• Total immersion
     | December 13,2009

    Vermont Historical Society Executive Director Mark Hudson outside the organization's Vermont History Center in Barre recently. Hudson wants to increase the organization's programs for adults by hosting lectures, book discussions, workshops, and more.

    The ink had hardly dried on Mark Hudson's contract to become the new executive director of the Vermont Historical Society when his homework began.

    One day late last winter, he met with a representative of the historical society at the Baltimore airport, which was near Hudson's home at the time, to go over final details of the job offer and sign the contract. Hudson returned home to discover a package on his front steps. Inside were recent issues of the Vermont Historical Society's journal and a copy of "Freedom and Unity," by Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions and Jeffrey Potash, the only comprehensive one-volume history of Vermont.

    That night, he cracked open the 730-page tome and began studying the history of his new state. He hasn't stopped since.

    I first met Hudson several months ago, when I was invited to be part of a group of Vermont historians and others interested in the state's past who would gather monthly for roundtable discussions. The point was to help Hudson get up to speed on Vermont history.

    At the first meeting, Hudson pulled out a hefty armload of Vermont history books and stacked them on the table. That's how far he had gotten to date.

    Hudson wasn't showing off; he just wanted to give us a sense of what he had learned about Vermont history and where we might help fill any gaps.

    "History has always been the foremost interest in my life, ever since I was a kid," the 45-year-old Hudson told me during an interview in his office at the History Center in Barre.

    He started reading books on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Over time, his interest broadened to take in a wide range of American history.

    In elementary school, Hudson recalls, "I was always bugging the librarian that we needed more books on the presidents, and every year she would order a couple more books for me."

    Later, Hudson pursued his interest in history at the University of Kansas, his home state. (A needlepoint of the Jayhawk mascot stitched by his wife hangs on his office wall; a Jayhawk bobblehead adorns his desk).

    After receiving his bachelor's degree, Hudson stayed at the university to earn a master's in historical administration and museum studies. He worked for a time at the university's archives and special collections, before deciding to get another master's, this one in library science from the University of Missouri.

    Hudson's degrees suited him well for his first position after graduating, director of the Boone County Historical Society in Missouri, where he worked for four years. He then accepted the directorship of the Historical Society of Frederick County in Maryland, where he worked for 11 years, before taking the Vermont job.

    The jump from a county historical society to a statewide one wasn't as much of a stretch as it might sound, given Maryland's greater population density. The Vermont Historical Society is only about twice the size of the organization Hudson left.

    Hudson has been struck by some Vermonters' view that their state's past was somehow exceptional — that the state's development was separate from the rest of the country.

    At his former job in Maryland, staff took the more traditional view that the local experience can often be seen as a microcosm of what was happening nationally.

    "I think the Vermont Historical Society is sort of taking both approaches," Hudson says. "It is looking at the ways that Vermont does distinguish itself, but also looking at the state in the national context."

    The Historical Society of Frederick County has a strong public presence, Hudson says. "That is one of my objectives here," he says. "We want to meet the needs of a lot of different audiences."

    Hudson notes that the Vermont Historical Society runs strong programs for the school-age population.

    "We do a tremendous job," he says. "What we don't have is a lot of programs that are specifically geared to adult audiences. That's a kind of interesting situation. You usually find the opposite."

    Hudson says the historical society is considering adding programs like lecture series, book discussions and workshops on genealogical research. Such public outreach programming can help an institution attract new members and raise money, but it also costs money, so institutions have to be selective in what kinds of events they choose to offer.

    "One of the things that continues to be a challenge here is the long-term fiscal situation of the organization," Hudson says. "Every nonprofit is dealing with that in this economy."

    A decade ago, the Vermont Historical Society launched an ambitious $10 million expansion project, converting its former headquarters into a museum and gift shop with a permanent exhibition on the state's history, and purchasing and adapting the former Spaulding Graded School in Barre to house the organization's offices, library and long-term artifact storage.

    The historical society has an "operating deficit that it has to address," Hudson says. The organization has tapped into reserve funds to avoid increasing its debt, most of which was incurred during its expansion. The debt now stands at $1.4 million, having been whittled down from $3.5 million about four years ago. Hudson says that over the next four years the organization aims to raise $7.3 million through its Saving Vermont's Treasures Campaign to retire its debt and build its endowment.

    From the start, Hudson has been impressed with the society's staff. During the interview process last winter, he met with senior managers and came away with the sense that "they were really pulling together."

    "That's one of the things I really like about the staff here," he says. "It is genuinely seen as a team effort. They all have their own areas of interest, but they see the big picture. They recognize that it is not always about what they want or need, but what is best for organization."

    In considering what programs and exhibitions to present, Hudson says, "the key word for me is sustainability. That is what my objective is, both in the short term and in the long term."

    The society will continue to host its popular but resource-intensive Vermont History Expo every other summer (during even years) and support county and regional expos during odd years.

    The organization plans to create three new exhibition spaces at the History Center in Barre to supplement the permanent exhibit in Montpelier. One gallery would feature rotating exhibits primarily of objects currently in storage, another would highlight Barre history, and the third would feature more than 100 historic Vermont-made firearms from the collection of Terry Tyler of Dorset.

    Although he has worked on the internal operations of the historical society, Hudson has made sure to spend time exploring his new state. Since arriving in March, he and his wife, Julie, have been making road trips around the state. "We stopped counting at 3,000 miles," he says, guessing he has now racked up about 5,000.

    Hudson says he has benefited from visiting local historical societies.

    "It is important to understanding the history of Vermont and the dynamics of how it is being preserved," he says. The work of those local historical societies is "tremendously important," Hudson says: "I've just been so impressed with the passion and incredible creativity they bring to it and what they do with limited resources."

    Those are clearly qualities he sees in his own organization.

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