by Suzanne Daub
Nantucket Island—the community here, the pristine beaches, the drama of the sea—it has a way of capturing hearts and filling souls. For many who live here, it can be difficult to leave, even when life events, family, and work makes a departure seem practical. Islanders label this “getting sand in your shoes,” and Niles Parker responded to the call when he returned in 2022 to retake the helm at the Nantucket Historical Association as Gosnell Executive Director.
Parker visited Nantucket many times in his youth, traveling to the island with family and friends for vacations. “Every time we visited the Whaling Museum always had an effect on me. I loved Nantucket.”
After earning his graduate degree in Museum Studies from Cooperstown, he worked as Curator of Exhibitions at the New York State Historical Association. While manning their display at the NYC Winter Antiques Show, Parker encountered a group from Nantucket: “The Nantucket Historical Association was to be the featured exhibition for the next year, and Aimee Newall and David Wood stopped by asking questions…a few weeks later, I saw a posting for the position of Curator at the NHA…one year later I was back at the Winter Antiques Show representing the Nantucket Historical Association,” Parker explained.
From 1999 to 2006, Niles Parker was at the NHA, first as the Robyn and John Davis Chief Curator, then acting Executive Director. He played a significant role in the Whaling Museum’s major expansion and renovation project in 2005. His other initiatives included rethinking the NHA’s historic properties and programs, starting the Decorative Arts and Crafts program, developing new exhibits, and cataloging the collection.
After being an essential part of the NHA and our island community for seven years, it was time for Parker to go north with his wife Sonja and their family: “Two of our kids were born here… our firstborn was getting older, and my wife’s family was all up in Maine. It was appealing to be near family, and a job opened up that allowed me to go to Maine. I liked my work here and the NHA so much that I had to think long and hard about it…part of me never left.”
During his 17 years in Maine, Parker continued to work in museums, as Executive Director of the Penobscot Marine Museum and then as Executive Director of the Maine Discovery Museum.
Then Niles got a call from some Nantucket residents: “I had stayed in touch, and they called to let me know the position was available. We were empty nesters, so we thought this was our chance…Nantucket is a community and the NHA an organization that I hold close to my heart…I’ve found very few communities where a historical society plays such a vibrant, contemporary role in daily life and contributes so powerfully to a sense of place.”
Upon his return to Nantucket last year, Niles noticed many changes: “there’s not as much down-time in the winter, there’s more building, and I’m happy to see such a vibrant population here year-round with more diversity—it’s exciting and an opportunity for us at the NHA to engage.”
And there are some aspects that haven’t changed as much: “When I come into the building, round the corner and see the whale skeleton, I still get that WOW moment. The way visitors move through the building to get a sense of place… ending up on the rooftop to see the view of the island… the concept and the interpretive approach has held up well. Now we need additional gallery space.. there are so many stories to tell.”
Strategic planning is a key part of Niles Parker’s role at the NHA. This second time around, with decades of museum experience under his belt, he brings to the organization the benefit of both hindsight and foresight.
The main exhibit in the Whaling Museum this season is Summer on Nantucket: A History of the Island Resort. On display through November 1 and including more than 200 artifacts from the NHA collection, this exhibit brings visitors from the 1840s to the present.
Parker would like to bring more of the island’s recent history into NHA exhibits. “People think of us as telling 19th century history…There’s so much to talk about in the 20th and 21st centuries, like women’s history and abolition. We’ve covered them, but I’d like to see them in permanent exhibits…to tell more contemporary stories. What happens today is tomorrow’s history. We need to meaningfully engage in that and get people excited in understanding that we are making history now…the NHA has a real commitment to exploring untold stories and to using technology to share them.”
Also this season, the NHA collaborated and partnered with local organizations on events that included an Earth Day celebration and bike ride with Harvey Young of Young’s Bicycle Shop, a Maritime Music Series with Egan Maritime, and Wampanoag Day at Children’s Beach with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. “Many aspects of the island can best be addressed collaboratively. The NHA would love to be a part of that,” Parker explained.
Plans for 2024 include a fun and fascinating major exhibit featuring artist and genius puppeteer Tony Sarg, who summered on Nantucket Island and had a shop here. “And we hope to do more with the African Meeting House: 2025 is the bicentennial of the building.”
Another aspect of Niles Parker’s role at the NHA is protecting and preserving island history, and one of the challenges is addressing the risks of climate change.
“Not a lot of people are looking at what climate change is doing to specific parts of historic buildings… to the building “fabric”—shingles, mortar, building structure itself. Specialists are seeing issues with increased humidity, increased temperature, intense rainfall, flooding that is groundwater from intense rainfall, and changing direction of prevailing winds…where the weather is coming from. We have an opportunity to take lead in that.”
After hosting a symposium on-island with the Park Service in 2022 that looked at what climate change is doing to historic buildings, this season the NHA started a project that will monitor changing conditions in order to plan how to preserve the island structures. In partnership with The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) and the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, NHA properties were surveyed and four of them closely examined. Threats and weaknesses were discovered and plans were made for addressing and correcting them.
Parker says the NHA plans to continue this important program: “We see a real opportunity to share what we have learned and perhaps collaborate on climate change with other downtown organizations and maybe even offer this a service to the island.”
“I am committed to the notion that museums are wonderful gathering places with the opportunity to tell a diversity of stories in exciting and colorful ways. Artifacts, artwork, documents, photographs all provide windows into memorable storytelling. Technology continues to open dramatic new avenues for enhancing those stories.”
For now, Niles Parker plans to take a little time during the quiet of Nantucket autumn to do some surfcasting and bike riding. “I love being outdoors and exploring different parts of the island. And I love to scallop: after this interview, I’m heading over to get my license. I’m really happy to be back.”