Erin Manning took over as executive director of the Flagler Museum earlier this year from the retiring John Blades, coming to Henry Flagler’s 1902 Whitehall mansion from the Historical Society of Princeton in her home state of New Jersey, where she was executive director for nine years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern and North African studies from the University of Michigan, and a master’s degree in education from The College of William and Mary.
Here are edited and condensed excerpts from a conversation with Palm Beach ArtsPaper about her new role and what she sees for the museum’s future:
A simple question to start: How has the new job been so far?
Amazing, amazing. Look where we are, look what we do, look where we’re sitting. I feel that I am one of the luckiest people in the world to work every day in a place like this. It sounds very Pollyanna and made up, but it’s very, very true. I’m very fortunate to walk into a building that is so solid, to a nonprofit organization that has such great and broad appeal both here on the island and in Florida, and to tourists around the world.
I work with an incredible army of staff and volunteers who are so dedicated and so incredible. I feel great. We have a terrific board. I’m walking into this incredibly beautiful, and healthy, and nimble organization. I feel very lucky. It’s really great to be here.
Your predecessor, John Blades, did a lot of good work while he was here.
Incredible. To bring the whole building back to its original state, to be walking into a building every day that is truly authentic; we’ve preserved things, we’ve restored things, we’ve conserved things, we’re trying to have it be the true experience as if you were here at that time. And that’s what I give to John, my predecessor, because that’s what he did.
I wanted to ask about the Updike Farmstead at the Historical Society of Princeton. This is a little earlier than the Flagler time period. How do the experiences compare?
I loved my time at the Historical Society of Princeton; it was wonderful. I would say that the stories we told were exciting, and it was a longer period of history that we interpreted. It was a wider story, I would say, and we had a lot of irons in the fire with our collections and our move to the Updike Farmstead. The best thing the organization was able to do during my time there was to move from one historic house that the organization did not own, that the university owned in downtown Princeton, and we got behind and moved to a site that they did own, which was the Updike Farmstead.
To program at a place that has six acres, to do programming for children and families, to talk about history with a viewscape. The nice thing about this view over to West Palm is that you can imagine it 100 years ago. We get to start our stories of history by looking out over the water, over the landscape, and that was a notion that I really picked up in Princeton, at the farmstead. Children can respond to the idea of place and where you are.
It was a great transition to come here. I wasn’t looking for a new job. Sometimes that’s when things in life happen. And it was just a great thing for me to be chosen. I’m eternally grateful to the board for choosing me; it’s the right thing for me at my time in life. I’m 48 years old, and I’m in the prime of my life and so happy and lucky to be here.
Our field of cultural nonprofits is so rich and diversified. I feel like we have such a huge story to tell here, we have a responsibility to tell it as far and as wide as we can. Who’s out there that doesn’t yet know the story of Henry Flagler, who doesn’t yet know the story of the Gilded Age, who doesn’t yet know the story of the development of Florida? It’s a big important story anywhere you are in the country, anywhere you are in the world. And the gift that I’ve been given is that I can think about programming. The building isn’t falling down around me, I get to think about who are the potential audiences that we haven’t reached yet.
Would there be a role for a living history component at the museum?
For organizations that do living history, you really have to know what you’re doing, in terms of having people wear costumes and tell stories, whether it’s first person or third person. We’re not an organization like that right now. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t go down the road of doing that. I think where our potential lies, and you’re touching on it, is how can we tell the story differently for new audiences?
And so I’m starting to think about both at the same time: How do we tell the story and who are the audiences. And where they’ll come together, we’ll be successful. I think we’re so fortunate that we have so many people who have us on their list of must-see places. When you come here to this part of Florida, you have to see the Flagler Museum. Not every museum gets to say that. And we are so lucky that we have a huge and burgeoning tourist market; we do our audio tours in five different languages, and that’s not by accident.
I’m interested in the expectation level of our visitors. So many people come here with a high expectation of a fine and beautiful building, and we deliver. We get to fulfill what it is they thought when they saw the pillars, and they saw the long walk and they saw the stairs, and they saw the beautiful domed ceiling and all of the gorgeous artwork, and they saw [the bust of] Caesar Augustus. We get to fulfill that expectation.
I’m interested in the people who maybe don’t even know about us, who don’t have an expectation about us, who should still see this building. Who’s out there as a child that might not even know about us, either in the western part of the county or in a different part of the state, or across the country, who we can find a way to create programs or create partnerships [for]. I think a lot of the new things we can do down the road with this incredible team that we have is think about what are the organizations out there that we can partner with.
