ST. ALBANS CITY — The keys to the legends and libraries of lore are passing into new hands next week. On Monday, the mantle and mission of the Saint Albans Museum will be taken up by its incoming interim executive director, Lisa Evans.
“The future of museums is connecting with people here and now,” Evans said in an interview on Wednesday. “That’s something really important that Alex has set up on a good trajectory for us. Now it’s my turn to take us down this path.”
The current executive director, Alex Lehning, joined the museum in October 2012, and has guided it through a series of positive transformations, including: three exhibit room renovations, an expanded public and educational programming calendar and the establishment of an internship program.
The museum board of trustees announced Evans’ appointment earlier this month.
“We are fortunate to have Lisa in place as SAM’s interim executive director. She has an extensive museum background, as well as a year of valuable experience working closely as an integral member of our leadership team,” said Janet Bailey, co-president of the museum board. “We expect a seamless transition and look forward to an exciting new era for the Saint Albans Museum.”
“I’m so thankful that Lisa is going to bring that passion that the organization has needed to thrive,” said Lehning.
The passing of the mantle comes at a time when the collection of artifacts and documentation of historical events is a heavy task to bear. With the reckoning of social movements, heightened scrutiny of law enforcement and the transition between presidential administrations — and the priorities that come along with it — there is much to document.
With the creation of a museum Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Accessibility Committee, Lehning (soon to become a volunteer at the museum) and Evans said one of the main focuses of the museum moving forward will be telling the stories left untold. Evans and Lehning are currently planning the museum’s spring program series.
“How do we make the museum more representative of our community?” Evans asked. “We’ve started thinking about new ways to bring history to the community. That needs to be a forward-thinking solution. How will this pandemic change society, and how will the community want us to respond.”
Pathways to history
Both Evans and Lehning live and work in northern Vermont, but the two originally hail from the midwest, with Evans originally from Michigan and Lehning from Ohio.
Neither originally intended to be the executive director of a museum in northern Vermont. Actually, Evans wanted to be a ballerina princess.
“My life took a crazy spin from ballet royalty,” Evans said, laughing.
Prior to this role, she held positions at the Noyes House Museum in Morrisville and the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington. Evans received her B.A. in History from Northern Vermont University and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Museum Studies through Johns Hopkins University’s Advanced Academic Program. In addition, she is a co-chair for the New England Museum Young & Emerging Professionals Professional Affinity Gathering.
“I could be a professional in school,” Evans said, laughing. “I love learning, I love teaching, and I love bringing a passion to subjects ... My passion is to bring [history] alive, to bring the past to today, make them understand that they are all a part of the history happening now.”
In her study of museums, Evans found herself in Brownington at the Old Stone House museum, where she was given an entire presentation space to create an exhibit for the town of Newport for the town’s centennial celebration.
“I was able to do all of the research on the town, and I built the entire exhibit from scratch,” Evans recalled. “That’s the beauty of smaller, local history and heritage museums. You get the nitty-gritty hands-on experience.”
Her blooming love for the history of Vermont led her to her current position as board president at the Chittenden County Historical Society, and associate programming director of the museum alongside Lehning, a self-described accidental museum professional.
Lehning got his start in school studying history, first in Maine and then at the University of Vermont. He later became a full-time staffer at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
“I just sort of fell in love with museums,” Lehning said. “I loved making the inaccessible accessible. Being able to take something that was hundreds of feet under a lake and make it reachable for students was very powerful for me.”
So Lehning began building his investigative historical career — giving lectures, teaching courses at CCV, working at United Way of Franklin and Grand Isle and heading archaeological digs researching Chittenden County’s rich and sometimes itchy history.
“I got poison ivy while looking for Lt. McDonaugh’s shipyard from the War of 1812 in Vergennes,” Lehning said. “They mowed the field the day before — they didn’t tell us it was all poison ivy.”
Lehning and Evans share a passion for education and what Lehner terms the “lightbulb” moments, when a student’s eyes light up with understanding and fascination when learning about the tales of their own homeland, like the rich history of shipbuilders in St. Albans Bay.
What comes next?
Lehning won’t be too far gone. After passing the honored torch to Evans, Lehning will switch gears to pursue his newest venture as executive director for the Vermont Cooperative for Practice, Improvement and Innovation, a mental health nonprofit based out of Northern Vermont University.
Though the position seems drastically different in nature, Lehning said he’ll still be telling stories just as he does in his current capacity, except that these stories will belong to other people: practitioners, hospitals, those with substance abuse disorders and more to grow and improve the health and wellbeing needs of Vermonters and beyond.
The job comes as a natural transition for Lehning, who has been volunteering in healthcare and hospice systems since he was a teenager.
Evans and Lehning said they hope to continue to grow and adapt to the ever-changing world and bring history from the pages into peoples’ homes.
“I want the people to know the Saint Albans Museum is their museum,” Evans said. “We create what they want from us, and what all of us are together. I want partnerships and collaborations with the general public. (This job) is about being a part of the past and bringing the community together.”