STONINGTON — Elizabeth Wood, executive director of the Stonington Historical Society, who is leaving her position in August, says she has been drawn to museums since she was a teen.
Wood, who has led the museum since 2015, is leaving to pursue an opportunity as director of advancement at the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence, and will be in charge of fundraising and special events. She will also work with organizational strategies and attend meetings of the executive board.
Woods said in a recent interview that her first experience working in museums came right out of high school when she worked at Mystic Seaport as a museum teacher
“I think that really colored everything that came after,” Wood said.
Wood attended Simmons College in Boston as a French major, but left before graduating. After getting married and having two children, she continued her education at the University of Connecticut and eventually graduated from Connecticut College with a degree in American History. She also did graduate work in the Tufts University museum studies program.
“I had some amazing professors, but I always knew museums were where I wanted to be,” Wood said.
While at Connecticut College, Wood worked at the Shaw Mansion in New London, and after graduation went to work part-time at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford.
Her first full-time museum job, she says, began in 1998 at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum when she worked there in the library and archives.
“It was when they were first opening and it was just an amazing place to be,” Wood said. “There were lots of new acquisitions.”
“As far as the museums I had experience with, it was on such a grander scale,” Wood said of the Mashantucket Museum. After working there for two years Wood pulled back to stay home with her children but had an active volunteer life. She ended up at the Stonington Historical Society in 2008 when she served as a volunteer for the organization’s annual gala fundraising event. She also eventually served as co-chair of the the society’s Deck the Walls event and was hired in in 2009 as the editor of the society newsletter.
Wood said she decided to take the new job at the Rhode Island Historical Society because of the challenges of being in a much larger organization that covers the entire state.
“It has two museums and a library just like we do,” Wood said, “but they have 10 times the staff, and it’s year round. It just seemed like an opportunity I wanted to pursue and an adventure.”
As executive director of the Stonington Historical Society, Wood oversaw the creation and implementation of a strategic plan, the installation of several new exhibits, and the publication this year of “A Village Love Affair: Rollie McKenna’s Stonington.” The book won First Place Publication Award from the New England Museum Association, which honors excellence in design, publication, and communication in the world of print and digital museum publishing.
Wood said getting the book published was one of the highlights of her time at the museum.
“Rollie McKenna was a famous photographer, most notable for her photography of 20th century literary giants,” Wood said. “But she lived here in Stonington, and while she was taking all these fabulous photographs of famous people, she was also photographing life around her in Stonington.” The museum also has an exhibit of McKenna’s Stonington photography at the Woodworth Library.
“We’ve managed some real physical improvements to these properties,” Wood said. She noted the Capt. Palmer House now has a parking lot and a brand new kitchen.
Wood said residents in the surrounding neighborhood had objections to an addition being put onto the Old LIghthouse Museum, but the museum was able to get unanimous approval from Stonington Planning & Zoning, plus a signed agreement with the neighbors that governs the use of the property for events.
“That was definitely an accomplishment,” she said. “According to our current agreement, we keep events there small. It’s very reasonable so we’re being good neighbors.”
Wood said the Stonington Historical Society began in 1895 when “a bunch of men got together to talk about their family genealogy and their history. They would gather and present papers on history and family things.”
The Stonington HIstorical Society now has three buildings in Stonington Borough, including the Capt. Nathaniel B. Palmer House, which contains offices, a museum and museum store; the Ricard W. Woolworth Library and Research Center; and the Old Lighthouse Museum.
“We are a very dynamic organization here in Stonington,” Wood said. “I think we have a community that’s really interested in the work that we do, and supports it in a lot of different ways with participation as well as financially. We also have two museums.”
“We’re very lucky that we get to tell a lot of different stories in these spaces,” Wood said.
“Right we’re working on telling the story of Venture Smith,” Wood said. “He was an enslaved man who wrote a very early narrative about his experiences as an enslaved and a free man.”
The museum also has a project that is exploring the history of the Battle of Stonington, Wood said.
“In the course of the research we’ve uncovered a lot of new information about that,” Wood said.
Chelsea Mitchell, who is director of the Richard W. Woolworth library, has been doing research on the Battle of Stonington.
“We’ve been reaching out even into British museums and collections,” Mitchell said, “to get a different perspective on the battle. We’ve spoken to the National Library of Scotland and the British Maritime Museum.”
Mitchell noted the society was trying to get Stonington Borough designated as a National Historic Battlefield through a National Park Service grant.
“We found some really interesting surprises,” Mitchell said. The society uses “folk narratives, which are primarily accounts by the people who fought in the battle that were published in the newspaper 50 years after the battle.”
“There’s a lot of colorful embellishment and pride that kind of distorts the view,” Mitchell said. “We’re just trying to compare that with what happened in the British logs and see what we can corroborate and what’s new.”
Mitchell also noted that during research on the battle, the museum found the existence of an additional ship in the waters off of Stonington.
Mitchell has been appointed acting executive director and a search committee has been formed to find new director.
Wood will continue to serve on the society’s board of directors.