WILLIAMSTOWN -- The first director/curator of the Williamstown Historical Museum Nancy Burstein, formerly the Williamstown House of Local History, recently retired after 28 years service.
Burstein was honored at a retirement reception at the Williams Inn on Sunday, June 9.
"I was truly blessed to find this position that meshed so well for so long with my personal needs, interests, and abilities," said Burstein, a resident of Petersburg, N.Y., who is married and the mother of three children. "It allowed me to juggle work and parenting, provided an outlet for my creativity and enabled me to work in congruence with my values."
Burstein traveled a winding road on her journey to Williamstown’s historical collection.
Born in New York City and raised in the suburbs, Burstein earned a master’s degree in education from Bank Street College of Education NYC. "I thought I wanted to teach," she said. "I discovered I do enjoy teaching and working with children, but not in a classroom setting. That is why the educational aspect of my work at the museum, has been so enjoyable for me."
Burstein and her husband resided in New York City for a year after they married. Then a combination of circumstances motivated the couple to relocate to Petersburg.
"When we moved to Petersburg, the town was celebrating its bicentennial.
Copies of the book "Petersburg Portrait" were given to elementary schools in the surrounding area - they had no other history of the town. And the book was available at such places as the Rensselaer County Historical Society.
Though Burstein’s interest in history had blossomed, her professional life took a different turn. For a total of 12 years, she was employed as a recreational therapist in a Bennington, Vt. nursing home and a social worker at the United Sunshine School in Troy for developmentally delayed children.
In 1985, Burstein applied for the newly created position of director/curator of the HLH, including in her resume that she had written "Petersburg Portrait."
"The book probably got me the job," Burstein suggested.
Founded in 1941, the HLH was located in the Botsford House, 741 Main St. The public library was on the first floor, and HLH was on the second floor, which consisted of a couple of bedrooms with only closets for storage.
There was no staff person to oversee the HLH collection or maintain order.
"When I came, there were only random items displayed in cabinets. Nothing was tied together in a theme," the retiree said.
David Loomis, long time volunteer, remembers Burstein immediately starting to organize everything according to professional standards. "No matter how small an item was, Nancy treated it with respect and listed it in the catalog. Her knowledge of the collection is phenomenal," Loomis said.
When the HLH and the public library moved to the former Pine Cobble School building in 1997, the HLH was apportioned what had been the school auditorium and a space in the basement for storage.
"From cases filled with unrelated and unlabeled objects on display we advanced to a professionally designed permanent exhibit (’From Wilderness to Williamstown’) which together with special theme exhibits meets the needs of newcomers and old timers alike.
"Putting up exhibits was fun," said Burstein, "but I liked the people aspect of my job - seeing people react to exhibits, seeing kids in the Children’s Room engrossed in the costumes and sitting at the old desks."
As the time drew near for Burstein to leave the job she had held for nearly three decades, she "indulged in nostalgia. I looked in our records and found a list titled ‘Ideas for HLH’ I made shortly after beginning work at the HLH," she said. Among the many ideas that have been implemented are organizing public programs, including a lecture series, and historic house tour, and developing mini displays for public sites, as well as educational resources for classrooms.
Most recently, under Burstein’s leadership, the WHM received a grant from the Williamstown Elementary School Endowment Fund from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation which will make it possible for current primary source history material for classrooms project to come to fruition. "The aim is for teachers to easily introduce students to the use of primary sources, which can bring history alive in a new and exciting way for them," said the retiree.
According to David Loomis, "Nancy was always friendly with everyone - members of the board, volunteers and visitors." And it was connecting people with their roots and each other that Burstein found especially satisfying: "Feeding what I perceive to be a deep human need for family and community," the retiree said.
Burstein was responsible for bringing together two women who were related but strangers to each other. "A close relationship developed between Phyllis (Brookman) Oleson and a cousin she had never met, when I referred the cousin to Phyllis after she came to HLH looking for genealogy information on the Brookman family. They stayed in touch until Phyllis’s death in 2011" Burstein said. "These ties go above and beyond what people may learn from our exhibits."