floor conference center, one can literally see where it all started.

Anthem: Tell us about the museum’s historical artifacts. What’s required to preserve these treasures? 

Stephanie: In addition to being the actual physical space where the Movement was born in the U.S., the museum has a collection of holdings, which includes rare and out-of-print credit union books, early credit union office materials, legislative documents, photographs as well as audio and video recordings of historic speeches, and national advertising campaigns. If it happened within the Movement over the past 100 years, it’s likely we have some record of it here at the museum.

Our greatest challenge in preserving this history is creating a digital archive and making the collection accessible across the country. As we actively collect archives for inclusion into the museum, we face the challenge of determining what should be included today and not knowing if it will be considered significant in the future. Credit union executives are retiring at a record pace, and many of the compelling stories and lessons we can learn from them are going away faster than we can capture them.

Anthem: Share with us a surprising fact about the museum.

Stephanie: New Hampshire has long been the home of the “First in the Nation” presidential primary, and due to that honor, the state’s residents have unparalleled access to an overwhelming number of political candidates. This distinction, in addition to our physical location near the St. Anselm College Institute for Politics, has made the museum a natural stopping point for many local, state, and national political candidates, including Vice President Al Gore, who toured the museum in 2002. With the next political cycle heating up in New Hampshire, and our ability to offer a newly renovated facility, it’s entirely possible that the next president of the United States may make use of our facility during their campaign in New Hampshire. 

Anthem: What does the museum mean for the future of the Credit Union Movement?

Stephanie: It’s imperative for future credit union leaders to understand the principles and values of the Credit Union Movement. What sets us apart, what makes us special and different from other financial institutions, and that the cornerstone of our Movement is about “People Helping People.” The museum’s mission to be the storyteller and the keeper of the history and heritage of the Movement is key to building a stronger future for the Movement. To create the future, we must understand the past.

Anthem: How can Northwest credit union leaders get involved with the museum?

Stephanie: One of the challenges we face is awareness. We’re always looking for opportunities to gain a greater recognition within the Movement. Use the museum as a resource for strengthening your own organization. America’s Credit Union Museum is a monument to who we are, where we come from, why we exist, and where we are going as a system. It’s also a place where each individual credit union can ensure its own history is told. Credit unions have the ability to utilize the museum’s online systems to log their history and no matter how the institution changes, its roots will live on in our archives for future generations to explore. Share your credit union’s story with the museum so we can continue to build a comprehensive history of the Movement, use our resources to improve your credit union’s understanding of our history, and consider supporting the museum at an organizational and personal level.

Anthem: What’s in store for the future of the museum? Are there renovations, upgrades to technology, or other projects planned in the coming months or years?

Stephanie: The past three years have been full of change and upgrades to the physical space that is America’s Credit Union Museum. Now that our renovations are complete, we’ve thrown the doors open and are encouraging credit unions from across the country to visit, either in person for a planning session, through the use of technology to virtually visit the museum, or participate in events hosted at the museum. Behind the scenes, we are focusing on the digitization of our complete archives as well as creating new interactive exhibits. We’re currently working to create an exhibit that focuses on “Women in the Credit Union Movement,” as well as expanding our digital exhibit, which chronicles the leaders and history of Credit Union Service Organizations.