2017-01-05 / Front Page

Historical Society Adds Visiting Curators

By Betsy Sherman Walker

A recent gift of additional funding expands the Newport Historical Society’s summer internship program and adds historical depth – and stature – with the addition of visiting curators to tell Newport’s stories.

Even in the relative quiet of Monday, Jan. 2, when the Society is officially closed for the New Year’s holiday, the alabaster walls of the foyer seem to vibrate with the steady hum of stories, waiting to be told.

It’s a fitting workplace for Executive Director Ruth Taylor, whose silent companions are the formidable founding fathers of Newport, peering out from their portraits hung on the walls. As a historian, an anthropologist, and one who enjoys taking to her desk on such an unhurried day, stories told and untold are what define her job.

A told story: NHS’s announcement, on Dec. 27, that it will be adding a visiting curator component to its signature Buchanan Burnham Summer Internship program. Launched 15 years ago and funded by Helen Buchanan and Richard and Fanchon (Monty) Burnham, its mission was to draw young scholars to Newport, out of their ivory towers, to experience firsthand the non-historian aspect of history: how to convey their stories to the general public.

“It was essentially a training program for younger students working on their master’s degrees,” says Taylor. Unexpectedly, she said, it also proved to be a learning experience for the staff. As the years progressed, the program evolved. Summer interns are now visiting scholars, capable of making considerable contributions. Increasingly, Taylor explains, they are Ph.D. candidates. “They are bringing to the table,” she adds, “as much as they get.” Now, in addition to visiting scholars, the Society has announced that the Burnham family and the Helen Buchanan Trust have also given the green light to visiting curators.

The untold story: For Taylor, the transition for the Society from the traditional model of a full-time curator to taking on the more innovative notion of a cycle of visiting curators represents a subtle but significant shift, not only in its mission to educate the community, but also in the vision of its donors. Always “forward-thinking,” in Taylor’s words, she is “extremely grateful” for their quiet willingness to listen and take an active role in the Society’s mission to transform the nonprofit into a research magnet for historians nationwide.

“They didn’t need persuading,” she says.

For its maiden voyage, the NHS has commandeered a trio of storytellers. John Tschirch, former director of museum affairs for the Preservation Society of Newport County, will be coordinating scholar for his interactive timeline project, “Mapping the Newport Experience.” Taylor Stoermer will be visiting curator of public history. Stoermer is the former chief historian of Colonial Williamsburg and now teaches courses in history at Harvard and Roger Williams University. Michael Simpson, a specialist in Native American history, will oversee a program to research the role of native peoples in Newport County. Simpson was a Buchanan- Burnham fellow last summer. He is focusing on documentation of the first “period of contact” between the earliest residents of Aquidneck Island and the native peoples.

The revolving cycle, Taylor says, was a logical solution to a dilemma faced by like-sized and like-minded cultural institutions. She has pointed out before that the Society’s vast collection of artifacts and documents is both a blessing and a curse. A reservoir of items, each one is a link to some aspect of Newport’s history. Lacking funds, much of it is still waiting to be cataloged. “We spent a lot of time thinking about how to do something significant and ambitious on a small budget. We had to grow, but not overnight.”

The question asked, she says, was “Where’s the sweet spot?”

The answer: Diversify your experts, let them come and go, overlap time and experience, and expose your community to a broader reach of knowledge. And reach more people. “The approach is less traditional, and less expensive.” A single curator, she says, cannot be the same to all people. She said it works better with the staff. “And we have to satisfy the staff.” The paid positions are either long-term or temporary, full or part-time.

The Buchanan-Burnham gift marked the second time last month that the Newport Historical Society was able to announce a gift from a major donor. In early December, it received a $1 million matching challenge grant from the Alletta Morris McBean Charitable Trust to support a campaign to bring its total endowment – to support essential staffing – to $5 million.

The McBean grant, however, is not for the Buchanan-Burnham appointees. Taylor estimates that the Society needs to generate $75,000 to cover income and research. The endowment is currently $800,000. “In an ideal, perfect world, it would grow,” she says.

Visiting scholars, visiting curators, tales of deals struck between Native Americans and Roger Williams, a collection of artifacts: in Taylor’s realm, this is the day-today focus.

“Our collections are too comprehensive, and our programming arena too large, for one person to be an expert in everything,” she explains. “We function on many levels at once: fostering and collating scholarship, maintaining our museum and satellite exhibits, lectures on five centuries of history, a living history program, and more. We need to stay abreast of current scholarship and keep our vision broad, at the same time that, practically, we must remain at a staffing size that is sustainable in our community.”

“We are doing it as nimbly as we can,” Taylor adds. “We are trying very hard to be nimble.”

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