Some people love visiting museums. Niles Parker ’91 loves museum visitors.
The veteran museum curator and director has spent his career considering just what a museum should offer its patrons. And he’s had quite a collection of museums to ponder.
Parker is executive director of the Maine Discovery Museum in Bangor, the largest children’s museum north of Boston. He spent six years working with Native American and American fine art and folk art collections at the Fenimore Art Museum at the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown and at the State University of New York-Oneonta, where he earned his master’s degree. Added to the mix was a work-study job at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He’s also been executive director of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport and chief curator of Nantucket’s renowned Whaling Museum.
“It’s not just about portraits of nineteenth-century sea captains on the wall,” he said, of the Whaling Museum’s success.. “It’s about the connection between them and what is going on today.”
Parker learned early on that museums were his calling. An American studies major, he gravitated toward classes (taught by professors Cedric Bryant, Charlie Bassett, and David Lubin, among others) that required consideration of art and culture from different perspectives.
Before graduating he did internships at the National Archives and the Smithsonian. After Colby he accompanied his wife, Sonja Wiberg ’90, to North Carolina. She did graduate work at Duke; Parker took a job at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. Cooperstown followed, and then he moved to Nantucket where the Whaling Museum is an island institution.
“There’s a nice sense of community out there,” Parker said. “What we were trying to do at the museum was to be collectors of artifacts that preserve that sense of community and a sense of place.” He was part of a team that oversaw a $25-million capital campaign and was acting director for 16 months.
During his tenure in Searsport, the Penobscot Marine Museum used a technology-based K-12 curriculum presented by the museum’s staff and area teachers in area classrooms and at the museum. A 35-percent increase in the participation of the annual appeal during his final year there despite the tough economy suggested the strategy was connecting.
At the Maine Discovery Museum there are big numbers, as well. The Bangor museum sees 60,000 visitors each year, many of them adults.
An incentive for Parker taking on what is a high-profile job in the Bangor community was that it was “a totally different experience,” from his prior museum work. “In some ways, it is kind of liberating to explore topics [at the Discovery Museum],” he said, “because you are not designing exhibits around artifacts but rather themes.”
And there was another incentive—from his kids, ages 14, 11, and 8. “When I went home and told them about the opportunity they were real excited about it,” Parker said. “You don’t get to be a hero in your kids’ eyes for very long.