Person of the Week
Jennifer Carlson: Days at the Museum
Connecticut River Museum’s new executive director, Jennifer Carlson, comes to Essex from the Wyck Historic House and Garden in Philadelphia. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Jennifer Carlson is about to do something for the second time this year that most people shudder to think about doing once. She and her husband Ben are packing up again for another move in less than 12 months.
Jennifer is the new executive director of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. She follows interim executive director Tom Wilcox.
Jennifer isn’t the only one in her family with a new job. She and Ben moved here so he could become director of Information Technology Services at the University of Connecticut School of Law in Hartford. For Jennifer, that meant leaving her own position as executive director of the Wyck Historic House and Garden in Philadelphia.
“It was just the perfect job for him,” explains Jennifer of her own decision to support her husband’s move.
The couple first moved to Simsbury, where Jennifer began looking for situations that would showcase her own expertise. She saw the notice of the Connecticut River Museum vacancy at the end of March. She had to work fast. The application was due April 6. Despite the time crunch, she was the successful applicant.
“Jennifer is dynamic, a skilled communicator, and someone experienced and knowledgeable in the operations and demands of an historic museum,” says Peter Coombs, the chair of the museum’s board of trustees. “She is a creative thinker who will help us grow and prosper in the future.”
Now that Jennifer is working in Essex, the couple is moving again, this time to Middletown, a commute midway between the couple’s respective offices. Luckily, she says, they never unpacked everything.
Since she started in mid-August, Jennifer has been learning about the operations of the museum, meeting people in town to get a feel of the relationship between the museum and the community and adjusting visitors’ experiences to combine COVID precautions with the museum’s mission to showcase the Connecticut River.
“We have hand sanitizer all over,” Jennifer says.
As she looks forward, Jennifer would like to extend the reach of the museum and knowledge of its collection beyond this immediate area to communities all along the river.
She has good news for the many fans of the annual Holiday Train Exhibit. It will go on, but with some changes: Visitors will have to sign up for a time slot and tickets will specify a designated time. Jennifer worries about people who show up thinking, as in years past, all they need to do was buy a ticket when they arrived.
Jennifer didn’t plan a career in the museum world. Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, she wanted to be an actor. By the time she graduated from Temple University, her interest had changed to theater management. Her professional career, in fact, has often combined management with history and the arts. In addition to her position at Wyck Historic House and Garden, she has served as an assistant director of marketing and communications for Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple, and as program director for Historic Philadelphia, an umbrella organization that involved programming for a number of the city’s historic and tourist attractions.
She also has been an assistant dean in the School of Arts and Sciences at LaSalle University. While at LaSalle, she herself earned a master’s degree in Central and Eastern European studies. She admits that the more traditional path would have been to get an MBA, but that would have cut her off from the study of history and culture.
“I was really interested in world history, philosophy, art, and aesthetics,” she says, adding, “The degree really taught me how to think and write.”
For her master’s thesis, Jennifer produced the United States premiere of a A Little Play About Betrayal, For One Actress, a work by a contemporary Ukrainian playwright, Oleksander Irvanets. She was in charge of all aspects of the production, raising the money, hiring the actress and designers, running the business operations. The play ran in Philadelphia at Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5 in June 2013.
Jennifer took a semester of sailing as a college freshman, and since she has had maritime experience, but of another kind. Three times she has been part of the annual Moby Dick Marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which takes place every January. Over a period of some 25 hours, volunteers read the entire text of Melville’s epic novel.
In her 20s, Jennifer had tried several times to read Moby Dick with no success. In 2008, her mother went to Nantucket and brought her back a copy of the book with the message written inside, “It’s time.”
Indeed it was. Jennifer loved the book, prompting her to sign up for the marathon read. She was first on the waiting list but got a last-minute call to step in. As a new reader, she was assigned a time slot at 4 in the morning. The next year she did better, reading at 5 in the evening.
Now that Jennifer is in Essex, she is looking forward to some time on the real water, not the seas of literature. She is thinking of power boating rather than sail.
“So many [museum] members have volunteered to show me the ropes,” she says. “My goal is to be a certified boat operator.”
For more information on the Connecticut River Museum, visit www.ctrivermuseum.org.