Living on the Edge

Vermont’s culture as seen through the history of its signature sport

by Janet Essman Franz

skivermontMeredith Scott was working at the Shelburne Museum in 2001 when a job announcement for a director of a new ski museum in Stowe caught her eye. She applied, but suggested they hire her as the museum’s curator. They did, and she has since become both curator and director of the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum.

Vermont skiing means different things to different people. For some, the words evoke images of tranquil mountain trails covered with glistening snow, or lively lodges and après ski celebrations. For others it’s all about the gear, from the long, wooden boards of the past to today’s light, shaped skis and snowboards that slice clean lines on machine-groomed slopes.

For Meredith Scott, director-curator of the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum in Stowe, Vermont skiing is all of that and more: It is a significant piece of the state’s culture and a tool that carves a society’s place in time.

As the museum marks its 10th anniversary and makes plans for the decades ahead, Scott reflects on her 10-year relationship with the museum and the personal progress she shares with it.

Scott came to the museum not as a skier, but as an expert on folk art and historic collections. “What’s interesting to me is objects and the stories they can tell us about our lives then, and what they say about us now,” she reflects.

Growing up in Longmeadow, Mass., Scott skied occasionally on school field trips, but her family didn’t participate. She and her younger brother and sister loved reading and learning about the world. “My parents encouraged us to read and brought us to museums,” she says.

She also enjoyed learning about her ancestors. “We always had a lot of family stuff around, and I had an appreciation for where things came from. My grandmother was good about identifying people in photographs and writing notes about family items. In a jewelry box, she’d put in slips of paper saying, ‘This belonged to so-and-so,’ and if she knew anything about that person, she included it.”

Scott’s father’s job as a CPA for Coopers Lybrand took the family to Albany, N.Y., where she attended high school. Her mother, a homemaker and community volunteer, served as board president for Equinox, an organization for troubled youths.

Scott attended Dartmouth College, graduating in 1996 with a double major in history and art history. While there she directed a program matching college art majors with area educators to enhance children’s learning through arts projects. She planned to pursue a career in museum education.

After a brief stint coordinating publications for the American Educational Research Association, she worked as an educator at The Octagon, the museum of the American Architectural Foundation in Washington, D.C.

She left that job in 1998 to do graduate study in decorative arts at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Her dissertation focused on Scottish export pewter. “The program very hands-on. I did a lot of work in the Glasgow archives with their business papers from the 1700s, and through Christie’s auction house,” she explains. “I wanted to live abroad, and it’s easier to do that as a student.”

Summers before and after graduate school, Scott lived in Aspen, Colo., where she worked as an interpreter at Ashcroft Ghost Town and at a craft gallery. She longed to return to New England, but opportunities in museum work are limited, she explains. Thus, she felt fortunate in 1999 to find a job at the Shelburne Museum. She moved to Burlington and settled into Vermont life, happy to use her skills in exhibit research and cultural history.

“I learned to telemark and cross-country ski,” says Scott, who also enjoys bicycling and running. “I wanted to stay in Vermont — Burlington is a fun city, and I was comfortable and close to my family.”

She had been with the museum two years when a newspaper announcement for a job as director of a new ski museum in Stowe caught her eye. Knowing she would enjoy organizing the collection and setting up the exhibits, she sent a letter expressing her interest in being the museum’s curator.

“I didn’t know anything about ski history,” she explains, “but from a material culture perspective, skiing and snowboarding are so interesting because you can see the changes in our culture and lifestyle by looking at that one aspect.”

Business leaders from the Stowe area founded the museum to showcase memorabilia collected by Roy Newton, a businessman and ski-related newspaper publisher in Brandon. Newton had gathered vintage skis, trail signs, chairlift parts, and Olympic skier memorabilia since 1988 to chronicle the history of skiing in Vermont. Visitors could view his collection in a building behind the Brandon Inn.

“It was like a cabinet of curiosities,” says Scott. “He struggled to make it viable. In 2000 he made a deal with some Stowe businessmen to bring it to Stowe. They started a capital campaign and raised 1.4 million dollars.”

The funds were used to renovate the 1818 Old Town Hall building on Main Street for the museum. The town of Stowe owns the building and had used it for municipal offices.

