Jan Albers completes chapter as director of Sheldon Museum

MIDDLEBURY — After six years at the helm of the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Jan Albers is ready to write the next chapter in her professional life.

Albers confirmed on Tuesday that she will be stepping down as executive director of the Sheldon — the repository of some of Addison County’s most treasured historical documents — effective this Friday, Sept. 30.

“The average stay for a museum director is five years, and I have been here for six,” Albers said with a smile.

“It just feels like a good time to go.”

Albers was hired to the museum’s top administrative post in 2005, succeeding Annie Perkins. Based in Middlebury, the Sheldon is the oldest chartered community history museum in the United States, welcoming visitors and researchers since 1882.

“I had a lot of the skills needed to do this job,” Albers recalled of her interest in the Sheldon opening. She had already established herself as a Vermont historian and author, having among other things penned the book “Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape.” She was also experienced in fund-raising, something museum directors are usually called upon to do.

Once on board, Albers began making her mark on the Sheldon.

“I think that I have probably made more changes than any directors had done for quite a while,” Albers said.

Among those changes: Reconfiguring space within the museum and opening the front door (facing Park Street) to visitors, who had previously entered through a side entrance.

Opening that porch door and making it accessible was a symbolic as well as utilitarian move, she noted.

“I wanted to send a really strong message to the community that we were for everyone,” Albers said. “That also freed up meeting space inside of the building where the old shop was. And that enhanced our gallery. We did a lot of painting and freshening up the staff offices. I feel proud of really transforming the building.”

Changing the main entrance was the first of three phases of improvements that Albers has recommended to the Sheldon Museum Board of Directors. Phases two and three would involve physically expanding the museum space through an addition and making the exhibits more interpretive in nature.

Albers acknowledged that phases two and three are dependant on funding, which is in short supply for museums these days.

“We got phase one done and then we were slammed by the recession,” Albers said.

While Albers has enjoyed the day-to-day stewardship of the museum, she explained she did not relish the prospect of being unable to take the museum forward due to financial constraints.

“I would probably stay longer if (phases two and three) were going forward right now,” Albers said. “But I believe I have given the Sheldon Museum the template for going forward on this.”

Albers is also proud of the play she conceived, titled “Remember Me to All Good Folks.” The play derives its script from passages of letters penned by Addison County residents who fought in, or lived through, the Civil War. The play received wonderful support and positive reviews from crowds of people who saw it staged this month at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater and at the Flynn Space in Burlington.

“I was really happy about the play,” Albers said. “All of the audiences were extremely enthusiastic.”

The play might figure into Albers’ post-Sheldon plans. She has been asked to consider taking “Remember Me to All Good Folks” on tour for wider exposure. Albers said she would be open to such a tour, which she would balance with a couple of other writing projects as she looks for her next challenge.

“I will miss working with the wonderful staff here and the volunteers that help at the desk, the research center and around the museum,” Albers said.

“I think there are a lot of people who don’t know a lot about the Sheldon Museum and I hope I have done something to spread the word.”

It will now be up to the Sheldon Museum board to find a replacement for Albers. Board President Cy Tall expressed her appreciation for Albers’ contributions.

“When we look at Jan’s entire tenure, beginning as a researcher, then sitting on the board of trustees and finally taking on the daunting task of being the museum’s first executive director, she has really put in two decades of work here, not just six years,” said Tall. “In an arena where job burn-out is all too common, Jan has remained extraordinarily energetic, leading the museum through some important planning work and physically changing the face of the museum by re-opening our front door to the public.

“She has really made a difference.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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