Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Brian Sager
James Russell pledges to bring historic change to the NHA.
Nothing about James Russell’s journey to his current position as the Gosnell Executive Director of the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) was particularly linear. Beginning with his childhood growing up in a tiny Irish village “of five hundred people with one pump, seven pubs and a church,” the unexpected twists and turns of Russell’s life reflect an insatiable curiosity that’s turned him into something of a Renaissance man. When he enrolled in Harvard in 1984, after gaining the attention of the university’s track and field coach by way of his hammer-throwing power, Russell was the first member of his family to come to the United States. Although Harvard was a world closer to Nantucket than Ireland was, it wasn’t until after careers as an award-winning sculptor and leader of at least five other museums that Russell finally moved to Nantucket this fall to helm the NHA.
“Every time I look around, I envision how I’m going to reimagine this place,” Russell says while walking through the Whaling Museum. “I’m looking forward to a dynamic period.” Accepting the position previously held by his friend Bill Tramposch after nine years running the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Russell isn’t wasting any time putting his own spin on the NHA. He points to blank walls where he says underwater photos of whales will soon hang and nods to underutilized spaces that will soon buzz with new exhibits. Russell plans on expanding from two exhibits to twelve and increasing the speed of their rotation. “As you tell this whaling story, in the same way that all roads lead to Rome, in whaling, all maritime roads lead to Nantucket,” Russell says. “Coming here in many ways is a homecoming to what I’ve been devoting my life to for the past decade.”
Beyond transforming the museum itself, Russell says he’s determined to revive aspects of Nantucket’s history that he believes have been underrepresented by the NHA. “As I look around the NHA, I see stories that talk not just about whaling, but talk about art, about the African American legacy, about the very interesting relationship of the Native American populations and how they interacted with the colonialists. I look at suffrage and Petticoat Row and I say to myself, ‘These are stories that we should be talking about here.” When it came to better representing similar untold histories as the executive director of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Russell not only succeeded in creating substantial exhibits around Cape Verdean whaling history, but he also established a partnership with the Cape Verde Ministry of Culture. He even traveled to Cape Verde and gifted them fifty artifacts for their own collection.
Here on Nantucket, Russell says that the catalogue of NHA’s properties such as the Old Gaol, Greater Light and the Oldest House helps tell some of these underrepresented stories, but there’s still room to improve. “The challenge here is that the NHA’s properties are almost like a string of pearls where you can go from site to site to site, and at each location I would hope that there’s something differentiating about them,” he says. “So when you look at the plethora of properties that are part of the NHA’s collection and you can easily see how the themes and topics would align rather logically to these places. I would hope over the course of my tenure that we can maximize the experiences at all of these sites.”
There’s no denying that the NHA has been in a state of flux since Bill Tramposch announced his retirement this time last year. The shakeup has been marked in recent months by a number of staff departures, perhaps most notably the dynamic Sacerdote Chair of Education and Outreach Marjan Shirzad, who sold her home on the island after being hired as the vice president of community services at the Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle in Doyleston, Pennsylvania. “Serving the people of this dynamic island community and having the opportunity to create world-class, inclusive experiences for visitors of all ages was a great honor for me, both personally and professionally,” said Shirzad on her way to her new post. “Nantucket will remain in my heart always.” One of Shirzad’s many successes at the NHA was drawing new blood into the museum and cultivating a younger donor base though parties, roof-top music and other events.
On this topic of appealing to a younger audience, Russell first emphasizes the importance of education in sowing the seeds for long-term support of the NHA. Along with continuing and adding a number of events at the various NHA properties, Russell plans on taking a holistic approach to unrolling a new mentorship program with Nantucket High School, expanding the internship program offered to off-island students, and increasing year-round museum accessibility to the community. “Specifically on how can we cultivate a younger set of donors, I would look at what has been successful in the past,” Russell says. “For instance, the activities that take place on the roof — the band that comes in on a Friday night — that was a very successful venture.” He wants to continue to think of “fresh and different” uses of the space to pull in that younger audience. “I’ve challenged our staff to do that,” Russell says. “Let’s go through an exercise in how we can reinvent what happens at the Whaling Museum.”
Whether it was taking over the Attleboro Arts Museum at the ripe age of twenty-eight or becoming the director of the Herreshoff Marine Museum/America’s Cup Hall of Fame despite having very little sailing experience, in seemingly every case, Russell has gotten up to speed with the institutions he’s represented and turned them into revered beacons in their communities.
“Both myself and Delia are very excited to be in Nantucket,” Russell says of himself and his wife. “Not just because it’s an absolutely beautiful place, but because we were both yearning for a strong sense of community.” He continues, “By working together within a relatively small population, one could really achieve great things. I think one of the really enriching components of being on the island is the fact that we’re surrounding ourselves with some very good and smart people. Within that setting great things can happen.”