It’s not necessarily about changing anything right away, as you might imagine. It’s about adding to what we do.
How do you sell the Gilded Age? What part of that history works, what doesn’t work?
I’m very interested in what’s going on in our world as it affects the museum visitors. There’s the technology concept, which is: everyone’s connected, everyone’s looking down at their phones, everyone can talk to each other without actually talking. So we want to always be a place where people look up, where they absolutely have to enjoy something in front of them as opposed to a device in their hand. That doesn’t mean technology doesn’t play a part in it. If the visitor wants to listen quietly, we have the audio tour wand. If the person wants to use their phone, we have the Flagler Museum app.
But I’m also interested in the concept of safe places for learning. This idea that there’s so much stress in the world, every time you turn on the news, as people who are constantly almost on the defensive from what might be happening out there, I think this is really a place where you can go and imagine that you’ll have a peaceful experience. And you’ll learn. So I think that becomes even more and more important in our world, to an extent that we don’t even appreciate as museum directors.
The Gilded Age was about all of this opportunity, and about the incredible people who made hay with this opportunity. And Henry Flagler was one of them. But it wasn’t as if he just snapped his fingers and said, Hey, somebody give me a lot of money, I want to become a founding partner of Standard Oil. He borrowed money, he paid money back in spades, he started at a very young age to learn about industry and commerce and being a merchant. It was all about opportunity.
Where we match it, in the year 2016 looking at our future, we are again living in an age of opportunity. It’s a different kind of opportunity. I don’t think there will be a time period now where an individual will have greater wealth than the national government has, as in the Gilded Age. But what we can market here at the institution is that anyone who walks through our doors can be a Henry Flagler. That you can dream big, and that you can think big, and that you can use this house almost as a springboard to look outward and say, you know, that was amazing, and that’s what was great for this guy. What can I do? What’s my amazing story that I can tell? How can I work hard? How can I be a philanthropist?
I’m very interested in this idea of Henry Flagler as not just someone who understood the economic benefit, the social benefit, of creating modern Florida, but he also understood what it takes to make individual communities work. Flagler is someone who funded, or gave land, or helped build, infrastructure everywhere he went that allowed community to happen. So I’m trying to mimic a little bit about what happened during his time period: How can we build community? What can we do as a center for learning to bring people together on this idea that we are a community, we should all be talking to each other together in a safe and beautiful place?
Once Flagler put the railroad through (to Key West), he basically ratified the idea of South Florida as a place you could go.
That it isn’t just a big swamp in a wilderness, that it as a place you could go and be a successful person. And he started with all these incredible hotels. It’s just mind-boggling to think of these structures rising. It’s like the Colosseum in Rome; it was brilliance, with ingenuity of construction, good resources and finances behind it. But it was a huge risk. If we build it, will they come? And Flagler knew they would.
Flagler reminds me of someone like Elon Musk, thinking big.
Not everybody can attain everything they want in their lives, but we really want to push the concept that that’s how you should start your day. You can dream big, and try to work toward it. That’s the logic of this place. I’m sure Henry Flagler was not without his faults; how could he be? He was a big and successful person. But so many of these accomplishments he started later in his life: I’m going to build a railroad across the ocean down to Key West, in your 60s and 70s, and taking a train to Key West when you’re 82. It’s unbelievable, it’s unfathomable. When your systems are failing, yet I’m going to see it through.
This is what I think about these inspirational people like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Their companies are rooting for them, because of the impact it will have on society. And that doesn’t happen every day, when you think about all the corruption in our world.
I’m very interested in the concept of leadership, too [at the museum]. We are very lucky that we have people on staff who have really chosen to be here and to stay here. What that means for us is we have a lot of people who understand the institutional history but to a one, everyone is interested in the future. So it isn’t, Oh, this is how we do it, or Erin, you’ve got to toe the line here. To a one, every single person [says] what more can we do? What are the concepts? So I’m interested in leadership on our team levels here, and what is the capacity of people we have working at the Flagler Museum to be leaders for us, and go out in the community and spread new messages about Flagler, and do new things in the community, and do new things as a team.
One of the programs that I’m launching for the start of my tenure here I’m calling Flagler Spirit. The concept behind it is I want our institution to act in Henry Flagler’s spirit, and to continue that idea of being generous of heart, and being strong, and going out and achieving great things. And I want that at all levels of our institution as well. So I want it for the community and I want it for our institution. I think of the different people who work here, and everyone has their particular job to do, but how can we work better together as a team? That’s the other thing that’s so nice about coming into a big staff like this, is that there’s so much more potential for new and great ideas as a team.
