It was in July 1999 when the vivacious and multi-talented Flavia Cigliano stepped into her role as executive director of the Nichols House Museum. It is a small neighborhood museum, but not too small for her to envision making it as professional as those many sizes bigger.
On March 31, Cigliano, now beloved by all those she touched during her 16 years here, will step down from the helm, leaving a professionally managed institution that has become a guiding light in the community and an inspiration for small museums near and far.
The mission of the museum, which has been open to the public since 1961, is to preserve and interpret the 1804 townhouse once owned and cared for by noted landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist Rose Standish Nichols from 1934 until 1960. Upon her death she bequeathed her house as a memorial to her parents, Dr. Arthur Nichols and his wife Elizabeth.
Like so many small house museums in the late 20th century, the Nichols House functioned for decades like a private club used by its board for small parties and events. William H. Pear II, who has been an integral part of the institution since 1982, lived at and cared for the property, occasionally conducting tours for the public. Considered invaluable because of his institutional memory, he served as the museum’s historian until recently.
“During those early days the board did a great job of keeping it open and running,” said David Beck, who is now serving his ninth year on the board, including three years as president. “They thought about what it would be like to make it a professional museum and provided the base for someone like Flavia to come in and set in motion.”
June Hutchinson, also a former president and board member, agreed. “I give my hat to those who hired her,” she said. “They knew what the house most needed. She came with enormously broad-based skills and the right instincts about how to move the museum forward.”
During her tenure, Cigliano worked with six presidents and boards of directors, attracting talented and diverse board members and helping each feel engaged in ways that best suited them, said Beck. “She never thought of us as so small that we couldn’t strive to be the best. She helped the board and community understand what was important for our future and to think creatively about what we could do.”
Hutchinson agreed that Cigliano, whom she described as diplomatic, consistently kind and never judgmental, always got the best out of people. “She could size them up and see their skills,” she said. “She knew I had done writing, for example, and signed me right up to write for the bulletin.”
To guide the museum toward more professional management, Cigliano, who previously was executive director of Lowell’s Whistler House Museum of Art, worked closely with the American Alliance of Museums, a national organization that sets standards, best practices and ethical guidelines for museums of all types seeking to fulfill their role as essential educational and community institutions. With their input, the board participated in a museum assessment program, developed its first strategic plan, and catalogued the entire collection.
During her tenure, Cigliano secured grants and donor-directed gifts worth $1.3 million that were used for projects designed to preserve the building, conserve and restore furniture, prints and other works on paper, and establish educational programs.
Reflecting on all that she had accomplished, Cigliano said she was most proud of the intern program, the restoration of the front garden, and cataloging and digitizing the museum’s entire collection.
“It is very personally satisfiying that we have so many interns who want to come here,” said Cigliano, who began her career as a Fulbright Scholar teaching American Literature in a university in Italy. “This is an old house, it’s not very sexy. But no longer do we have to go begging for interns. Now we have so many applicants from all over Boston for fall, spring and summer that we have to interview them.”
A gardener herself, she particulary enjoyed bringing the front garden back to a Garden Room, a popular design in the 1910-1920s with trellis-like walls for privacy and garden seats for conversation. The plant materials installed, such as heirloom peonies, were similar to those recommended by Rose Nichols to her clients.
In 2007, a grant enabled them to catalogue and digitize the entire collection. “It was a monster project,” she said. “In one year I had four full time and four part time people working on it.” The results are now online so that members, scholars and other museum professionals have access to the valuable historical data.
A doctoral candidate combed through the collection, read the journals, writings and every item that would help the tour guides interpret the museum and its contents. “Now we can tell the story of the house and its occupants in ways that are more compelling and interesting to visitors,” Cigliano said. “People love to hear stories they can relate to about the neighborhood personalities, such as how Arthur and Elizabeth Nichols moved to Beacon Hill because it was a good place to raise their daughters.”
The museum is now open most days year-round. The annual attendance is about 5000. The best practice for a small museum such as this is to cap the attendance at about 7000 in order to preserve its fragile physical structure and its contents, according to the American Alliance of Museums. For that reason, the museum holds special events, lectures and house tours elsewhere.
During her sixteen years here, Cigliano has seen an influx of young people who have chosen to live here and are committed to stay, opting for an urban life for themselves and the kids. “She knew that you have to keep building your audience and saw the advantage of letting young people do what they wanted to, when they wanted to,” said Hutchinson. That led to the Spring Fete, a popular fundraiser held annually at the Boston Athenaeum.
“Beacon Hill was a beautiful place to be,” said Cigliano, who was born in Italy and has commuted several hours a day from her home in Chelmsford. “It’s been a joy and pleasure to come here and be a part of it.”
Both she and her husband, William Killilea, will retire on March 31. The next day they’ll sleep late, she said. But they’ll be back on the road soon. She’ll be in Boston helping a new director or visiting her daughter Angela Killilea, who works at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. This summer the inveterate travelers, who in the past few years have hiked through the Alps, Slovenia’s Julian Alps, St. Petersburg, Estonia and Finland, plan to pack their hiking boots again and return this summer to one of their favorite spots, the American West.
“She’s been a great force here for the community,” said Beck. “She loves what she does, comes in early, and stays late. Now she deserves to do something for herself. It’s a great reward.”