Rising Star: The Museum Director – Bringing history into the future

Rising Star: The Museum Director – Bringing history into the future

Cynthia Walker, 30
Executive director, The Brick Store Museum, Kennebunk

When people discover that Cynthia Walker works at a museum, most of them want to know one thing.

“Very seriously, 95 percent of them ask me the same question,” ‘Have you ever seen the movie, ‘Night at the Museum?’ The other 5 percent ask, ‘How did you get into that line of work?’ I think about this question a lot,” said Walker, who is executive director of the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk.

“I looked to childhood for the answer. My mother is an early childhood educator and my father was a cancer surgeon. I think that’s attuned me to both our mortality and our experiences and what happens to those once we’re gone,” said Walker. “At 12 I had no idea what kind of job ‘saved people’s stories,’ until I saw an advertisement that read, ‘Who gets to decide what the Smithsonian keeps?’ and I knew then that I wanted to work in a museum. It’s my job to make sure no one’s stories are lost and those that are lost be uncovered.”

The Brick Store Museum, founded in 1936 by Edith Cleaves Barry, is focused on creating “personal connections to local history, art, and culture through exhibitions, education, and programs celebrating the human experience in the Kennebunks and surrounding communities.”

That mission resonates with Walker.

“I see how history has shaped us into who we are as people. The way your great-great grandfather lived life has somehow influenced your actions today, passed down to his children, their children, to your parents, to you. This is why we’re all interested in learning if we’re distantly related to a king or queen, for instance. History is nothing if not personal,” said Walker.

Walker, 30, grew up in Massachusetts and summered at Wells Beach in a home that had been passed down through family since it was built in 1898. When she’s not working, Walker spends time with her family and dog, Murtaugh. She runs two half-marathons a year with her twin sister, who works at The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and designs graphics for different companies in California and Georgia.

A history major at Northeastern University, Walker went on to earn a master’s in museum studies at Cooperstown in New York. While there, Walker contacted Tracy Baetz, the Brick Store Museum’s executive director at the time, to ask about an internship.

“They had one and I found my thesis subject as well, in Edith Barry,” said Walker. “I wrote it on the ethnocentrism in her early-20th century writings and photographs as she traveled around the world.”

The museum offered Walker an appointment, scheduled to end in December 2010. When Baetz announced that she would be stepping down, Walker’s position was extended as the museum searched for a new director. Chris Farr took that role in 2012, promoting Walker to associate director. When Farr retired in 2014, the museum’s board asked Walker to take over.

“I was very honored,” said Walker. “I never expected to become a director. I had planned to work behind the scenes. But I think the reason I love working in museums is perhaps what made this transition possible – using creativity to weave narratives to tell the public about an important story or experience through research and objects. I am dedicated to the stories I’ve been allowed to watch over for a time and I think the board saw that. I was very fortunate to have mentors here at the museum and in town, as well as in the New England museum community that told me I could do this.”

Walker said managing a nonprofit is definitely a challenge. A small museum, the Brick Store has limited resources for staff.

‘“Executive director’ covers a variety of positions, which at larger museums are each a full-time job. I like most of the jobs – exhibit designer, development director, special events coordinator, communications officer, outreach staff, field trip educator, maintenance crew, gardener, store manager, and plumber are all included,” said Walker. “I’ve had more experience in my time here than I ever could have hoped for in a larger museum.”

While some may see museum pieces as no longer being relevant, Walker believes otherwise.

“I’d like to think that museums, including the Brick Store, are applying more of the ‘human experience’ to these objects, meaning we are connecting, say, an upholstered chair to the woman who sat in it. The things we keep define our lives and our experiences. The pieces in museum collections do the same thing for thousands of people.”

Why does it matter?

“That is the question that museums need to keep asking,” said Walker. “I’ve found my basis for museum work is to improve people’s lives, using our past experiences to better our futures. Past leadership at the Brick Store has brought us to where we are today. The buildings are solid, the collections are organized and we are slowly moving toward digitizing the collection. We now can stop and ask, ‘Where should we go from here?’ Today, visitors have different requirements than merely seeing artifacts on a shelf. I think it’s very exciting. I see us becoming a landmark institution with successful, engaging exhibits; an unparalleled research center for a museum of our size, offering interactive educational programming; and most importantly, a place where the entire community can gather, reflect, learn, remember, and share.”

Walker offers some advice to other young women about moving into leadership.

“I think failure is most nerve-wracking to anyone stepping into a leadership role. But if something fails, keep on going. Say, ‘Oh well, that didn’t work,’ and start on the next project,” she said. “Don’t dwell on a failure. One thing I’ve learned over the past four years is that people may question or even shut down your ideas since you’re a bit younger, but if you think it’s right, then find a way to make it happen – even if you have to do it alone the first time. Close your eyes and visualize yourself as a train, pulling projects and goals with you. If one project falls off, then leave it and keep on chugging. You’ve got bigger places to get to in the end.”

Where does the Brick Store director see herself in 10 years?

“I would be thrilled if I was walking the halls of the Smithsonian, installing a new exhibit,” said Walker. “But as life has shown me thus far, I think I’d be wrong to only aim for that one goal. Wherever I find myself, I know I’ll be doing the same type of work that I do now – sharing history.

At just 29, Cynthia Walker became the executive director of the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk in 2014. Founded in 1936, the Brick Store is a regional center for history, art and archives.

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