Retired Historic New England Museum President Reflects on His Long Career

The professional path that eventually led Carl R. Nold to serve as the sixth leader of Historic New England began when as a high school student in 1973, he accepted an internship at a museum in Long Island, N.Y.

Nold, who now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., stepped down this spring after serving for 17 years as president and CEO of Historic New England – a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation that was established in 1910 as the Society for the Preservation of New England. But it all began for the now 64-year-old as a volunteer working alongside professional museum curators at the Hicksville Gregory Museum, an earth science museum housed in an historic building.

“Through this, I learned you could have a career in museums,” said Nold, who by age 18 had been named president of the museum’s board of directors. “I also took up the administrative side early.”

Nold intended to become a teacher, but said he “changed tracks” as an undergraduate and enrolled in “miscellaneous courses to broaden [his] understanding of American culture, and to prepare [him] for the museum culture,” such as classical archeology, anthropology, and American musical theater. He eventually ended up at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, – the first program of its kind in the U.S. designed specifically to train professionals to work in history museums.

Prior to joining the staff of Historic New England, Nold spent more than a decade serving as the executive director of Michigan’s Mackinac State Historic Parks – a group of historic sites and parks that includes Fort Mackinac, Colonial Michilimackinac, Historic Mill Creek, and Mackinac Island State Park. He was responsible for the restoration or renovation of virtually all of the 110 building and facilities in the 2,800-acre park system from 1992 to 2003. “It was great preparation for coming to Historic New England,” Nold said.

2003 brought Nold to Historic New England, and thus began a period of rapid growth for the nonprofit as its historic site attendance grew from 132,605 to 211,028; its membership was increased by 50 percent; and the number of school children it served annually nearly tripled. 

Under Nold’s leadership, Historic New England also acquired four new historic sites: Phillips House in Salem, Mass.; the Eustis Estate in Milton, Mass.; Coolidge Point in Manchester-by-the-Sea; and the Sarah Orne Jewett Visitor Center in South Berwick, Maine, as well as established a regional office in Burlington, Vt.

Historic New England also increased the number of privately owned historic properties protected through the Historic New England Preservation Easement Program from 64 to 113, including 20th-century homes designed by noted architects Marcel Breuer, Henry B. Hoover, Earl Flansburgh, and Royal Barry Wills, during Nold’s tenure.

In 2006, Historic New England acquired its Collections Center and Regional Office in Haverhill, Mass., which helped the organization make great strides in advancing the care of its object and archival collections, and four years later as part of its centennial celebration, launched an online collections access portal to make them accessible to a global audience.

“These days, with the social media piece, we’re doing things online to connect with people we might not have reached in past,” Nold said. “It’s what we’re calling at Historic New England, ‘Everyone’s Story.’”

Sidney Kenyon, a Historic New England trustee and Beacon Hill resident, lauded Nold for his work with the organization.

“Carl Nold’s visionary leadership transformed an inward-looking organization into a public-facing one; his legacy can be felt from making Historic New England’s collections available online to instigating ‘Everyone’s History’ projects throughout the region,” Kenyon, wrote. “Carl’s 17 years of intense focus on preservation, education, and engagement made Historic New England the vibrant and relevant institution it is today.”

Said Nold:  “Implementing that change for Historic New England and making it more about people than things has really helped us become an organization that welcomes everyone and not just specialists. To me, that’s the largest accomplishment.”

Historic New England has also expanded its audience in recent years by offering a wide range of programming at its sites, including the Otis House Museum on Beacon Hill, such as yoga classes, art exhibits, children’s scavenger hunts, garden parties and concerts.

“We’ve tried hard to maintain our [traditional audience] by finding ways to connect with people who might not otherwise have an interest in historic sites,” said Nold, who now holds the honorary title of president emeritus of Historic New England. “Simply owning a historic structure isn’t enough: people must be invited in.”

In January, Historic New England honored Nold’s legacy with the organization when it launched the Carl R. Nold Fund for Museum Education – a permanent endowment fund for the organization’s school and youth programs, which engage 45,000 children each year.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Nold, adding that around 100 donors have contributed about $1 million to the fund so far. “The whole focus of my career was making things more accessible…and reaching kids with our history is tremendously important because they need to carry it into the future.”

The Boston Preservation Alliance, which recognizes outstanding and career-long contributions to preservation in the city,  recently named Nold as the recipient of its Codman Award for Lifetime Achievement, and he was also just honored by the George B. Henderson Foundation for serving on its grant-making board from 2004 until his retirement. The Henderson Foundation makes grants that improve the physical appearance of all neighborhoods in the city, including for public art, landscapes and gardens, and historic preservation; some grantees have included the Nichols House Museum, The Vilna Shul, Otis House and the Old West Church. 

During his long and venerable career, Nold also emerged as a leader and trendsetter in the field of museums, serving for four years on the board of directors of the American Association of Museums (AAM), then as its vice chairman (2007), chairman (2008-2010) and immediate past chairman.

“Historic New England has been a leader, he said. “I wanted to share the good work we’ve done, as well as things that we’ve done well and thing that didn’t work.”

In the end, though, Nold realizes he owes his career to the communities he has been fortunate enough to serve.

“Retiring from a long career, I realize none of it could have happened without help from the communities – donors, educators, volunteers, board members and even through government programs that have helped,” Nold said. “There’s also a very strong community spirit on Beacon Hill, which has been our home for a long time, and that has always been encouraging.”

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