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MANY Board Spotlight: Natalie Stetson, Executive Director, Erie Canal Museum

November 29, 2022 3:54 PM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

Natalie Stetson is the Executive Director of the Erie Canal Museum in downtown Syracuse, NY. She previously served as the Director of Development at the Seward House Museum in Auburn, NY. Natalie has spent much of her career thinking about and finding ways to engage new audiences at history museums and connect museums to their community. 

Natalie received a BA at the Honors College of Florida Atlantic University with concentrations in American Studies and Literature. She later attended Syracuse University and received an MA in Museum Studies. Natalie grew up in museums and followed in the footsteps of her father, who received his MFA in Museum Studies (then called Museology) from Syracuse University thirty years before she attended.

Natalie joined the Museum Association of NY Board in April 2018 and is the co-chair of the Program Committee Chair of the Host Committee for our 2023 Annual Conference in Syracuse “Finding Center: Access, Inclusion, Participation, and Engagement” April 15 - 18, 2023.

We spoke with Natalie to learn more about her career path and her leadership in the development of a new interpretive plan for the Erie Canal Museum.

Natalie Stetson, Executive Director of the Erie Canal Museum sits on a recreated canal boat in the historic 1850 Weighlock Building 

What other jobs have you had in the museum field? Can you tell us about your journey to get to your current role?

My dad is a museum director so I grew up in museums. He’s been working in museums for over forty years across the country including Iowa, Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, and New York. His first museum job was at the Picker Art Gallery at Colgate University.

I’ve volunteered in many different museum positions including art classrooms, the gift shop, and the front desk. My first paid museum job was a front desk job at my dad’s museum in Central Florida. I worked the front desk on the weekends while I was in high school but I didn’t mean to go into the museum field. Outside of volunteering and working at the front desk, I didn’t spend a lot of time in museums and wasn’t thinking that’s what I wanted to do. 

It’s a time that I now look back on and it makes sense that I’m working in museums. Those early experiences led me to work in a museum now, but I didn’t know it at the time. I wanted to be a teacher and that’s what I worked toward in college. Later I realized that teaching wasn’t something that I wanted to do, but I wanted to work in education. 

After college, I started looking at graduate programs in museum studies or American studies. I don’t like writing. It doesn’t come easily to me so I wanted to pursue something without a thesis dissertation. When I was growing up, my aunt was working on her PhD and for my entire childhood, she had a dissertation to write. I just imagined the burden of that dissertation or that thesis on my shoulders. I didn't think I would finish it and get my degree. It made me think that maybe academia wasn’t right for me. I ended up taking a year off after college and moved to Portland Oregon with my best friend. It was at this point that I thought about pursuing a career in museums. 

Museums seemed to check all the boxes in what I was looking to do in my career. I started looking for graduate programs in museum studies. I applied to a few but ended up choosing to attend Syracuse University because they offered me the best deal. I actually only applied to Syracuse because my dad got his master's in museum studies at Syracuse University. My dad’s mom also went to Syracuse and his grandmother. So just the idea of this legacy I thought that I’d apply but I wasn’t going to go. I didn’t see myself moving to Syracuse. I didn’t have any interest in moving to Central New York. I wanted to live in a large city where I didn’t need a car but I was convinced that I would only be here for two years to get my degree and then I would leave. But I’ve been here for over ten years now and it’s home. 

I wasn’t sure which part of a museum I wanted to work in. I took a development class and I developed this philosophy of museum development which is if you can be passionate about what you’re doing and can convey that to others, the money will follow. That was my early development philosophy. Then I interned at the Erie Canal Museum and worked for the museum curator Dan Ward. In the first semester of my second year of graduate school, he forwarded me an email from the museum that said they were looking for a Director of Development and Marketing. I still had a semester left of school but I figured that I would throw my hat into the ring. The museum hired me and I started in November 2010. In the early days, I felt like I had no real idea of what I was doing but I had a lot of passion, energy, and ideas. I worked at the museum for three years and learned a lot about grants and their complicated nature. I left the Erie Canal Museum and worked at the Seward House Museum in a similar position for two and a half years. Billye [Chabot, Seward House Museum Executive Director] came to me one day and told me that the director position at the Erie Canal Museum was open.

I was hired as the Erie Canal Museum Executive Director in March 2016 and in my six years here, I have really come to love this museum and the story of the Erie Canal. The canal touches upon enough things that if you want to, you can find a connection. Art, math, science, immigration, and Native American history. It’s all here and I loved that. 

What an interesting journey and opportunity to explore different roles at museums. Did you ever have a moment when you began your museum career and look back at your childhood with your father and think about the impact it has on your role now?

Yes. I think part of what makes me at least somewhat of a successful executive director is that I have experience working in many different parts of a museum. Having that knowledge of other roles and what they’re doing, helps me understand my staff’s needs. I think people are the most important resource this museum or any museum has and if I can't support my staff and take care of them, then we won’t be successful. Having at least some understanding of what they need without them having to tell me because some employees are better than others at telling you what they need. Having a little bit of background knowledge from my experience is helpful. 

I think back to watching my dad interact with his staff and although he’s a different kind of leader than me, we both trust our staff. I’m not a micromanager. I trust them to do what needs to be done because we’re all on the same page with the same goals is important. They’re probably a few of my previous experiences that come up here and there that are nice reminders of all of the things that I know help me to hopefully be a better leader. 

Tell me about some of your biggest motivations to do what you do. What do you get excited about in your role as the Executive Director of the Erie Canal Museum?

