Last Friday, the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History in Middlebury was animated, as if the normally decorous 19th-century artifacts had just come in from a sledding party. Visitors were admiring a display of twinkly Christmas wreaths, but the real excitement was on the second floor. The model trains had returned, and so had a visibly delighted audience of all ages.
Apparently, everyone loves watching Lionel O-Gauge trains tootle through tunnels, across a working drawbridge and past miniature wonderland scenery. "Holiday Trains: 30 Years Rolling Down the Tracks" is the title of this year's iteration, indicating exactly how long the tiny choo-choos have been a seasonal attraction.
It's the first year for Coco Moseley; she's scarcely a month into her new job as the Sheldon Museum's executive director. And the model train exhibit illustrates the kind of enthusiastic engagement she hopes to galvanize year-round. "This is a community museum," she emphasized in an interview. "I'm really interested in how a museum can be a place where people can make connections to themselves and to others."
Adjourning to the quieter quarters of the museum's Stewart-Swift Research Center, Moseley gestured at the library-like environs. The Sheldon "holds archives for Middlebury and Addison County," she noted, acknowledging the work of archivist Eva Garcelon-Hart. Though recordkeeping itself is a worthy endeavor, Moseley doesn't think those records should just sit on a shelf.
"I'm passionate about participatory history," she said. "We all play a role in looking at the past, understanding the stories of those who came before us and having conversations about it. And who's telling the story now?"
Her view is au courant. Museums worldwide have been soul-searching in recent years, and the Sheldon is no exception. In an exhibition last year, for example, artists employed archival materials to locate stories of underrepresented locals, including a Jewish shopkeeper and a Black female poet. In a virtual lecture series titled "The Elephant in the Room," a variety of invited thinkers explored the future of museums.
Moseley pointed to "racial reckoning, a changing climate and wealth disparities" as considerations in "the role the museum can play going forward." At its very best, she suggested, a museum helps us understand our histories in order to envision a better future.
Fifteen years ago, Moseley moved to Vermont from Madison, Wis., with a master's degree in "gender and women's studies with a focus on science," she said. She worked for a youth services agency in Washington County and, for the past few years, served as director of Lawrence Memorial Library in Bristol. She lives in Lincoln with her husband and 5-year-old daughter.
Citing ancestors who operated a dairy farm in Bellows Falls, Moseley said she feels "a deep connection" to Vermont. That concept recurs in her first letter to the public as Sheldon director. "It is this work of connection that I'm most excited about cultivating together at the Museum," she writes.
Even the toy train exhibit is contextualized with community connections past and present: Posters about Middlebury's railroad history line the walls, while a toddler-height play table encourages the littlest museumgoers to get involved. With a youngster of her own, Moseley said she's interested in elevating educational programming for kids.
"But for now," she said, "the museum is in holiday mode."