After a nationwide search, the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) board of trustees selected Niles D. Parker as the organization’s Gosnell executive director. Parker will begin work on May 19. It’s a homecoming of sorts, as Parker previously held the position as the Robyn and John Davis chief curator at the NHA from 1999 to 2006, as well as acting executive director from 2005 to 2006. He played a significant role in the Whaling Museum’s major expansion and renovation project in 2005. More recently, he could be found at the Maine Discovery Museum where he served as executive director since 2010. We caught up with him before he takes the helm at NHS to survey what he’s been up to over the past decade and ascertain his vision for NHA’s future.
Congratulations on your appointment! Why do you think it’s significant for the NHA’s board to bring you aboard at this particular moment?
Thank you. I am deeply appreciative for this opportunity to come back to Nantucket and return to the NHA. It’s truly a special island and organization. I’ve found very few communities where a historical society plays such a vibrant, contemporary role in daily life and contributes so powerfully to a sense of place. My previous experience at the NHA, which included among other initiatives: helping to design and build the expanded Whaling Museum, rethinking the historic properties and our programs, starting the Decorative Arts and Crafts program, developing new exhibits, and cataloging the collection, gave me a deep appreciation for the NHA’s scope. I believe my 30-plus years of museum experience, combined with a deep knowledge of Nantucket and the NHA – its history, its collections, its properties – is unique. I am committed to the notion that museums are wonderful gathering places with the opportunity to tell a diversity of stories in exciting and colorful ways. Artifacts, artwork, documents, photographs all provide windows into memorable storytelling. Technology continues to open dramatic new avenues for enhancing those stories.
What are the board’s expectations?
I believe the board expects me to lead the organization with that concept of diverse storytelling at the heart of our efforts. We will seek to involve and reflect a very diverse island population. Though Nantucket is obviously known for its whaling history, both the island and the NHA are much more than that. I am excited to work with the community, the board and the staff to consider new ways in which we can leverage the properties and the collections to capture interest not only in the island’s history, but in its very dynamic present and its shifting future. Clearly, the board is also intent upon grappling with the urgent issue of rising sea levels. We must address the looming impact of flooding on the island and the fact that some of our signature properties and experiences are located on the front lines of the flooding risk. It is an opportunity, I think, to take the lead in thinking about how cultural organizations with artifact collections, can play a very visible role in educating the public and communicating about this issue. We will certainly be required to take physical steps and make design choices to ameliorate the situation as much as possible.
Did your tenure at the Maine Discovery Museum involve strategic planning? And, if so, what were some of the measurables obtained?
Strategic planning is something that I really enjoy and think is absolutely central to the operation of any business or nonprofit. That has been especially true during the past several years. To answer your question one way, I led the Maine Discovery Museum through three distinct strategic planning initiatives over the past 12 years. A key area of focus that emerged was a strategy to pivot more towards science programming (STEAM-Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math). We deliberately left the arts in the traditional STEM acronym, because we always believed it was important to blur those lines between the usual silos of art and science. We ended up with the Maine Science Festival as a result. It is a statewide program that dramatically expanded our demographic, our grant funding and our corporate support, not to mention the types of programming we did, the number of people we reached and the quantity of programs we could offer. Another answer to your question is that I don’t believe strategic planning is a five-year document that happens after a few board and/or staff retreats and then sits, as a bound document, on a shelf in the office. I think an organization must always be engaged in strategic planning. I think a sound strategic plan is always being reassessed, always being consulted, always empowers an organization to consider opportunities. Again, the pandemic has taught us that there are things that can’t be fully anticipated in a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, and you need to be able to adapt on the fly. The NHA has been working hard on developing a strategic plan over the past year and I am eager to join the team as we roll up our sleeves and consider the challenges and many opportunities ahead.
You’ve had some experience in hands-on collections management and exhibition and design. What is your most memorable experience?
I have had many enjoyable experiences working with collections and developing exhibits. It’s tough to pick one or even just a couple of memorable moments. That being said, it was a pleasure to be part of the team creating an exhibit at the 1999 Winter Show in New York City as a curator for the New York State Historical Association. While touring groups through our exhibit, a team from the NHA came through asking a number of questions about working on the site and creating the exhibit. They shared that they were to be the selected organization to feature artifacts from their collection the following year. Fast forward 12 months and I was back at the armory, setting up an exhibit for the NHA as its curator. I never would have guessed that I would have had that opportunity to be at the Winter Show two years in a row, representing two different organizations.
The NHA recently announced the beginning of a project to make significant investments in its portfolio of historic properties and other facilities over the next 24 months totaling more $2 million. Can you brief us on what is included in the project?
The NHA has made a very significant commitment to its properties. With so many important historic properties scattered about the island, the work of maintaining them, restoring them, interpreting them is never-ending. The board and staff have done an outstanding job at identifying projects and overlaying work schedules and budgeting to ensure the work has continued during the pandemic and will continue over the foreseeable future. This includes elements that are visible to the eye, like a beautiful slate roof, which was just installed on the historic Candle Factory at the Whaling Museum, as well as those items that are less visible but critically important, such as replacement of sewer/water lines. Properties, especially historic ones, demand a great deal of attention and resources. These properties are artifacts themselves and help weave together that historic fabric that makes Nantucket so unique.
Is there any better place than Nantucket in the summertime?
Easy…Nantucket in the fall!