Christy Coleman’s new position as executive director for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is more than just a job for her—it’s an opportunity to continue creating a diverse and meaningful experience.
“The way we view history is not just in its own terms,” she said. “It’s this important makeup of people not only wanting to connect with each other in an intimate way but also connect with communities.”
The Foundation last month announced Coleman would be taking the position of executive director after Philip G. Emerson retired on Dec. 31. Coleman, who will start on Jan. 21, will be the foundation’s first female and African American executive director.
But this isn’t the type of work Coleman always pictured herself doing.
As a young adult, she said her interests spanned from theater, history and law and she didn’t really consider museum service until she worked as an interpreter with Colonial Williamsburg in 1982.
In her time at Colonial Williamsburg, she learned more about the ways that history can be important to a culture.
Following that experience, Coleman went on to work at the City Life Museum in Baltimore. She said that experience was one that changed her path forever.
Coleman said the City Life Museum, which is no longer open, was located near a public housing project but she noticed the people living there never felt welcome at the museum.
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“There was a certain conscientiousness that had been there and I was determined to break that down,” she said. “At the time, we didn’t think of museums as fully open places and that’s unfortunate. So I was working against that sentiment that ‘those people don’t belong here.’”
To help break down those barriers Coleman worked on Saturdays to bring in some of the children and she started to build a volunteer program in which people in the housing projects could participate.
One of the noticeable differences as a result was the vandalism of the museum decreased dramatically and Coleman said she believes it was partially because the museum started to become a place where more people felt welcome.
However, when she left this position she said she was still getting a lot of push-back on her efforts. So she became a stock broker for six months before quickly realizing that her work and what mattered to her was in the world of museums.
Coleman then worked three part-time jobs to put herself through a graduate program in museum studies at Hampton University. She said the program was particularly special because not only was it one of the few museum studies programs in the country but it was at a Historically Black College and University.
Since then Coleman has gone on to become a member of various organizations such as the African American Association of Museums and was named in TIME Magazine last year as one of the 31 people changing the South.
Now, as the new executive director Coleman wants to continue the momentum of diverse research and storytelling the Foundation has already started.
Coleman said the important aspect to any significant museum experience is guests being able to recognize themselves and that’s some of what the Foundation has been doing with recent exhibits and events that tell the story of women and African Americans in the colonial era.
“That’s the idea of living history, that [guests] are seeing and being a part of something,” she said. “But at the end of the day, they want meaning and value and you can’t get that if the museum isn’t accessible and doesn’t reflect you.”
Coleman said she’s been meeting with teams at the foundation and learning about current plans while starting to brainstorm some new ideas. She said she’s looking forward to being part of an engaging and diverse team that will continue to look for innovative ways to engage with guests.
“I started in museum work because I wanted to do something with service and has an impact on the community,” she said. “I can help communities navigate through this work.”