During the five years she spent with the Nichols House Museum, Laura Cunningham, who stepped down from her role as its Curator of Collections on March 31 to pursue a new employment opportunity, said perhaps what she’ll cherish the most from her experience there was having the opportunity to thoroughly immerse herself in a small museum environment.
“At a small museum like the Nichols House Museum, each position has creative freedom besides handling your day-to-day responsibilities,” Cunningham said, “and as a small museum, there’s so much to explore there, but there aren’t multiple departments, which allows for creativity and exploring different interests. For me, I was really interested in learning more about the collection and interpreting it, so I focused my extra time on research into the objects and making it publicly available for exhibitions.”
Cunningham, who hails from Boston suburbs and earned a BA in art history from Boston University, started at the museum as an archives intern in spring of 2016 when she was finishing up her post-grad degree in library information science at Simmons College. She needed an internship for grad school when she saw the Nichols House Museum’s posting, which, she said, immediately appealed to her because she had already visited the museum and “loved it there.”
After her internship ended, “one thing led to another,” Cunningham said, and the museum hired her in a part-time position as Collections Assistant. She later transitioned into her first full-time position as Programs and Collections Coordinator when that position opened up before she assumed the role of Curator of Collections.
During her time with the museum, Cunningham oversaw a number of exhibitions and collections management projects, as well as the design and content production of its new website.
Asked what item in the Nichols family collection she finds particularly noteworthy or impressive, Cunningham immediately mentions a Boston High Chest, circa 1745.
Cunningham, working as Curator, was doing routine research, when she uncovered that the high chest of drawers in the Nichols collection had come from the collection of a member of the Cabots, another prominent 19th-century Boston family.
Moreover, the life of the object’s one-time owner, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, also ran a parallel track to that of Rose Standish Nichols, the venerable landscape artist, pacifist and suffragist who inherited the mansion at 55 Mount Vernon St. in 1930 and opened it to the public as the Nichols House Museum 31 years later.
Born in Boston in 1878, Mary Wheelwright was a distinguished anthropologist who founded what is now known as the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1937.
“She lived a very similar live to Rose Nichols; they lived parallel lives and both founded museums,” Cunningham said. “She didn’t marry, pursued a career, traveled extensively and grew up on Beacon Hill. It’s interesting that ownership of that piece went from the collection of one smart, independent, unmarried woman to the collection of another.”
Learning that piece’s history of ownership also added yet another unique layer to the story of the Nichols family collection.
“This important, beautiful piece that’s a highlight of the Nichols House Museum’s collection also has a provenance in history that’s really interesting,” Cunningham said.
Additionally, two museum exhibits Cunningham worked on in tandem, she said, also truly “capture the essence of [her] interests.”
The first focused on the woodwork of Rose and her sister, Margaret Nichols.
“They were craftswomen,” Cunningham said, so that exhibit “explored how they developed their skills and the context they developed them in and looked at individual pieces they made.”
The second exhibit, which Cunningham is particularly proud of, she said, “explored the Nichols sisters political and social involvements around the time of women’s suffrage.”
“Our goal in that was really to go beyond just suffrage, and to question and examine their political affiliations and interests, again with in the broader context of that important 19th century moment, which was also a reaction to the first Red Scare,” Cunningham said. “We looked at Nichols sisters’ relationship to that as it is related to suffrage as well.”
This exhibit also “looked at the domestic staff, the women who worked in the house,” said Cunningham, and what their experience at the time would have been like.
“Those two exhibits kind of capture what I love about the museum,” Cunningham said, “which is that there’s this amazing artistic and creative tradition within the context of what was an important moment in history, and in many ways, it feels relevant to what we’re experiencing today.”
Looking back on Cunningham’s contributions to the museum over the past half a decade, Linda Marshall, executive director of the Nichols House Museum, wrote: “Laura’s research into the Museum’s collection brought individual objects to life. She made lasting and significant contributions to the Museum’s interpretation through developing exhibitions, and in researching and writing new content for the website, blog and social media, particularly around highlights of the Museum’s decorative and fine arts collection.”
Cunningham, meanwhile, has already begun in her new role as research associate at David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles American Antiques in Woodbury, Conn., but she said the Nichols House Museum and her time there will always remain close to her heart.
“I have formed a special relationship with the Nichols House Museum,” she said, “and will always think of it with the utmost fondness.”