That’s a good question because it’s changed over time. This museum is amazing, but for many years it kind of just existed. We’re a popular tourist destination which is wonderful and we can exist on that if we wanted to. When I came back as director there was a lot of foundation building we needed to create. We were down to three volunteers. We needed to build up a constituency of people who cared about this museum in the community. There also wasn’t a lot of collaboration amongst the staff. It was very much a blinders-up situation and working independently of each other. In those first couple of years, my job was hard and I didn’t always like it and didn’t always know what I was doing. 

But then during the pandemic, there was this moment, an awakening for all of us where we thought we can do so much more with the Erie Canal story. I called it a microcosm for all of American history and we have this incredible opportunity to help people reconcile with history. People think that history is hard but it’s not. It’s not pretty most of the time, but our museum is a trusted source of information. This museum now has the support of a wonderful group of people who are letting us tackle really hard topics and allowing us to think about how we can be kind of the arbiters of change in this conversation around history. I like when I come to work each day now, really excited about what we’re going to do next and where we’re going. The team here is excited. I think we’re going to change things. We’re just one little museum in Central New York and I hope we can be leaders for other small museums. 

For the past couple of years, we've been doing a lot of this work through our programming. We’ve been focused on expanding our interpretation. We’re talking more about the Haudenosaunee past and present. Currently, you cannot find the word Haudenosaunee in our exhibitions anywhere and that is a problem. But changing exhibitions is a lot more complicated than working to develop programming. I think developing programming and developing those relationships, the language, and establishing goals all need to happen before we start changing the exhibitions. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past couple of years. We’ve had a couple of thousand people participate in our virtual programs, but there are over fifteen thousand people visiting the museum in person, walking through the door to look at our exhibitions and our programs are not touching those people. They’re not getting that experience. 

The museum was recently awarded $50,000 IMLS Inspire! Grant to develop a new interpretive plan as part of a larger effort to tell a more inclusive Canal story. Can you tell us more about the grant project?

Our last interpretive plan was connected to our reaccreditation with the American Alliance of Museums in 2010 which was part of the documentation needed in order to be reaccredited. Nothing is wrong with that plan, but it’s not extensive and it no longer aligns with our current goals to tell a more inclusive story of the Erie Canal. We knew that we needed a new interpretation plan. The murder of George Floyd and the social justice movements that followed ended up being a transformative moment for a lot of museums. When that happened, many cultural institutions made statements. For us, The Canal connects to everything, and initially, we stayed silent but we knew that there were things we were not talking about and that we should be. Derek Pratt, our Museum Educator, and I got to work. Derek really dug in and created our Pathway Resistance walking tour. In 2021, we brought in a research fellow, Renée Barry, who traveled across New York State’s Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, collecting and analyzing Canal history. She focuses on how the dominant Erie Canal discourse continues to reinforce and obscure the ongoing historical context of industrialization’s radicalized inequality. This position was funded by the NYS Power Authority’s Reimagine the Canal initiative. It was a great opportunity for us and two months after Barry started, we applied for the IMLS grant. 

We were awarded the funding from the IMLS in August and we’ve met with our consultant to outline themes and goals. We will likely completely redo the entire museum. Our current exhibition was installed in 2015. Its research is twenty years old and it’s not the story we want to tell. We want to talk about New York State before the Erie Canal, and what was happening before the ditch was dug. When this exhibition was installed it cost $700,000, so this is just the first step with a large capital campaign to follow. One donor has already contributed $10,000. 

Can you share more about what some of the intended goals are for this project?

There are five goals. The first one is to tell a more inclusive Erie Canal story through exhibits and programs, the second is to expand the interpretation of the 1850 Syracuse Weighlock Building, the third is to increase engagement for children and families, the fourth is to provide a more welcoming environment for marginalized populations, and the fifth is to create a more cohesive visitor experience.

The plan will allow for strategic updates over the course of a few years or as funding becomes available. 

We don’t know fully what this will look like but it’s important that the museum is a space that is welcoming to all people. One thing that will be critical for us is to figure out tone and language. For example, we will need to talk about the trauma the Erie Canal had on the Haudenosaunee. That’s why we’ve hired professionals and built connections with our colleagues at the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center to help us. 

What advice would you give other museums applying for an IMLS Inspire! Grant? 

It seems like a nuanced thing but I’ve been part of some teams that try to create something that a particular grant funding will work for but then ended up with a project that there weren’t resources available to actually complete or didn’t fit within your goals. 

When I sit down to write a grant I know that this grant is important to the museum’s goals and we’re not creating a project to fulfill grant requirements but it just aligned with what we’re already doing. 

Can you describe a favorite day on the job?

I can’t think of a literal day but there are days when I am not sitting at my computer and I’m leading people through the museum that I really enjoy. I’m a member of the Canal Recreationway Commission for New York State* and l led a tour a couple of weeks ago. I don’t get to do this often but it’s important because those are the days when I get to talk about our plans and goals. 

I like watching visitors interact with a presenter during one of our programs. It’s nice witnessing the good work we’re doing rather than just being behind the scenes. 

I also like our staff meeting days where we talk and share the work we’re doing. It’s important to get out from behind the computer and have face-to-face interaction, both with the public and with your staff. They’re the days when I look at the calendar and think I’m not going to get any work done with all the meetings, tours, and programs but at the end of the day, I feel so invigorated. Those days can be overwhelming and exhausting but they’re the best days. 

*The Canal Recreationway Commission was founded in 1992 and comprised of 24 members representing the Canal System and appointed by the Governor to develop a conceptual framework for fostering the development of the Canal System into a recreationway system.

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