Elizabeth Kaeser: New Museum Head
The books on Elizabeth Kaeser’s bedside table changed seven months ago. That’s when she became the new executive director of the Connecticut River Museum, taking over from interim head Olivia David.
Now, Elizabeth’s bedside reading has included an anthology on the Connecticut River, a book on water called The Ripple Effect, and that classic for all ages about river life, The Wind in the Willows.
“Every night, I read a book about the river,” she says.
Her first year, Elizabeth explains, will be a learning time for her.
“Part of the job is to look, to listen, to gather information, and to empathize,” she says, adding, “It’s about building a team; there is new staff, a great team to work with.”
Still, she is excited about new programs at the museum, including an initiative sponsored by a grant from the Robert F. Schumann Foundation, an organization that has funded environmental and cultural programs along the Shoreline. The Connecticut River Museum program will teach high school students how to become citizen scientists by not only learning about birds and bird watching but also how to participate in programs where people report bird sightings to central registries.
Learning about birds, moreover, involves learning about many other aspects of science and the natural world, among them basic concepts in ecology, climate, and environmental sustainability.
It is important, Elizabeth points out, that the museum’s program takes place on the river and not just because it is an excellent place to see birds.
“The young people are the next generation of river stewards, and we want to train them,” she says.
Reaching a young audience is important to the work of the museum, which served some 3,600 children last year through visits to the site and classroom visits by museum staff.
She adds that the popular eagle watch cruises on one of the two boats the museum owns, RiverQuest, have some trips designed for families with children. The cruises are somewhat shorter to accommodate young attention spans, and there are smaller binoculars for the youngsters to use.
According to Elizabeth, stewardship and attention to the condition of the river have already made a great difference since the time, nearly six decades ago when Katharine Hepburn called the waterway the world’s most beautifully landscaped cesspool. Now the river is rated by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection as having Class B water, suitable for fishing and recreational activities.
“Now there are eagles here. You wouldn’t have seen that 50 years ago,” Elizabeth says.
The Connecticut River, at 410 miles long, is the longest in New England. One of the museum’s goals is to tell the story of the entire length of the waterway.
“We want to think both of local environs and how to engage the upper reaches of the river,” Elizabeth says. “There are people and stories to tell all along it — 410 miles — and every mile has a story.”
Museums, and the way they tell stories, have evolved from the time when visitors walked through viewing glass-encased displays.
“Museums are changing; they are more open, more inclusive, and engage people more,” she says. “It’s about the flow [of the exhibits] and telling a story.”
Elizabeth, who grew up in West Hartford, majored in history at Vassar College and then got a master’s degree in museum studies from New York University.
She always knew she wanted to be involved in museum work.
“I love history and the many ways history can help us better understand our world,” she says.
In high school, Elizabeth had volunteered at the living history museum at Sturbridge Village, and during college, she had internships at the Litchfield Historical Society and the Connecticut Historical Society, now known as the Connecticut Museum of Culture and History.
Her professional history includes positions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hudson River Museum, the Merchant’s House Museum, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where she was a senior educator.
Before coming to the Connecticut River Museum, she was director of institutional giving at Eastern State Penitentiary History Site in Philadelphia. The prison, founded by Quakers in the 1820s, was abandoned in 1971 and fell into disrepair but was recreated as a historical site to tell the stories both of the people incarcerated and the people who worked in the facility. Among those who served time there were notorious bank robber Willie Sutton and gangster Al Capone. According to Elizabeth, the prison is now one of the most popular tourist sites in Pennsylvania, with some 300,000 visitors a year.
Elizabeth and her husband, Jacob Hale Russell, a law professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, are glad to be back in New England. His family is from New Hampshire. He will continue teaching by commuting two days a week to New Jersey. The couple have a 4-year-old son, August.
Elizabeth looks forward to the upcoming celebration of the museum’s 50th anniversary, which will kick off on October 12 with the Brenda Milkofsky Curatorial Fund Dinner. Milkofsky, now retired, was the longtime senior curator at the museum. The yearlong anniversary celebrations will include an oral history project, a community day, and an environmental symposium.
At the upcoming Milkofsky dinner, the museum will unveil a painting it has commissioned by Len Tantillo, an artist who specializes in historical scenes. The painting will recreate the small Dutch trading post established in 1633 on the Connecticut River near what is now Hartford.
“The Dutch weren’t there for long,” Elizabeth says. They ceded the Connecticut River area to the English by treaty in 1650 though fighting continued until 1674.
For more information on the Connecticut River Museum and the upcoming Milkofsky Curatorial Fund Dinner, visit www.ctrivermuseum.org.