Five Questions With: Erica Luke

Executive director of the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society talks about the nonprofits home in the Old Washington County Jail and its upcoming landscape-art exhibit. More

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Five Questions With: Erica Luke

"During my time in Washington, D.C., I was fortunate to gain experience and be mentored at some of the country’s most prestigious cultural organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution, Daughters of the American Revolution and the Newseum."
Posted 4/18/14

Erica Luke became executive director of the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society in South Kingstown which encourages the study and appreciation of southern Rhode Island’s history, in March. She has 10 years of experience in museums and other educational institutions, including the National Museum of American History, Newseum and National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. She earned a Master of Arts degree in museum studies from George Washington University in 2007 and a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Delaware in 2003. She discusses here the value and reach of the museum.

PBN: Why is the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society based in the Old Washington County Jail? Does that present any challenges in maintaining the museum’s collections?

LUKE: The Old Washington County Jail has been our home since 1960, just four years after the county jail system was discontinued. The jail was built in the period just before the Civil War and served not only as the county jail and prison, but also as a home for the jail keeper’s family. Many visitors are shocked to learn that the jail keeper’s children lived under the same roof as imprisoned criminals.

The jail naturally provided a level of safety and environmental controls that made it uncomfortable for those imprisoned here but makes it great for housing collections. The building’s stone masonry keeps the temperature cool year-round, and the historic bars on our windows and doors add another level of protection for the objects in our care. It is a wonderful, historic facility that resonates with visitors and staff alike.

PBN: “Views of South County,” an April 26 exhibit, will feature landscape art. Tell us how and why this exhibit came to your organization and why you chose to host it.

LUKE: This exhibit has been developed by PHS to celebrate the beauty of South County and showcase many works of art in our collection that are not typically on display. The exhibit will include more than 30 artworks including Rodman Noka prints of downtown Wakefield and a new work by local artist Robert Humphrey depicting our headquarters, the Old Washington County Jail.

We are also including a few select works on loan to PHS from private collections.

PBN: Founded in 1958, the historical society’s collections date from the late 17th to the mid-20th centuries. What are some of the more popular and prized collections?

LUKE: PHS is fortunate to hold many important collections, including the 1939 Earnest Hamlin Baker mural entitled, “The Economic Activities of the Narragansett Planters.” Completed in 1939, the mural hung in the Wakefield Post Office until it closed in 1999. The mural came to PHS in 2003, where it since has been proudly showcased in the Old Washington County Jail.

That said, we have thousands of other collections thanks to the generosity of PHS supporters since our founding. These donors graciously chose to entrust their family heirlooms to PHS, including wedding dresses, battle-used weapons, private journals and even favorite childhood toys. These collections are critical to our ability to preserve and display the history of our community.

PBN: You have worked at three prominent national museums. What is it like to operate a museum on a small scale, and how does your previous work inform the work you do now?

LUKE: During my time in Washington, D.C., I was fortunate to gain experience and be mentored at some of the country’s most prestigious cultural organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution, Daughters of the American Revolution and the Newseum.

Museums of all sizes face many of the same challenges. Relevancy, care of collections, public engagement and financial stability are critical areas for history-based organizations, including PHS. Fundraising is a top concern for most organizations, and I will utilize my background in membership management and soliciting major gifts, grants and sponsorships to further PHS’s work.

As I take on this new role, I am excited to use the knowledge acquired at previous organizations to continue to grow PHS’s reach and impact.

PBN: How engaged is the public in the museum’s offerings in terms of membership and traffic? What are you doing to build engagement?

LUKE: PHS has been fortunate to have long-term support of the community throughout our history. We will continue to grow in this support by increasing opportunities for people to engage with PHS, including volunteer opportunities, special events, educational programs and exhibits.

Additionally, our library and archives are a frequently used local resource for persons working on family genealogies, research papers or books or even looking into the history of their home. We receive research requests weekly from all over the United States, and we will continue to grow as a place of research.

We are exploring ways to redesign our permanent exhibits to highlight the history of our headquarters as the Old Washington County Jail while including opportunities for learning and fun for visitors of all ages. We look forward to working with the community and our members to build upon PHS’s long history of success.

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