Don't let her youthful appearance or the half-dozen ear piercings or the tiny tattoo on the back of her leg fool you.
Janna Norby isn't a summer intern at the Journey Museum in Rapid City. She's its new executive director.
At 34, Norby brings the infusion of energy and exuberance that the museum's board of directors was seeking for the Journey, said board president Donna Fisher.
"Janna brings a passion for museums. Her youth and energy will hep us build new connections with our local audience as well as with visitors," Fisher said.
More surprisingly, perhaps, Norby also brings years of experience as a seasoned museum professional.
Just two years out of graduate school, Norby stumbled into a career opportunity that many museum curators wait a lifetime to get at the Montana Heritage Commission.
"At 25, I was the curator of a million objects in 250 buildings on 200 acres owned by the state of Montana," she said.
That unique collection is the historic gold mining towns of Virginia City and Nevada City, which the state of Montana purchased from the magnate of the Gold Medal Flour Co. in 1997, complete with a train and railroad tracks to run it on. Of the 248 state-owned buildings there, 40 of them involve private concessionaires of some sort, so Norby got an education early in her career in juggling different stakeholders in public/private partnerships.
"It was a great time. I learned so much. I was able to do a lot more than I would have gotten to do in a more traditional museum setting," she said.
Her background also includes seasonal work at historical sites with the National Park Service and running a private, non-profit facility, the Mai Wah Society and Museum, a museum on the Asian heritage of Butte, Mont. That diversity of experience makes it easier to step into a job directing the Journey Museum, a facility with variety of stakeholders and various ideas about how it should be run.
The Journey is comprised of four main collections — everything from fossils and archaeology to Sioux Indian and pioneer artifacts. And while it is a treasure trove of area history, it has struggled to meet gate attendance and revenue projections ever since it was built 15 years ago.
About one-third of its nearly $1 million annual budget is still funded by city taxpayers, something that grates on some city council members and many taxpayers.
Just two months into her new job, Norby chooses to go on the offensive, and not play defense, when it comes to promoting the Journey to local residents.
She has little tolerance for negative reactions to the Journey from local residents who rarely, or never, go there and she hands out free-admission cards at the drop of a hat in an attempt to prove them wrong.
"I'm like, 'No! Have you ever been there?' Before you say you don't like it, you have to come, just one time," she said. "If you still feel the same when you get done, come upstairs and tell me why."
But be prepared for an enthusiastic argument if you do. She'll use her considerable conversational skills to convince you otherwise.
"The museum, collections and programming are fantastic, but they don't know about it," said Norby of tourists and local residents alike. "Children's theater, Family Fun Days, Final Frontier Fridays, History for Lunch — the things that are going on in the museum are fantastic. We're just going to do more of them."
Norby, and her husband, Tom, have two young sons, Ethan, 6, and Owen, 2. Tom, an installation manager for a security company, was able to bring his job with him to Rapid city. As new Black Hills residents, the family is using the Journey to discover both the past and the present of their new home. Norby thinks many other area residents will do the same thing if given enough reasons to do so.
"The possibilities are endless," she said. "Cultural and educational doesn't have to mean "not fun." It's not about old dead guys and wars anymore."
Norby grew up in Wisconsin, the daughter of history-loving parents who hauled her and her siblings to museums all over the country. While her librarian mother would tell you that Norby spent most of those vacations with her nose buried in a book, some of it obviously sunk in. She earned an undergraduate degree in history and social sciences from the University of Wisconsin, planning to be a history teacher.
Then, after she spent two weeks in a kindergarten class, two weeks in an 8th-grade civics class, and two weeks in an 11th-grade American history class, she had a revelation: "I realized that I could not be a teacher," she said.
She fell in love with curating work during graduate studies in American history and museum studies at the University of North Carolina. But Norby thinks it may have been a 4th-grade history assignment, when she dressed up like ground-breaking aviator Amelia Earhart in bomber jacket, goggles and a funny hat with ear flaps, when she first realized history should not just be seen or read.
"I still have that outfit," she said, proving that she is a natural-born curator.
Her staff at the Journey has plenty of ideas about how to make history come alive through sound and smells and tastes. "It's about living history and hearing history and smelling history. We're going to have things in the museum that we haven't had before," she said. Native American dancers, movie screenings and cooking classes, for example, are on the horizon.
"I make absolutely killer chicken and dumplings in a cast-iron kettle, I've got to tell you," Norby said.
She's also noticed that there's a "fantastic" theater in the museum that seats 150 people and is empty much of the time. "Why aren't we showing movies? I don't know why. Let's talk about that," she said, perhaps focusing on films with historical and production ties to this region.
"We're at the point of 'What's next?'"
She also disputes the common perception that the Journey Museum was simply built in the wrong place, too far off the beaten tourism path to be successful.
Fifteen years ago, perhaps. But not today, argues Norby.
With the growth and revitalization of downtown Rapid City, and the planned pedestrian promenade from Main Street Square to Memorial Park and the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, the Journey Museum no longer seems stranded on the outskirts, she said.
"It's not in the wrong place anymore."