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An old friend returns to lead Concord Museum

Posted by Sarah Thomas  January 6, 2011 09:32 AM

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After a nationwide search for a new leader, the Concord Museum is welcoming back an old friend -- Peggy Burke, the wife of a former director who presided over the museum's expansion into its current quarters.

Burke, who is finishing up a three-year tenure as the director of foundation development at WGBH, is a Marblehead native who lived in Concord with husband Dennis Fiori while he directed the museum from 1982-1994. She will begin her new job as the museum's executive director on Jan. 10.

When the couple began their family, Burke served as a consultant and grant writer to the museum, beginning a deep admiration for its collections, staff, and a community she describes as the best small town in America.

Burke holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and has served as a curator of the Bowdoin Museum of Art, director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now called Historic New England), and executive director of the Maryland Humanities Council.

She spoke with Your Town Concord about her new position.

Q: How do you think your most recent career experience at WGBH will impact the work you do at the Concord Museum?

A: WGBH is a world unto itself - 800 employees, a $160 million budget. It's been a blast to be part of such an internationally significant organization, but I'm looking forward to getting back to something on a human scale. My earlier job before WGBH was bringing humanities to the people of Maryland, and I've missed leading an institution that brings meaningful programming to people's lives. The museum is like a humanities council with a really great collection, and I love the quality of the collections, the staff, and the community. I can't wait to work with the staff to find connections between the past and present that resonate with people's lives. This is a dream job.

Q: Tell us a bit about why you are so excited about the museum's collections.

A: This museum has some of the most interesting collections in America for a number of reasons. The core of the collection was formed in the 19th century, before the civil war, by Cummings Davis, who went around town to collect materials that had previously been in households and private collections. What that means is that for those items, we know the provenance - we know who owned the pieces all the way back, and with a lot of modern collections sometimes you don't know that for sure. Knowing how the pieces in a collection were used and by whom is very important. And of course I'm excited to be working with the Henry David Thoreau material, it's the largest collection of its kind in the world.

Another thing I want to be sure to point out is how exceptional the staff at this museum is. My husband hired curator David Wood in the 1980s, and he is exceedingly knowledgeable about the material here. The staff is very experienced, with some of them having been there for a number of years, and very well trained and dedicated to the institution.

Q: How do you feel about returning to Concord?

A: I've always called Concord America's best small town. When we moved to Baltimore after my husband left the museum, I had a very hard time adjusting, because even though we were living in this beautiful neighborhood I never got that deep sense of rootedness, that care for the community and for the world at large I experienced from the people in Concord. Aside from Concord's important history, it's a community in every sense of the word, full of activists who care about social justice and the vitality of their town. There's a really special feeling to living here.

Q:What are some of your plans for your directorship?

A: I can imagine that for the first six months or so I'll be observing, dedicating myself to learning how the museum works today. I want to build upon the foundation that the exiting director, Désirée Caldwell, built, since there's so much the museum is doing that's right. I know I want to build and strengthen relationships and explore programmatic opportunities with other organizations, and can see partnering options opening up in the future with groups in the community and nearby organizations like DeCordova and Mass Audubon. I'd like to start thinking about how the museum could be even more of an educational resource than it is now, and possibly even look for ways to build upon the 10,000 students who already use the museum for learning.

Q: Any long term plans?

I don't think I'm there yet. This year we will be developing a new strategic plan with the board of trustees, and a few years ago the museum purchased a piece of property next door. I know there's a general feeling that it could be time to start thinking about a physical master plan along with the strategic plan, but I don't feel that a museum director necessarily needs to build in order to make an imprint. But we'll see. We want to think realistically, but we want to think big as well.

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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