New director at Ferrisburgh’s Rokeby Museum has strong experience in marketing history
FERRISBURGH — Rokeby Museum’s board of directors did not have to search far and wide when museum director Jane Williamson announced this summer she would retire at the end of 2017 after 22 years leading the Ferrisburgh nonprofit.
Instead, the board looked around the table toward its president, Vergennes resident Catherine Wood Brooks, and she agreed to assume the title of Rokeby director, effective Dec. 3.
It did not take much convincing for Brooks to sign on to manage the Route 7 heritage site, known not only for the Underground Railroad but also as the well-preserved farmstead of the multi-talented Robinson family, who were Quaker abolitionists and lived on and farmed the site for nearly two centuries.
“I love the history of the Robinsons and the ways in which each generation made significant contributions,” she said. “I think their work as farmers, abolitionists, writers, artists and active community members can inspire us today.”
Brooks, a 65-year-old native of Canada who grew up in Oswego, N.Y., brings plenty of relevant experience to the National Historic Landmark. After three years of teaching elementary school in central Vermont and another six years as the children’s librarian at Montpelier’s Kellogg Hubbard Library, she worked at the Shelburne Museum from 1984 until 2006.
Brooks started at the Shelburne Museum as its director of school programs, and then became its director of education.
“It was basically all aspects of onsite educational experience, the museum guides, youth programs, adult lecture programs and symposia. I did some exhibit work,” she said. “It was wonderful.”
After her years at the Shelburne Museum, during which she moved to Vergennes in 1997, Brooks gained more experience relevant to her new job: From 2007 to 2016 she served as the Cultural Heritage Tourism Coordinator for the Vermont Department of Tourism & Marketing.
There she managed the development of Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail, of which Rokeby, given its significance to the Underground Railroad, is a key element.
“I was still working with museums and cultural organizations, but more from the promotion and marketing end of things, helping organizations with establishing partnerships among them, and helping them with marketing, taking advantage of the state resources,” Brooks said.
Through her new home and job Brooks became more familiar with Rokeby and would have volunteered there if work had allowed. Through her career she also met Williamson, and when Brooks left the state job in 2016 (in part to accompany her husband, boatbuilder Douglas Brooks, on a long trip to Japan) Williamson recruited her to the Rokeby board.
Back in the U.S., Catherine Brooks volunteered for other nonprofits and worked as a substitute teacher, but sought to do more.
“This September rolled around, and I was like, ‘OK, what now?’ I was pulled in a lot of different directions and I wanted to focus on one thing,” she said.
After Williamson announced she would step down, Rokeby board members looked at Brooks’ résumé. She signed on and is enthusiastic to carry the torch forward.
Brooks said Rokeby’s summer program of lectures and presentations, made possible by the five-year-old visitor center built under Williamson’s watch and held in the gallery named in her honor, helps keep the museum relevant.
Brooks cited, for example, the Black Lives Matter Forum Rokeby hosted in June with a Vermont State Police representative, Middlebury College historian Jim Ralph, and UVM Professor Stephanie Seguino, co-author of the “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont” study.
“I also really believe in Rokeby and its potential to really add to our understanding of the whole issue around race and abolition and the contemporary situation of African-Americans,” Brooks said. “The emancipation, the Civil War, these things happened, and it’s all still unfolding, just thinking of contemporary events.”
In 2018 the Rokeby will offer as its main summer exhibit “Fabric of Emancipation,” put together by Harlem Needle Arts of New York City. Brooks said the group invited artists to respond to the idea of emancipation, the history of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the status of its goals.
The exhibit’s curator will speak at Rokeby this summer, Brooks said. She hopes it will spark the same sort of discussion the Black Lives Matters forum did.
“This coming year’s ‘Fabric of Emancipation’ has the potential to continue the conversation, and start new ones,” she said.
As well as the historic Robinson home and outbuildings, through which Rokeby volunteers offer tours four days a week, the museum’s second main attraction is the permanent exhibit on the upper floor of the new visitor center: “Free and Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont.”
The exhibit is based in part on letters written by freed slaves and their former owners. It offers both a national overview and an intimate look at the institution of slavery.
The exhibit has proven to be powerful, Brooks said. She described recent reactions at a Rokeby gathering.
“People were going upstairs, and they were coming down going, ‘Wow, that’s something,’” she said.
Although Brooks said Rokeby this year set a record for visitors, more are needed if Rokeby is to improve its current break-even financial status and truly thrive.
“That’s our challenge, to get people here. They tend to go away satisfied. And then, of course, spread the word of mouth. Word of mouth continues to be the big seller,” Brooks said, adding, “Because we’re living within our means there are some things we can’t do.”
What she described as a strong board and core of volunteers are good places to start, Brooks said, but better funding could allow seven days of tours and possibly an education director or curator to better run exhibits or involve schools with Rokeby, and free her to pursue more grants and marketing opportunities.
The board will go on a retreat early next month and brainstorm ideas, including on how to make the museum more family-friendly and to increase offerings.
“Museum visitors are more and more sophisticated, and they are expecting more and more things. People are very happy with our guided tour, which we offer four days a week. We need to be offering it more often. And we need to increase opportunities for families, people with young children,” she said. “Abolition and the fact there was an Underground Railroad, certainly kids can get a feel for that, but there’s also the fact this was a working farm. There’s a lot they can experience here.”
Brooks will also pursue lucrative bus tours, which are possible with the new visitor center but have yet to materialize.
“It may take literally sitting at the telephone and calling and making a personal connection with these people and telling them what our resource is,” she said. “We would like to get more bus groups.”
Other steps have already helped, and Brooks plans more: The Rokeby board has created a marketing committee, and Rokeby has underwritten Vermont Public Radio programming, taken out social media advertising, and started to reach out to regional magazines and bloggers to seek better exposure.
“I think we’ve already made a difference in increasing promotion of the museum,” Brooks said.
What won’t change is the essence of a museum that Brooks said offers a treasure trove of insight into the past that remains relevant today, and that under Williamson’s leadership has earned the respect of historians throughout New England and beyond.
“We believe that Rokeby is this remarkable time capsule in a way. We always want people to come up the driveway and get out of their cars and feel that they are in a different time and place, so we don’t see that changing,” Brooks said. “But we need to increase visitation.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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