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Sheldon explores new leadership structure after Skenyon’s departure

The Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History has seen some infrastructure improvements in the past year. Independent photo/John S. McCright

Allison LeCroix last fall was hired as the Sheldon’s collections manager.
Photo courtesy of Henry Sheldon Museum

MIDDLEBURY — The Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History will reopen this spring with new exhibits, new building improvements and a new leadership structure that will — at least initially — forego the conventional approach of having an executive director.

Officials at the Middlebury museum hinted at a new leadership structure in a recent email to supporters, a message that began with news that Executive Director Stephanie Skenyon resigned in late January after less than a year on the job. Skenyon was hired last March following a national search for a successor to Bill Brooks, who had led the Sheldon for a decade and was, by all accounts, a tough act to follow.

Sheldon Board President Lucinda Cockrell explained that Skenyon emerged from the requisite six-month probationary period and determined “the job wasn’t a fit for her.”

Skenyon holds a PhD in Medieval Studies and has continued to teach that subject online, according to Cockrell.

“That was, I think, her first love, so I think she’s going back to that,” she said.

Cockrell noted last year’s search for an executive director yielded a few quality candidates who might have been better matches, but they ran into common laments among jobseekers looking to transplant to Vermont these days: A high cost of living and a lack of available housing.

“They would come here and couldn’t find a place to live,” she said, noting the Sheldon — as a small nonprofit with an annual budget of around $280,000 — can’t afford to pay a top administrator the type of wage a similar position can command in a more urban setting.

“We decided we needed to step back and look at this. Our sense was we needed to break down the functions into more manageable roles,” Cockrell said.

The board has decided to try out a more democratic management system that shares leadership among the museum’s core staff, consisting of a collections manager, an archivist, a development/fundraising official, a visitors’ services coordinator and a business manager. The latter two posts continue to be advertised at henrysheldonmuseum.org.

“We feel like this is the way to go right now; at least we’ll try it,” Cockrell said. “The top-down management (style) doesn’t seem to be working for us right now.”

The Sheldon workforce has seen a key addition and will soon see a key departure.

Allison LeCroix last fall was hired as the Sheldon’s first collections manager in 12 years. She’s a Middlebury College graduate and thus already familiar with the museum and the Middlebury area.

Leaving the Sheldon fold this May after 25 fruitful years will be Associate Director Mary Manley, who is retiring to spend more time with a new grandbaby, according to Cockrell. Her functions will be performed by the new business manager and visitors’ services coordinator.

Cockrell stressed the museum could resurrect the executive director position if resources and market forces make that possible.

When visitors walk through the Sheldon’s doors in May, they’ll note changes — some subtle, others more overt.

First, the subtle ones: The museum will feature a new heater/boiler system, and 28 newly restored windows.

And speaking of windows, the Sheldon has ordered a bunch of new storm windows to replace the ones that a violent storm blew out of the third floor of the building in December. Fortunately, the windows were insured and none of the museum’s wonderful artifacts sustained water damage.

Now, for the more overt changes: Museum staff have lined up three exhibits, including:

  • A display of the museum’s abundant 19th-century sampler collection. A sampler is a piece of embroidery worked in various stitches to showcase skill; vintage samplers often depict alphabet recitations, numbers and rural scenes. They were a common endeavor among schoolgirls and young women during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Sheldon’s exhibit, to be shown from May into this fall, will coincide with a national Sampler Archive Project aimed at identifying and recording the many sampler treasures contained in museums and family collections throughout the country. Plans call for a “sampler identification day” this fall, during which area residents will be invited to bring their examples into the Sheldon to be recorded as part of a permanent record.

This exhibit is expected to go beyond samplers. It’ll include a historical retrospective of all things sewing, including vintage sewing machines, spinning wheels, weaving apparatus, needles, buttons and textiles.

  • More offerings from the Sheldon’s rich archives, with an emphasis on the experiences of Addison County residents of African American and Asian descent. This will be a spring exhibit, according to Cockrell.
  • A couture/fashion exhibit in the fall.

“It really ties in with the many business in town that were there in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the modern-day people here who are selling clothing and sewing machines,” Cockrell said.

For all things Sheldon Museum, check out henrysheldonmuseum.org.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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