Lori Urso, executive director of the Slater Mill Museum in Pawtucket, which is overseen by the Slater Mill Old Slater Mill Association, started her job on Monday, Jan. 6. A native of Providence, and for the past 10 years a resident of West Greenwich, she also lived in Westerly and served for a term on the Westerly Town Council.
As executive director for 10 years with the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Council, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for Region 1 in 2008. For the past five years, she led the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society which operates two history museums in South Kingstown.
She earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Rhode Island in 2003, a Bachelor of Arts in Biological Sciences from Rutgers University in 1987, and a diploma from Classical High School in 1982.
She also is a recording and performing guitarist, vocalist, and band leader, and has released three CDs with vaudeville-revival band Ursula George. A Rhode Island Foundation fellowship she is pursuing through June involves traveling to 25 states to document the disposition of Black Vaudeville theaters.
PBN: What attracted you to work at this nonprofit and museum and what are your top goals for the coming year?
URSO: Slater Mill as a nonprofit agency offered me two areas of interest that mesh well with my background: 19th- and 20th- century American history, and also anadromous fish passage. Over the past 16 years, I have worked in both the history museum and the river restoration fields, and the chance to blend these disciplines was very attractive to me from a work standpoint. But the museum itself and the story it represents is my story. My ancestors came to America from Italy at the turn of the 20th century to find work in the mills, and immigration as we know continues to be an issue of ongoing discussion and debate in this country. There is an opportunity here for dialogue on that subject, and it is important for historic sites today to be part of community dialogue. Also, I grew up not far from here, on the Providence-Pawtucket (Fairlawn) line, so I have a deep connection to this part of the state.
PBN: What is the biggest attraction at the Slater Mill Museum from a tourist's point of view?
URSO: Slater Mill represents an important story in the history of the American melting pot – the starting point of industry, and its attraction for immigrants to come to America for their pursuit of happiness and the American dream. There is so much to learn here, for visitors of all ages.
Those of us native to Rhode Island think of Slater Mill as the place we visited for a childhood field trip, but the story and the lessons are universal. Adult visitors can be greatly enriched by the learning that awaits them here: lessons not only about the history of mills in Rhode Island, but how Samuel Slater developed a mill village system that kept families together. Also how that system thrived, and the reasons for its decline, help us to understand the pattern of economy in this state. It's very unique in that regard, and very important in understanding the growth of industry in this country.
PBN: What is the highest priority improvement the museum needs to make and what is the timetable and strategy for making it?
URSO: The exterior repairs and restoration of the Slater Mill building is a very important project for the coming year. Deferred maintenance is the bane of many historic structures, so it is important to remain proactive in terms of building preservation. The recent grant from the Champlin Foundations will allow us to address issues associated with the original fabric and structure of the Slater Mill building in 2014, which is critical to the ongoing preservation of the site, and its ability to continue to serve as a destination for visitors for many years to come. I led the architectural restoration of Hale House in Matunuck for my previous employer, and look forward to bringing those skills to this project.
PBN: Who is the museum's primary audience and how do you reach them in the digital age?
URSO: The audience for the Slater Mill historic site includes individuals across a wide demographic range, in the traditional sense. But non-traditional audiences are becoming the brass ring in terms of site sustainability. It is important to think outside the box to identify programs and initiatives that cast a wider net, and to find new ways of reaching out. Social media is becoming very important for museums and historic sites to engage with not only younger audiences, but those who are becoming more tech savvy, and that as we know is no longer limited to the younger demographic. I have found that social media now trumps the traditional website in terms of its immediacy of sharing information. However, there is what we call a “digital divide” in America, and although there are initiatives to get everyone online, we have to be cognizant of the fact that we must continue to utilize printed media to reach some members of our audience.
PBN: What upcoming exhibits demonstrate the power of the museum to tell its stories as a physical place in this day and age of digital and social media connections?
URSO: There are many opportunities for storytelling through exhibits. While our gallery exhibit schedule has not been solidified due to staff transitions, there are programs that speak to the power of the Slater Mill site to convey its past.
In particular, this year, you will see more along the theme of fiber arts, which is very current yet also connects us to the site's textile past. Fiber art, knitting, and those types of hands-on activities that result in a physical product really connect people to the concept of manufacture, and that is something that Slater Mill can foster to help widen that net.