The Flagler Spirit concept really is: What we can do as an organization to partner with more, to give opportunities to adults and children who might not otherwise have them, to come here and create something, create something incredible.
One of our big launch programs is that we are for the first time going to have a Thanksgiving dinner here at Whitehall. And we are inviting 18 children from Kid Sanctuary in West Palm, which is an organization that houses abandoned and abused children from the foster care system. They’re a great, great organization with great leadership; Connie [Frankino] and Marlo [Massey] are amazing.
And so these children, who have strife and stress in their lives, will come to Whitehall and have a Thanksgiving dinner in our Grand Ballroom, because we want to show them Flagler’s spirit, and we want them to get here. And in their lives right now, they’re not going to get to Whitehall, they’re not going to get to the Flagler Museum. That’s just one example, a grand-scale example, but we really want people to understand that it’s important that this place do a little bit of service for the community, and is able to go out there and say, well, who’s out there that we can partner with, and maybe even help, and still stay very true to our mission, and still keep the glory of our building and our message. But I think this only enhances our profile in the community.
How much did you know about Henry Flagler before taking this job?
I’m a student now. I’m a student of the Gilded Age, I’m a student of Flagler. That’s the way it is when you change jobs as a museum director. So I am in my immersion period, as I like to call it, probably driving the curator and the archivist crazy. But I’m getting to spend some time, some nice, deep, thoughtful time, in our archives.
We use our archives as a research center for our organization; we do take outside research requests.
So researchers can come in and look at the archive?
It’s not an in-person thing: phone or email. We have people who will get in touch with us if they have a genealogy question, or a question related to Flagler, and some of the inquiries run the gamut: Everything from railroad history to Flagler history to Gilded Age history. We do our best to accommodate them within the confines of what we can do.
It’s [Florida East Coast Railway] records, it’s minutes of the company, it’s personal letters from Flagler to Mary Lily. It’s all the things you would think around a family or a couple, it’s things related to the house, it’s historic photos, it’s writings. I have a huge book list that I’m diving into, and it’s not just learning about Henry Flagler, it’s learning about the other Gilded Age masterminds.
So it’s an exciting time. And I get to learn from the best. I have really wonderful people here who are very instructive. You know, I came to the museum last Sunday just as a visitor. I wanted to ping off people in the galleries; it’s not rocket science, but I wanted to see how people react to what they’re seeing. And so I spent a lot of time up on the second floor, because I’ve seen a lot of the reactions on the first floor, but I wanted to go upstairs and see the reactions when people get to the top of the stairs and they go through the 11 bedrooms.
And it was interesting to see the paths of people who circled back, people who want to go back and see something. “I was in that room, but now I want to go back and see the Yellow Roses Room,” or “I want to go back and see their bedroom,” or “I want to see Mary Lily’s clothes again.” It was just very interesting to see the circular patterns of our visitors. One of the messages that we put out, and we have a couple staff people who are very eloquent about it [is this]: People can come here once in their life. They’re on a trip to Florida, they’re going back to France and they may not come back here. And that’s great; we want them to be here, because if they miss it, they’ve missed it. It’s a huge thing that we want them to see as part of Florida history.
But for those people who are fortunate enough to live in the area, we want people to do repeat and multiple visits, because our whole philosophy as a staff — and I’m a new staff person, but people who’ve been here 10 years tell me the same thing: Every time they walk through all of these beautiful rooms, they see something new. And that’s the spectacle of this Gilded Age home — that it is filled with such a rich array of material. But there’s something for everyone that’s different, all the time, and we truly believe that.
One of the things we did this year for Founder’s Day — that’s our big traditional day [June 5] where we’re open for free to celebrate our founding and our founder, Jean Flagler Matthews [Henry Flagler’s granddaughter] — (is) we gave people a tour pass to come back again for free. We’ve never done that before. My reasoning was: It’s a busy, busy day. We love Founder’s Day; it’s 2,500 people in the door over five hours. It’s amazing. And the contemplative nature of the house that we want people to have just isn’t there that day. You get the spectacle, you get the glory of it, you get the excitement of the fact that “Oh, my God, 2,500 of my closest friends wanted to be here today as well to celebrate this place.”
But we for the first time decided that you should come back, and be able to do it with someone else, and come back on your own time. It was new for us, and I was happy to be able to roll it out. I hope we can do more of that, I hope there are more opportunities where we can say, Please come back, and here’s how you can do it.
