Levin: Exhibit curator retires

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(HOST) Naturalist and commentator Ted Levin observes that while some jobs are virtually invisible to the public, they require great effort and produce highly visible results.   

(LEVIN) Creating a museum exhibit is a lot like writing a book, there may only be one author’s name on the dust jacket, but the book is richer for all those who contributed background and support. After an unprecedented run of thirty-one years as the curator of exhibits at the Montshire Museum of Science, Joan Waltermire, whose vision has been the public face of the Museum, is retiring.
I’ve known Joan since she first wandered through the front door of the Montshire one summer morning in 1978. The director, Dr. Robert Chaffee, hired her to envision, design, build, and finally, install displays in the fledgling museum.

No one directed Joan that first day; it took hours before anybody even realized she had arrived. We were all lost in our own respective projects – freeze-drying salamanders, pinning moths, chipping rocks with a tiny hammer.
Between 1977 and 1989, the museum occupied a converted bowling alley, across from the Hanover Fire station. The floor was checkerboard linoleum.  The walls were brick, and thinly insulated, the exhibit space long and narrow. When you walked through the glass front doors, past the receptionist’s desk (which was either empty or occupied by anyone who didn’t have something else to do), the first thing you saw was a stuffed European wild boar, wearing a red felt hat.
Joan inherited an odd-shaped exhibit space, artfully turning it into a learning center. In those early years, the staff was an undisciplined lot. When someone burst into the building and announced that an otter was gamboling on the frozen Ompompanoosuc, everybody piled in cars and drove over to Norwich to watch.

Joan’s friends often helped her meet her deadlines. Once, during the final stages of a renovation, three of us joined her for an all night work session. When the janitor arrived the following morning, just before the museum opened to the public, he pulled back the curtain in the program room to find all of us curled in sleeping bags, oblivious.
Through the years Joan developed a knack for doing more with less. There was always less time and less money than exhibits deserved.  And the stress of deadlines could be grueling, particularly after the Montshire moved to Norwich in 1989 and transformed itself into a world-class institution.

Joan was buoyed by her love of learning and her joy of working with experts, both scientific and artistic.  "The Upper Valley," she’s fond of saying, "is filled with such talented people."  But still, there was simply too much to do in the new building. So Joan developed a new skill – that of farming out jobs to others to meet the deadlines. "I discovered," she said, "That they did a better job than I would have done alone." 

The museum and its adoring public are better for the fact that Joan Waltermire willingly sought assistance and shared the credit of her success with everyone that helped her out. 

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