This feature introduces you to colleagues in museums around New England. It’s often too easy for colleagues to feel isolated in their institutions—we hope this feature will break down the distances a bit. We also hope that it will reinforce your own enthusiasm for your work and cause you to reflect on the positive contributions that you make.
In this edition of the NEMA Member Profile, we feature NEMA Board Member Ron Potvin, Assistant Director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage in Providence, Rhode Island.
Tell us a bit about your role at the JNBC. What path led you there?
I have been lucky to work with the things that attracted me to history and the museum field in the first place—interesting documents and objects, old buildings, and the stories they tell. I have been a curator of manuscripts, a director of historic sites, and an administrator in higher education. At the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage I use all of those experiences in my role as Assistant Director and Curator. I manage the preservation and interpretation of the Nightingale-Brown House (1792) and its collections, teach courses on historic house museums and museum collecting and collections, and work with students on a variety of projects and exhibits.
What do you think is the role of higher education in helping to craft the future of museums?
I came to the museum field with a master’s degree in history, rather than with a background in museum studies or public history. I still consider myself a generalist historian who specializes in museums, rather than a “museum professional.” I think there is an important role for cultural and humanities generalists in museums. A Humanities-based higher education can provide museum workers with the skills and understanding to translate contemporary issues through programs and exhibitions and make the past relevant to today’s audiences.
You've been an active NEMA Board member. Why might someone want to serve on a board at another museum or for an organization like NEMA?
I had the honor of serving on the NEMA board for 10 years. Board service is a privilege, a responsibility, and a chance to help grow the field and provide opportunities for future museum leaders. It’s about being part of a continuum that connects the past and future of museums. It can be a lot of work, but there are rewards. Some of the best conversations about museums have occurred in NEMA board meetings, and other board members have become friends and colleagues who I can tap for their expertise.
What's on your museum bucket list?
Finca Vigía, the Cuban residence of Ernest Hemingway, tops my bucket list of museums. I hope that improved relations between the United States and Cuba provide opportunities for cross-cultural collaboration between the stewards of Finca Vigía and of house museums in this country. My taste in museums runs toward the unusual, so my bucket list would also include museums like Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in New Delhi and the Dog Collar Museum in Kent, England. Amsterdam is on my travel bucket list, so the Rijksmuseum is a must-see.
What advice would you give to a future MC of the NEMA Conference raffle?
Say no when someone asks you to do it. Just kidding. Have fun with it, involve people in the audience, understand that some of your jokes just aren’t that funny, and don’t overdo the puns about mannequin hands.
Ron Potvin with long time raffle MC, Pieter Roos, Executive Director, Newport Restoration Foundation.