Where to start? 1793? 2007? 1960? 2006? Somewhere in between? Let’s start with 2006 and jump around from there.
My name is Jim Coleman
and I am the President & CEO of the American Textile History Museum which is conveniently located in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell was the first city to be built around industry and textiles was THE industry. The city of Lowell led the America into the industrial revolution.
When I arrived here on January 17, 2006 I had exactly zero experience in the museum field, let alone being named the director of one. Fortunately my lack of museum experience did not immediately disqualify me–in fact, it may have helped in my interview with the trustees. You see I came here with 33+ years of business management experience in the textile trade (even though I was the ripe old age of 53) The trustees seemed to be looking for someone with business experience as the museum had been through some tough times and the dark clouds on the horizon still seemed ominous.
The museum had experienced a significant erosion of its endowment in preceding years, the former director had just resigned, and the trustees had 3 options on the table at the December 2005 Board meeting. Option 1 was to close down and disperse the collections; option 2 meant finding a complimenting partner and strike a deal with them and unlikely option 3 was to come up with a new formula for success and keep the museum in Lowell. The trustees had signed a letter of intent to sell approximately half of the building to a local developer with the funds going to bolster the endowment. The development plan was to bring in some new neighbors one being the Lowell Sun newspaper staff and the others up to 45 owners of residential condominiums. While the funds for the endowment were nice it came with some complications. It required us to find new homes for objects and other things residing in the 80,000 square feet we sold and it meant trying to operate a museum in the midst of construction. A few jobs while trying to find the best long term solution for the museum.
Wow, a few jobs to do! Well I have this big burley Scottish friend who worked with me in my prior textile life. He used to say something to me each and every night when he left factory. For a long time I didn’t know what he said because he said it so fast and said it in the lovely Scottish brogue. Until I got to know him well enough I was afraid to ask him what he was saying until one day I got up the courage and asked, “Albert what is that you say to me each night when you leave?” With the usual wee twinkle in his eye he said, “Just a job, Jim.” He went on to explain that while he’d been working from the bonnie age of 14 part of it meant work ethic, that you’re there to do your job to the best of your abilities and you do it. The other part was remembering that it is “just a job” and while you do your best, you’re not superhuman and there are things that are more important than your job. It’s for you to decide what they are.
One of the other great lessons I learned in my textile life, in fact very early on, was what often the best answer to a question. I learned this one down in Woonsocket, RI from my mentor Karl Switzer. He and Albert were demanding but fair people and taught me a great deal about business and other things, maybe it was part of my “museum” education after all. So the best answer to that question? I think it’s down below.
So aside from dealing with the day-to-day activities I had to learn about this place and what it was all about. I begin my snooping around (I usually like to start in the basement or the garage, you know typical male stuff) and I’m finding things and saying what the heck is this, what the heck is that? So of course I have to touch it to see if I can figure it out and sirens go off, lights start blinking, and the collections police roll in. “Ah what’s going on here? Ah hah, you were just touching it to get a better look.” Well it was time for lecture # 1 from General Diane Fagan Affleck, also known as the Director of Interpretation. I got off easy that day because it was my first offense but it was clear to me I was going to have problems.
My first 30+ years in the textile business were in the cashmere business and my job was to touch, touch, touch, and touch some more to perfect my touch. You see, the human fingers can discern the difference between 1 micron and my fingers had been highly trained to do so. Now the collections police were going to handcuff me and put sandpaper to my fingertips. Lord what have I got myself into? Just forget it, shake it off, time for lunch. So I went and got my comfort food, a tuna sandwich with lettuce & tomato on wheat, and settled into my office chair ready to have a power lunch. You know a multi-tasking lunch. .More sirens, more flashing lights. It was General Fagan Affleck again (affectionately known as the food Nazi) with “Ah Jim, you can’t be eating lunch in your office as it is against museum policy because if you happen to spill something on a collection item, that is a no no.” I had to do something! I had to make a stand!! I said “Diane, lets get one thing straight. I’m a coffee drinker and I need to drink my coffee at my desk or I can’t function. It’s either the coffee or me!!” I don’t know what happened but perhaps Diane saw some redeeming value in me and she bent the rules. Diane loves this place and will do anything that is in its best interest. I guess that included letting me drink coffee in my office.
One of the “options” the trustees would consider was staying in Lowell if we could formulate a plan to overcome the problems. One of the first things we did was to get all the staff together, invite a few outsiders, and brainstorm. The ideas were very good. What was crystal clear was that there was a tremendous amount of passion about this place and it was unmistakable that the group was willing to think outside of the box. Some of my ideas were kind of “out there” but I did feel we needed to bend if not break the mold if we really were going to change this place and move forward.
The group morphed into what became known as the “Germs”. Germs being short for germination of new ideas. The objective for this group was to come up with a plan to update and enliven the museum and take it forward into the 21st century. The germs are a very impressive bunch consisting of esteemed historians, educators, museum curators and other museum professionals, the dean of a college of textiles and internal staff. We started with a video of the fixed exhibit and a blank slate and we solicited any and all ideas they wished to provide. The responses were amazing!
Some of my own thoughts were that while there was a great foundation in the exhibits it needed serious updating, a heavy dose of interactivity and we needed to be sure it had broad appeal. While I’m more of a natural fiber man than most it is wrong that we had no synthetic fibers in the exhibit. Is a museum supposed to be fun Or is its only purpose to teach you about things from the past? Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we be relevant and have fun being relevant?
Traditionally when we hear the word “textile” we think of our clothes or perhaps our bedding, curtains and upholstery. But that is the tip of the iceberg. Textiles are everywhere. Textiles have been to the moon and Mars. Have you? Textiles save and protect lives in so many different ways. Thoracic stents, cardiac support sacks, firemen turnout gear bio-hazard suits. What textiles do is simply mind blowing. Textile composite structures are here now and will become even more important in the future. The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s fuselage & wings are said to be constructed from more than 50% textile-based composites making the aircraft much lighter and saving more than 20% in fuel consumption. There are so many new and old stories to tell. The great thing is we’re destined to get new material each day as the imagination of textile engineers and scientists create new products crossing traditional boundaries. I am excited about our opportunities–all of us here are excited.
I feel as if we are at the tip of an iceberg, just the tip. Our world renowned collections, the stories of the past, these visions of the future It is great to have the opportunity we have, to share all we have with you. To make it interesting, interactive and fun. I can hardly wait!
Oh yes that thing I learned back in my early days is when asked a question and where you don’t know the answer the smartest thing is to say “I don’t know. Let me find out. I’ve seen so many people over the years wanting to impress they give you some contrived answer. Doing that can only come back to bite you.