Chester County Leadership: Elizabeth Laurent, President, Chester County Historical Society

Elizabeth Laurent

Elizabeth Laurent, President of the Chester County Historical Society, speaks with VISTA Today about growing up in Alexandria, Va., as the youngest of four children born in five years. Interestingly, her father was a television critic for The Washington Post before the family had a television in its house.

Laurent dishes on her love for history and art history, subjects she studied while at Williams College in Massachusetts, and the journey that brought her to Chester County. In addition to touching upon the challenges of fundraising, she also discusses how the Historical Society’s new display will focus on storytelling and objects, in lieu of a traditional exhibit.

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Elizabeth (center) and siblings 1964

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia and grew up in an old, brick house in Alexandria my parents had bought a few years earlier. I’m the youngest of four kids born in five years. My father was the Washington Post’s first TV critic. My mom was a stay-at-home who took care of us kids and her house and garden.

What memories do you have of growing up in Alexandria?

I grew up in the old part of town where I could walk to school, church, friends’ homes and Alexandria’s shops. I love returning to that neighborhood, as every street is filled with memories.

Did your father’s high-profile position impact your family’s life?

In addition to working at the Washington Post, Dad also taught Communications at American and George Washington University. Despite the fact he was a television critic, it was a long time before we had a TV in our home.

When we finally got a TV, it was a small black & white model which he placed on the sideboard of our dining room. When we wanted to watch a show, we would turn the straight-backed dining room chairs around and watch what was on!

Did your family have a favorite show?

We loved Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night. The first episodic series I remember watching was “The Forsythe Saga” on PBS that ran weekly for half a year. My siblings and I loved that era’s sit-coms, like Gilligan’s Island, My Three Sons, and That Girl.

Elizabeth and siblings (circa 1968)

Did you play any sports when you were growing up?

I played all the normal games like kickball kids played in the streets back then, but no formal sports. I do, however, have a varsity letter for playing piccolo four years in the marching band!

What kind of music were you listening to?

Because I was the youngest, I was listening to the classic rock including The Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, Simon and Garfunkel, that my brothers and sisters were listening to.

Where did you go to college?

I can’t tell you why exactly, but I was determined to go to a small liberal arts college in New England. I may have had the fact my mom had gone to Wellesley in the back of my mind. I took a one week trip to Massachusetts and looked at five schools including Radcliffe, Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Williams. I love Williams, applied for and got accepted early admission.

Why Williams?

I loved the campus and the wonderful rolling hills and the town of Williamstown. It turns out, Williamstown had two wonderful art museums in town which led to me being exposed academically to art across the centuries.

What was you major at Williams?

I studied history and art history and spent a semester of my junior year studying in Rome.

How did you get from Williams to being President of CCHS?

A big turning point for me came a couple of years after graduation when I realize I could have a career that combined history and art history. When I came to that conclusion, I applied and was accepted to the Winterthur Museum’s graduate program affiliated with the University of Delaware.

When I graduated, John Sweeney who was assistant to the director at Winterthur, saw promise in me and helped steer me to my first position as Curator at Stratford Hall Plantation in Virginia. I couldn’t have gotten that position without his generous help.

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Who helped you grasp you could have a career in art and history?

I first heard of the Winterthur program when I was in college at Williams. Growing up in Alexandria’s old town, I may have been hard-wired for history. But I needed a couple of years off to think through my options and realize that was my future.

What are your opportunities and challenges as president of the Historical Society?

Elizabeth and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in 2011.

I am thrilled now to represent CCHS which many view as an anchor institution in the greater Chester County community. We just wrapped up the Chester County Antique Show, which I enjoyed watching unfold for the first time.

I look forward to expanding the role of the Society in the Chester County Community. We do major outreach with school children and host National History Day for students from Delaware and Chester counties. I want to further enhance our connections to the county’s communities of all ages. I enjoy getting out into the community, meeting people and become more of a known presence.

Our most exciting big project, is to be in the third and final design stage for major new permanent exhibits telling Chester County’s history over 400 years. The exhibits will tell the County’s great stories in ways we’ve never been able to do. Rather than display beautiful items arranged by style, the new display will focus on thematic storytelling using our amazing objects that tell those stories.

Chester County, for instance, has a wonderful history of Social Justice, relating to abolition, the temperance movement, women’s and civil rights. Working with the staff, consultant and design team to pull the exhibit together and complete the requisite fundraising is thrilling.

Stories are a powerful way to convey history. Was it your idea to center the new exhibit around stories?

No not at all! The vision was started under former Historical Society President Rob Lukens and was driven forward by Society staff before I arrived. The staff has made some key trips around the country looking for best practices at museums sharing history in unique and innovative ways. My role is to make sure we have the funding needed to bring the exhibit to fruition.

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Fundraising isn’t exactly the easy part of launching a new exhibit.

Fundraising is a big part of my job at the Society. As I believe in our cause and the project, my challenge and pleasure is presenting the Society’s mission in such a way, so others can see it the way I do. Many of our donors derive great satisfaction from sharing community stories in a way that people can learn for years to come. Most donors deeply appreciate the ways the Society improves the lives of Chester County residents and visitors.

Elizabeth with Chester County author Bruce Mowday.

What about the Historical Society took you by surprise when you started last July?

The setting of my former position, at Girard College, a 43-acre campus in the middle of Philadelphia surrounded by ten-foot high walls, was so different than the Historical Society. What I noticed right away was how happy folks seemed to be as they left our building. Whether they we here for an event, to do research or to view an exhibit, the people leaving our building seemed always to be smiling and talking about what they had just seen.

Finally, Elizabeth, what was the best piece of advice you ever received?

When I was a young professional just learning about leadership and all the choices leaders make, specifically decisions about who to hire, a former boss shared some great advice. He told me he had made a lot of terrible hiring choices in his career but that he had learned from each bad choice and gotten better as a result.

The conclusion he shared, was to use data to analyze hiring decisions but recognize there is no substitute for trusting my gut. That has been so helpful: while a resume and cover letter convey facts, more important are those intangibles of meeting face-to-face and sensing attitude, drive and passion.

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