In 2000 the building was in bad shape, Scott says, but the Stowe business community saw its potential to help increase tourism while preserving local history. “The building is historic. It’s at a key intersection where most traffic enters the village,” she explains. “They made the building a gateway to the village.”

The renovation involved gutting and rewiring the building and constructing exhibit areas, collection storage space, and workspace to preserve materials and create displays.

A board of directors, led by Ken Biedermann, general manager of Ampersand Properties and the Green Mountain Inn in Stowe, oversaw the original renovation. They endeavored to create order from Newton’s eclectic collection plus ample equipment and photographs donated by others. Hiring staff was integral to the process.

“We looked for a director, but it became clear that we needed someone to take the artifacts and tell the story of skiing with them,” Biedermann recalls, noting that Scott’s background impressed him. “Her skill was taking an unbelievable amount of stuff and organizing, cataloging, and preserving it. Meredith understands her craft.” Along with Scott, the board hired a director, Dot Helling, to launch the museum.

Scott met her future husband, Brian Irwin, during the building’s renovation. Now a high school social studies teacher at Lake Region Union High School in Orleans, Irwin then worked summers for the painting contractor remodeling the museum. They married seven years ago and have a 4-year-old daughter, Zoey. Irwin skied competitively for Essex High School and the University of Vermont (class of ’93) and competes on the master’s circuit. Zoey takes ski lessons at Cochran’s Ski Area.

Just as her grandmother did for her, Scott tries to impart an appreciation of the family’s heritage to Zoey. “I tell her where things come from, to remind her she is part of a bigger group of people.” Their Morrisville home contains “tons of stuff handed down from my parents and grandparents, like art and furniture they had in their homes,” she says. Wall decor includes old family photographs Scott framed — “to museum standards, with acid-free mountings.”

In 2002 Helling resigned and the museum hired an administrator, Sandy Devine, who stayed until 2006. The board appointed Scott director-curator in 2007.

“I had a good grasp on how the whole thing worked and had done all aspects of operations. With my museum background, I could do the pitch on why the museum is important. I had known most of the board members since I started and we had an open relationship. We talked about our options, and it made sense for me to direct,” Scott reveals. Currently she is the only full-time employee, with part-time assistance from retail and administration manager Susi Clark, and two other part-timers handling special projects. Volunteers work on specific assignments.

Biedermann praises Scott’s flexibility. “She does it all: oral histories, retail work; she mans the desk and goes out into the community. If we can get more funds, our long-term plan is to hire an executive director who can take away some of the burden from Meredith so she can focus on the collections and exhibits.”

About 8,000 people attend the museum yearly. Visitors increase when ski conditions are good at nearby resorts and during festivals that attract people to the region.

Private donations, membership dues, gift shop sales, and grants fund the museum. The town of Stowe supports the building, and ski areas throughout the state contribute through the Vermont Ski Areas Association. A capital campaign aims to raise $50,000 for museum updates, and Scott says they are halfway to that goal.

In 2010, the word “snowboard” was added to the museum’s name, and plans for its 10th anniversary began to take shape. “We spent 2011 figuring out how to implement this change and be worthy of the name “Ski and Snowboarding Museum,” Scott says. Plans include highlighting half-pipe grooming equipment and items from the archives of Burton Snowboard and the U.S. Open. “There are Vermont connections to all of that.”

A museum redesign will add a touch screen for interactive presentations and a children’s space with an exhibit “where you can put boots in and out of bindings to see how they have changed over the years,” Scott says. It will cover all four disciplines: alpine, cross-country, and telemark skiing, and snowboarding. The children’s space will also offer crafts, a reading nook, and a skiing simulator donated by Concept2.

Renovations will be completed in time for anniversary celebrations this fall. A grand reopening on Sept. 27 will induct Donna and Jake Burton Carpenter into the museum’s Hall of Fame. Concerts, lectures, and parties will continue through October 20.

A new bench, donated by the National Ski Patrol, will be placed in front of the museum and updated landscaping that ties in an adjacent park will encourage visitors to linger. “People can sit there, see the village gateway, and look at views of Mount Mansfield. “ Scott says. “It’s a Vermont experience.” •