Jennifer DiCola Matos is the executive director of the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Connecticut. The house was the birthplace and early home of Noah Webster, author of The Blue Back Speller and An American Dictionary of the English Language. The house runs tours seven days a week and provides programming that serves the community.
PY: How would you describe the position of Executive Director? What goes into your workday?
In some ways, being an Executive Director is like being an air traffic controller. There are so many planes in the air at any given time, and they can be hard to keep track of. In the end, you’re trying to make sure they all land back on the ground safely. But it’s hard to do on your own. It’s definitely helpful to have staff you can count on!
PY: When you first started working as a museum employee, what aspects of museum operation surprised you?
The most surprising aspect is how hard museum employees work to make things look flawless. As a visitor, you can visit an exhibit or attend a program and be impressed by its quality, but you might not consider how many people and how many hours go into making it great behind-the-scenes. Museum employees are incredibly dedicated, energetic, and singularly focused on excellence in the field.
PY: Can you speak about some of the projects at the museum of which you are most proud?
The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society offers a variety of programs and services for our visitors. We’ve offered some new programs in 2015 that have used the museum and its collections in new ways. For example, in September, we held a Fashion & Flowers Tea. The local garden club chose six historic dresses from the museum’s collection, and used them as inspiration for flower centerpieces. At the tea, each table had a unique flower centerpiece, and the dresses were on display during a talk by a local expert on vintage fashion. The event put our collection to great use, allowed us to collaborate with a community organization, and provided an enjoyable evening for our guests.
PY: How do you reach out to the broader public? Do you bring attention to the museum through events like “West Hartford Hauntings?”
Exposure for museums is always a big deal. How can we expect to compete with an entertainment industry that pumps millions of dollars into targeted marketing without spending some money of our own? In contrast, most museums have small marketing and public relations budgets. But there is definitely a market for museum programs. Luckily, our museum is embedded in a great, supportive community that shares information about our programs in local newspapers and on websites. The power of word of mouth should not be underestimated. Many of our program participants visit because a friend recommended it.
PY: What do you think visitors take away from the museum? How do you think your museum helps them to understand their community in a more meaningful light?
What visitors take away from the museum depends on how they’ve used it. If they’ve visited Noah Webster’s childhood home with either a tour guide or a tablet tour, they are going to be impressed and inspired by what Noah Webster was able to accomplish. He lived what might be called an eighteenth century American dream: farm boy turned Founding Father. And they’ll probably never view a dictionary in the same way.
Our programming helps visitors understand their community. We strive to offer programs that highlight the community’s diverse heritage and help put the town in a historical context. Whether for adults or children, programs that help us understand the past create empathy and understanding, which in turn makes us better citizens.
PY: What is something you would like the general public to know about running a museum?
When I tell people I work at a museum, they always say, “What a cool place to work!” And they’re right, it is a cool place to work. But it’s also a labor of love. Museum employees work hard because museums are something they’re passionate about, and they want to share that passion. Unfortunately, those in the museum field are often underpaid and underappreciated. I would like society to better appreciate the museum field. History, art, culture: these are elements of our society that make us who we are. They are essential to our being. The next time you see a museum employee, say “Thank you for what you do.” Not only do they deserve it, but you’ll make their day!
Poor Yorick Associate Editor