You’re the first female executive director of this museum. How does that affect how you approach the job?
I won’t miss an opportunity to promote a lecture series we’ve been doing; we’re very lucky to have a donor who is interested in the women of the Gilded Age. We do a lecture series every [winter] in which we talk about a notable woman of that age. [This year’s lecture, set for Feb. 9, is about Jennie Jerome, aka Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.] That’s important, and I’m happy to see that, and we want to continue that.
I feel as if there is a great tradition of women that I can follow here. And we already have some great women on our staff who are already bringing Mary Lily’s wishes to life, or Jean Flagler Matthews’s wishes to life. As an institution with a short history — when you think about being founded in 1959 and starting in 1960 — even in the larger scheme of life we have a short history. But I still didn’t get to know our founder. I will never say hello to Jean Flagler Matthews [she died in 1979].
So what I have to do is talk to the people here, and we still have some people with us who met her … she was no bounds, very much like her grandfather, just no bounds. So I would be honored to be someone who is able to carry out that tradition into the future, which is no bounds for us. And anyone who looked at us and said, well, you’re on the water, in Palm Beach, incredible, beautiful Gilded Age home, fabulous staff, healthy organization — of course you have no bounds.
I never lead with myself as a woman; that’s not how I come at people. But I feel there is this sort of maternal feeling in the house because of what Jean Flagler Matthews did: She took the hotel down and she saved it. I also feel that there is this very strong message that the house was built for love. It was a gift, and in Flagler’s spirit, this is our gift to the community. So how can we do more of that?
It was a gift from Henry to Mary Lily, and I’m hopefully able to carry out the spirit of the women who were here before me.
I feel very lucky that the board felt confident that we could have a female director here. I think it’s a wonderful thing. It’s such a great thing that we have family members connected to this organization, Flagler descendants and [William R.] Kenan descendants who touch this organization every day, literally and figuratively. I always want to keep that for our organization, because that’s palpable.
So I’m proud. I’m really proud to be the first female director.
I wanted to ask about the Flagler Museum music series, which now sells out.
We’ve always had to the highest quality we could possibly get. One of the last things John [Blades] did before he left was finish the list of every single piece that has been played over the course of the 31 years. And it’s amazing. We’re not a musical organization, we’re not a performing arts center, but the niche that we have is so special, to be able to do it in the West Room, turn off all the systems in the house, just have it be a pure chamber setting, is so nice.
I hope the concerts will continue.
Of course. It’s a great tradition for us, a wonderful tradition. It’s so beloved by our members. I’m not tearing anything down. The lucky and fortunate thing is that everything’s successful.
One final thing: Are museums still relevant? And if so, how do they remain relevant?
Our institution is relevant, and our institution is sustainable. They are very related: If you want to be sustainable, you have to be healthy. You have to find donors who support your mission, you have to bring audiences in who care about you. You have to really pull back from saying: OK, this is what I know our audience needs, and you really need to think about, Hey, let me talk to our audience and find out what it is they do need before I shove it down their throats.
Relevance is a back-and-forth with your audiences, and making sure you continue to stay in touch with them in terms of what they want to see. And the sustainability part, which is you need to find people who care about it. And if you’ve gone off the rails, and you’re doing something totally different or wrong, you will no longer be sustainable, and you will no longer be relevant.
I think what has happened since 2008, since the economic collapse of our time, is we’ve all had to be much stronger with mission, we’ve also all had to add to it the idea of vision. So it isn’t just, OK, this is what I do every day, this is Tuesday’s plan, this is Wednesday’s plan; (it’s) this is what I hope to be 100 years from now.
The beautiful thing about this place is, yes, our programming may change over time, but we know that the one thing that will always be true to this organization is that the house will be our primary object, it will always be our primary object. That’s an amazing thing for a museum. Sometimes you’re not in an institution that knows what its primary object is and therefore doesn’t know what its primary story or mission is. So we get to think more about vision, because our mission is laid out for us with the house and the story of Henry Flagler.
So it’s vision: What else can we be? Who are the Henry Flaglers of the other 49 states? Or the Henrietta Flaglers? Who are these people? Who are these global thinkers now who would care about coming back to the Gilded Age and learning about Henry Flagler and what he did? And that’s vision. And we get to think about that stuff.
The Flagler Museum, at 1 Whitehall Way, Palm Beach, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Museum prices: Adults: $18; $10 for youth ages 13-17; $3 for children ages 6-12; and children under 6 admitted free. For more information, call 561-655-2833 or visit www.flaglermuseum.us.