Museum Job Spotlight: Laura Need

We’re profiling interesting jobs in the museum field to show the range of responsibilities and opportunities available.  Have an awesome museum job you want to share? Email [email protected]!

Laura Need

My name is… Laura Need
The name of my museum is… Shelburne Museum
My job title is… Volunteer Coordinator

What do you mostly work on?

Wooing people and corporations to work for free

What specific skills enable you to succeed in your job?

Humor and passion. I cannot take myself too seriously so I never mind making a potential fool of myself. Because I love the absurdity in life I’m unabashed when it comes to approaching people to become volunteers. I’ll hit up a candidate naked in a locker room or ask for handouts from local businesses to benefit my volunteers. And I know every day when I come to work how lucky I am to be here. Shelburne Museum is a beautiful spot. At certain times of the year, the Museum is awash in the scent of lilacs from the 900 varieties that Mrs.Webb planted when she laid out her vision. I love sharing with people my passion for this unique place.

What is the best advice you ever received from a museum professional?

“Give them wine.” While interning at Schifferstadt for Frederick County Landmarks Foundation I had the joy of working for a tiny little powerhouse of a director named Bea. She was the ideal director because she trusted that everyone under her were devoted to the cause so she gave us a great deal of freedom. Bea realized her job was to show up at events and unleash her inescapable charm on potential donors or politicians. With her thick Argentinian accent, she told me the key to getting people on your side was simple, “give them wine.” Never host an event where there was not wine flowing, it loosens the purse strings better than words. God bless Bea, I would’ve done anything for her.

What advice would you give to the aspiring museum professional?

Don’t be afraid to scrub a toilet on your way up. Museum jobs can be hard to come by especially in a small state like Vermont. But if you are willing to shove your foot in the door and never say no to any opportunity you can find your dream job. And be open to what that dream job may be, I once thought I would love running a small museum until I did. Through trial and error, I found that I love marketing, interacting with diverse audiences and creating programs to retain our volunteers.

Round Barn 2

What is your earliest memory of being in a museum?

My earliest memory of being in a museum would have to be going to the National Museum of Natural History. Growing up in Maryland my family made frequent trips to the Smithsonian. But it was probably being dragged around to historic sites like Fort McHenry that had the greatest impact on me. I wanted to know the stories behind these places and about the people who made them famous.

How did you find your way into the museum industry?

When I was an undergraduate studying Art History at The College of Notre Dame I accepted an internship at a small house museum in Frederick, Maryland called Schifferstadt. I always had an affinity for historic structures but my experience with the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation at Schifferstadt introduced me to museum culture. Once I work in a community of like-minded, intellectual elites (or nerds), who all share a passion for history I knew I had found my niche. I sold my soul to Sallie Mae and got an M.S. in Historic Preservation at the University of Vermont. No matter if it was guiding or sweeping floors, I knew I wanted to work at Shelburne Museum. So once I was here, I started as a tour guide, I knew I would never leave. This is my second home.

Ticonderoga 2

Please give a quick overview of your department/museum.

I work at the eclectic environment created by Electra Havemeyer Webb who collected everything from weathervanes to Wyeths’ known as Shelburne Museum in Vermont. Shelburne Museum is a unique campus made up of 42 acres and over 30 buildings. Mrs. Webb not only collected objects but she assembled a historic preservation petting zoo of sorts by moving old buildings to the Museum grounds in order to serve as backdrops for her collections. She even moved the historic steamship Ticonderoga to Shelburne Museum where it now sits in the permanent dry dock. My job is to convince individuals and corporations to join our merry little circus through volunteerism. Like any non-profit we depend on the generosity of folks who are willing to spend time greeting visitors, tending to our gardens, licking envelopes, painting fences and much more. I love my job because every day I am luring folks into the cult of Electra. She is an irresistible figure who left behind a magical little kingdom in Vermont.

Electra H. Webb beside standing bear she shot. Copier scan of original in Museum Archives.

Electra H. Webb beside standing bear she shot. Copier scan of original in Museum Archives.

What’s your favorite object or piece of art in your museum and why?

My favorite ‘object’ is actually a building. The Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building was built shortly after her death in 1960. Mrs.Webb urged her children to salvage the interiors of her 740 Park Avenue Apartment. When she and her husband, James Watson Webb, were designing their penthouse she had worked with brokers to salvage the historic interiors from the great house in Britain. So her New York City penthouse had paneling dating back to the 1700s. The children removed the interiors from select rooms from the Webb’s 16th,17th and 18th-floor penthouse including the furnishings and the families art collection. Electra’s mother, Louisine Havemeyer, was a good friend of Mary Cassatt. That friendship led to Louisine amassing a large collection of Impressionist work. In fact, one of the pieces we own is thought to be the first impressionist work purchased by an American and brought back to the United States. Entering into the Memorial Building is like stepping into the exclusive residence of the Park Avenue elite. ever wonder where the super-rich hang their Monet’s? We display these great works of art the way Mrs. Webb did in her home.

What is a story that most people don’t know about your museum or its collection?

Most people have no idea when they come to our museum what they are going to see. From the road, you can glimpse a round barn, a large steamship, and a covered bridge. From a distance, it looks like someone’s vision of an idyllic New England village. Visitor’s have no idea that this is the brainchild of one woman who herself was quite a character. Rumor has it she shot the largest bear on record in Alaska while on one of her many hunting expeditions. She drove an ambulance during during World War II for the Red Cross in New York. She inspired other collectors like the DuPont’s to see the value of American antiques.

What inspires you about your museum’s mission?

Our mission is to inspire curiosity and provide an extraordinary educational experience. Because we are such an eclectic mix of fine art, Americana, and historic buildings we have the ability to reach a wide audience. And our mission allows for a lot of creativity in our approach to educate. One day I may be discussing Manet the next I’m making school kids hold yarn dyed using human urine. When your mission is fairly broad and the tools you’re given to work with are so diverse it’s impossible to be boring.


Thanks, Laura!