Our Story: A Museum for College and Community

1896 – 1940

Students and friends of Bethel College announce the formation of a Museum of Natural History and American Relics in the December 1896 issue of School and College Journal. Faculty utilize the collections as teaching resources.

…Nothing, neither the most exact description nor the best illustration, can take the place of personal contact and personal observation in familiarizing one’s self with things and phenomena.

Peter J. Wedel, “The Museum a Necessity,” Bethel College Monthly, April 1908

Professor P.J. Wedel with the Bethel College Museum, ca. 1911

1941 – 1961

Charles J. Kauffman integrates his personal collections with the Bethel Museum and opens the doors of Kauffman Museum in Alumni Hall to the community. 

In 1956 Nature magazine for children publishes the story of Charles Kauffman and his bird collections in “The Museum that Went to College.” An annex is added in 1960 to accommodate the expanding collections.

The museum must have a soul. The great things awe us, but it is the little things that touch us.

Charles J. Kauffman, opening of Kauffman Museum at Bethel College, 1941

Charles J. Kauffman with students from Stone School, 1949


After Kauffman’s death in 1961, his wife Fannie serves as curator until her retirement in 1964. John F. Schmidt, Mennonite Historical Library archivist, maintains the operation until 1975 when Steve Friesen, a graduate of Bethel College and the Cooperstown museum studies program, assumes leadership.

Friesen packs up the collections for a “grand closing” in 1977 after Bethel College selects the museum site for a future student center. In 1979 director Dr. Oswald “Ozzie” Goering drafts a statement of philosophy, organizes the Kauffman Museum Association, launches a capital campaign for a new interpretation building, and oversees a Storyline for the all-new exhibits.

In 1983 Fannie Kauffman Ries cuts the ribbon to the new brick interpretation building and welcomes the public to preview the exhibit Kauffman Museum: A New Beginning. Dr. John Janzen becomes director and completes the fund-raising for a new permanent exhibition and endowment. In 1984 the museum mounts its first special exhibition The Art of Sharing, the Sharing of Art, curated by Dr. Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen. Volunteers work with Dr. Dwight Platt to reconstruct a tallgrass prairie with native grasses and forbs. The Ratzlaff Barn is moved onto the museum grounds in 1986 to join the Voth-Unruh-Fast House which had been moved to the college in 1974.

The history of the museum at Bethel College – since 1940 the Kauffman Museum – is the story of people who tried to think audaciously and worked together to make their visions come true.”

John M. Janzen  “Bethel’s Museum: A Centennial History,” Mennonite Life, March 1987

1987 – 2020

The permanent exhibition Of Land and People opens in 1987, while special exhibitions feature the museum’s collections or complement Storyline themes. Kauffman Museum welcomes a new generation of schoolchildren to explore the exhibitions and outdoor farmstead through themed field trips, while Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum programs educate and inform adult audiences. Uncle Carl’s Camps launch in 1996 and begin a new summer tradition.

The west addition to the interpretation building accommodates a permanent display of Mennonite Immigrant Furniture and Mirror of the Martyrs (when not touring).

“Mennonite Immigrant Furniture” exhibition at Kauffman Museum

The Future

Kauffman Museum’s story is the foundation from which we promote creative, healthy community conversations about issues challenging us today: cultural and ethnic encounters, faith and social justice, and environmental sustainability.

Adapted from strategic planning documents, 2020

In recognition of our role as caretakers of story and meaning as well as artifacts, the staff, volunteers, and board of directors of Kauffman Museum commit ourselves to open access to collections and to continuing consultations regarding artifacts in our care.

Rachel Pannabecker, “Kauffman Museum and NAGPRA,” Mennonite Life, September 2006


27th and North Main St.
North Newton, KS 67117
Across from the main campus of
Bethel College


(316) 283-1612
Mailing address:
300 E. 27th Street
North Newton, KS, 67117-1716


Tue-Fri  9:30am-4:30pm
Sat-Sun 1:30pm-4:30pm
Closed Mondays and
Major Holidays