My Interview With Cindy Dickinson of the Emily Dickinson Museum

Interview with Cindy Dickinson, Director of Interpretation at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts:

(Cindy’s first job out of the Winterthur Program in DE, was as curator at the Emily Dickinson House, prior to the formation of today’s Emily Dickinson Museum: the Homestead and the Evergreens.  She lived in the house, and was crucial in the formation of the museum as it is today. The house has been a part of Amherst College since1965 when it was purchased by the college to be used as faculty housing. The Homestead is where Emily Dickinson lived, and the Evergreens next door is the home of her brother.  The two houses united to form the Emily Dickinson Museum in 2003.)

*Please note: These answers are summarized, not transcribed exactly!

Who hired you? How did your position come to be? What was your job description?

I began working in 1996. At that time the museum was just known as the ‘Emily Dickinson House’, it was run through the Office of the President at Amherst College. It had previously been run through the Office of Public Affairs.  That office began arranging tours of the house for select people in the late 1960s, lead by Jean Mudge who lived there with her husband.  It was she who started a more official guiding program.  But the first public tour schedule was developed more in the1980s by Mrs. DeBevois, the widow of a trustee of the college, who was living there at the time. After that Carol, who had previously been a guide, became the curator, which essentially just meant running the guide program. Carol had attended Winterthur so she was, in fact, a museum person.  When she was leaving, the college decided it was a good time to re-evaluate the purpose of the house.  I was brought in as the first full-time person at the house, my job title was ‘curator’. I was also the sole full-time employee. There were some volunteer guides, and we had a contract with a house keeping service.

How many people were involved in this newer conception of the museum?

There was a committee of people, which contained, at least, a couple of faculty members, and the head of Public Affairs at the college.  It was a small number of people. There was no official museum consultant. Kent Farber, who is now the chair of the museum’s board, was hired by the President’s Office to do a feasibility study on both houses, (the Homestead and the Evergreens) to see what the future could hold for them.  The study was more about viability than about marketing.  He did call around other historic sites that dealt with authors, so he did do some benchmarking.  He also dealt with institutions having to do with Emily Dickinson specifically, like the Houghton library. (A library at Harvard which owns many of Emily’s personal belongings.) At some point they decided a full-time curator position was needed.  They had not thought of advertising outside of Amherst; it was Carol the previous curator who suggested that they hire someone with museum credentials. At that hiring point they called Winterthur and other places to find applicants.

Was this committee thinking much about their audience? Mission statement? What purpose would they serve to the community?

Yes, they were thinking about audience because a number of people were already coming to visit the house.  When I came the annual visitation was at 5,800. At its peak during the year the house was open for four days a week in the afternoons in the summer.  I think Kent was really thinking about how to show the place more as if Emily Dickinson had actually lived there, as opposed to a faculty house that happened to have her bedroom in it. I don’t think they cared too much about traffic. Admission was not a concern. It was more of an embarrassment factor that they had this resource and weren’t using it.

When I came in we formed an advisory committee of initially six, and then nine people.  That first year we applied for and received a MAP grant, Museum Assessment Program, provided by AAM.  The grant pays for a museum professional to come to your site and ask you lots of questions and write up a report for you on how to develop your museum. They can make some valuable suggestions.  And the great thing then is that in the future you can use the fact that you have had a MAP plan made, to get more grants. You know, ‘AAM says we need to do this, so if you give us money we can do it’.  And we were kind of an easy case. So many things came out of the MAP grant.

What was the official governance of the museum at that point, then, and

The advisory committee was the governance at that point, and in a way they were better than a board because they had no fiduciary responsibility.  So we could just go for the expertise angle, we had a couple of Dickenson types, a couple facilities people, a couple of architecture types. Another thing that the MAP survey agreed was that we needed to change my title from ‘curator’ which has a certain connotation, to Director. I didn’t really work for the committee, I worked with them.  I did report to them but they were not my supervisor.  The president of the college was my supervisor…so, I had no supervisor.

