SEVEN DAYS: Following 20 years at the Shelburne Museum and nine years as coordinator of cultural heritage tourism for the state, you clearly bring plenty of relevant experience to your new gig. Can you say how those previous engagements inform your perspective on and visions for the Rokeby?CATHERINE BROOKS: At Shelburne Museum I learned firsthand that museums need to be fluid. Times change, tastes change and needs change. Museums need to always be looking ahead. I also learned that success is only possible because of the talent of volunteers, staff, colleagues and board members. Working together, great things can happen.
SD: Your cultural heritage job and position on the Rokeby board overlapped. I know that you managed the development of Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail. Is that how you got involved with the Rokeby initially?CB: I knew Jane through museum circles, and originally hoped to volunteer as a guide. After my work on the trail, Jane invited me to come on the board.
SD: What drew you to serve on the board?
SD: You’re still president of the board of trustees, right? Will you be passing that torch at the meeting in January?CB: At the most recent meeting I submitted my resignation and we voted in Maisie Howard (lives in Williston and most recently was director of development for the Green Mountain Club) and Marty Dewees (lives in Ferrisburgh and is retired from teaching social work at the University of Vermont) as co-chairs.
SD: What excites you about becoming director of the Rokeby?CB: Because of Jane’s work, Rokeby is highly respected by American history scholars and has earned exhibit and publication awards from regional and national museum professional organizations. As a National Historic Landmark and having state-of-the art galleries and program space, Rokeby is poised to expand our audience and support base. I’m very excited to be able to work on new initiatives that will support these goals.
SD: Can you elaborate a bit on those "new initiatives"?CB: I can’t be specific before we have the board retreat. But, for a small museum, Rokeby already does a lot, and we are financially secure because we live within our means. However, with more “means,” we can do more. Over the next few years, our goal is to significantly increase visitation and financial support. We will be considering new efforts to engage families, middle and high school students, and teachers. Rokeby has attracted a number of passionate younger board members, and we intend to engage that demographic in our programs, as well.
SD: It can’t be easy for any museum to thrive these days. What is the Rokeby’s biggest source of revenue, and do you envision developing other streams?CB: Over the last few years, admissions income is equal to or leads donations and grants. I find it interesting how generous visitors to the museum are — they often make donations at the end of the guided tours. In the near future, we plan to expand the museum store offerings and add new events.
SD: Who visits the Rokeby? Do you have info on the demographics?CB: I don’t have my hands on specifics right now regarding in-state and out-of-state [visitors], but this year staff mentioned a noticeable increase of in-state. Regarding out-of-state visitors and those who learn about Rokeby from the African American Heritage Trail — we’ve seen people spend hours on the site, and linger beneath the towering butternut trees, as if it is hard for them to leave. Again, we need to increase efforts to get the word out. Tour guides say the challenge is getting people here. Once here, they leave well satisfied.
SD: The Rokeby has a unique and important history. How do you see it remaining visible and vital to Vermonters now and in the future?CB: From 1793 to 1961, Rokeby was home to four generations of a family of Quakers, farmers, abolitionists, artists and authors. Members of each generation distinguished themselves in, for their time, uncommon ways. With an acute awareness of the world around them, they expressed their passions with simple tools — pen, paintbrush, pencil or hay rake — but in profound ways. We will tell stories from each generation through a lens that can serve to inspire us all to find focus, to hone our skills, and to contribute in ways that can make a difference.