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Posted on Fri, Nov 27, 2009 : 5 a.m.

Ann Arbor's Kempf House Museum hopes to attract younger audience in new year

By James Dickson

At a recent lecture on classic University of Michigan fight songs at the Kempf House Museum, most of the two-dozen graying audience members could remember and sing the ancient tunes from memory.

The only thing missing at that lecture, which took place a mere three blocks from the University of Michigan's Central Campus - on South Division between East Liberty and East William - were some U-M students. Many likely don't even know this part of Ann Arbor history exists.

Kempf House Museum.JPG

Ann Arbor's Kempf House Museum is the place to go for local music history. It hopes to attract more college students and young professionals in the new year.

James Dickson |

For more than 50 years, Ruben Kempf gave music lessons at the house at 312 S. Division. Kempf played a major role in the founding of several glee clubs at the University of Michigan. The city of Ann Arbor purchased the home in 1969. In 1983, it became the Kempf House Center for Local History, which was later shortened to Kempf House Museum.

That no Michigan student showed up for the fight song lecture highlights a disconnect between the museum and a part of the larger community. Newly-elected Kempf House president Kjirsten Blander intends to bridge that gap in the new year.

Sixty years ago, a University of Michigan student studying music would've known Kempf's name and perhaps even taken classes under him. Blander's challenge is making the museum named in Kempf's honor relevant to college students and young families in the 21st century.

Blander said she's certainly proud of the older audience the museum attracts. Her mission, she said, is not to push away the museum's traditional supporters and clientele, but to show younger area residents the museum has something to offer them, too. 

That outreach effort will happen on Facebook, Twitter and other social media Web sites. The Kempf House Museum has its own Web site, but social media will offer different outreach opportunities.

One idea Blander said she's excited about is bringing in local musicians to lead singing groups at the museum. Since the museum is city-owned, Blander said it will steer clear of religious hymnals. Childhood songs and protest music are first on the radar.

Such programs, Blander said, will return the museum to its roots. She hopes to replace the traditional summer lull with programs that will have families learning and singing new songs together on the museum's front lawn.

"I want the museum to become a place where parents and grandparents can bring their kids and sing some of the songs that used to be a big part of childhood" - songs like "Camptown Races" and "Hello My Baby," which the younger generation might otherwise only identify with Saturday morning cartoons, Blander said.

In March, the Kempf House will reconvene its weekly, Wednesday-afternoon lecture series. Speakers are usually chosen by longtime Kempf Museum board member Duffy Liddicoat.

"We want the Kempf museum to be what it was in the days of Ruben Kempf - a place where families in Ann Arbor can come to sing and learn about music and enjoy spending time together."

James David Dickson reports human interest stories for He can be reached at