So, would I be correct in stating that that was because anything you did would be better than the previous state of affairs?

Yes, I would be in agreement with that statement.

So we had a historic structure report done, assessing the value of the building.  We worked on our interpretation of the bedroom.  We had a furnishings plan done, which was written just for the bedroom. You know, there was only so much we could do without any collections. When I came we had about a hundred objects in the collection.  (the major component’s of the objects in today’s museum were in the Evergreens at the time, which was still a separate entity.)  So in that sense, and this is skipping ahead a bit, the merger with the Evergreens really fulfilled our needs at the homestead.

And what was your relationship like with the Evergreens in the early days?

Well, It was always a natural thing to look at both of the houses together. Kent had been asked to do the study of both houses, so… I don’t think at that point that they (Amherst College) had any sense they would acquire it, but we were very interested in how the two could work together. We did start working with the Evergreens early on. Greg Farmer was their consultant and he and I worked together quite a bit.  One of the first things we did was to exhibit things from the Evergreens at the Homestead. In a way that was the unusual aspect of the situation, the presence of an equally interesting and pertinent historic site right next to us.  And that was the challenge:  How do you work together to raise money from the same people?  We did all of our public programming together for the first three years.

Did they secure an endowment first? Major donations?

There is a small endowment set up, it was set up even before Amherst College acquired the Homestead.  We were covered in the departmental budget.  Any fundraising we did was for special projects.  That was primarily grants, individual donors, solicitation; we did begin an annual fund.  The dress replica was a major project.  We did receive some money from the Emily Dickinson Society.  We also began to acquire a mailing list, and we developed friends.  The advisory committee began to create lists of people who were interested.  But it all had to be worked out with the college, who the check was made out to, etc.

How did you feel about your job security? Did you think they were on the right track with this museum?

Well I was definitely excited about the opportunity. I was a little disappointed that there were not more objects in the house.  I really liked the idea that it was a literary site. I liked the idea that it didn’t seem as if a whole lot could go wrong because the opening steps seemed fairly strait forward. I didn’t feel any extraordinary pressure.  I think there were a few things that I did wonder about.  I didn’t really like the idea that I had to live at the homestead…

How did the community initially respond?

For a very, very, very long time, we used to take reservations for everyone’s tours.  That made the place seem inaccessible, so we had a long haul trying to get people around the idea that you could come visit, you know… as an ordinary mortal.  Some people in town thought the college should do more with the house, other people really didn’t care.  So, now, to have eighty people coming to the museum tomorrow from the Amherst Chamber of Commerce is pretty funny! I think the public perception was that it seemed like a mysterious place, that it was a ‘part of the college so it’s not something that we can engage in’. Although, people coming from out of town didn’t necessarily know that. But, you know, when I came we didn’t even have a brochure or a newsletter or a website.

Lastly, how do you continue to plan for the future? What are the challenges you face?

The biggest challenge is still identifying who out there in the world likes Emily! Back then networking didn’t exist as it does today.  And that’s what you want is people electing to find you.

I guess a continued challenge is the absence of some of the material (objects belonging to Emily), but I’ve started feeling more and more like that was more reflective of the early days. You know, there is so much we may never know about her, so why should it matte that we don’t have some of her things?  Guides seem to think that not having some of her material can hinder visitor experience.

Another basic challenge is, of course, raising the money to do what you feel your site deserves.  Not having a bottomless pit of cash. Trying to accommodate more people in a finite amount of space. How do you adapt your interpretive message to provide a rich experience, and to a wider variety of people? With the job that I have now, the challenge has always been: how can we reach more educational audiences at a time when they can’t come to the museum anymore? The NEH grant that we had this summer was a big part of that, you know, reaching the teachers. (This summer the museum hosted two week-long workshops for teachers across the country to come to Amherst to address teaching Emily Dickinson in their classrooms).

Many, many thanks to Cindy!

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