Custom House names new executive director

The Custom House Maritime Museum’s new executive director, Joan Whitlow, and Assistant Executive Director Sean Palmatier.JIM SULLIVAN/Staff photo

NEWBURYPORT — The Custom House Maritime Museum has hired a new director who brings more than 30 years of museum experience, including work at the MIT Museum and Peabody Essex.

Custom House officials announced Joan Whitlow’s appointment as the new executive director during the organization’s First Friday Social on Friday.

Whitlow, a Danvers resident, has spent the past 10 years working as the registrar and collections manager at the MIT Museum in Cambridge. From 1988 to 1999, she worked as a collections manager at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

“I feel like I bring a wealth of information and practice to a small organization that can really benefit from some fresh ideas and practices in trying to preserve and protect the assets that we have,” Whitlow said. 

The Water Street museum was under the direction of Executive Director Jessica Pappathan, who took over for Michael Mroz after he resigned in 2018. Pappathan left the Custom House to take the director’s job at the Newburyport Art Association in April.

In an interview, Whitlow said, “I’m very familiar with not only Essex County but with Essex natural history, Essex geography. So, this is the perfect organization to be at. I’d like to bring a fresh look at a lot of old items, different interpretations and more personable stories than just ‘What is that painting about?’”

Whitlow said she hopes to bridge the gap between history and the present day.

“It’s transporting and connecting the people of the past to the people of the present,” Whitlow said. “It is also connecting people currently here to the museum and the larger Newburyport community.”

The museum also has hired an assistant director, Sean Palmatier, who most recently worked as a preventive care assistant at Historic New England after doing a curatorial internship at the Custom House over the past winter.

“I’m glad to be getting back to exhibits again,” Palmatier said. “My background is really research based and exhibits. I have primarily studied the material cultural history of Colonial America in the early United States. I have done a lot of work with smaller museums in the area with curatorial and accession work.”

Palmatier pointed to the museum’s newest exhibit, “Potters on the Merrimac: A Century of New England Ceramics,” as a good example of history meeting personal stories.

“This is the first of what I hope are many exhibits that we do like this,” he said. “We want to bring a real kind of sense of personal history to these kind of items. These were everyday items. So we are really trying to bring in the personal stories of the people who made them.”

Custom House board Chair Doug Muir said Whitlow’s museum experience was very attractive to his organization.

“(Pappathan’s) history was more of an art background,” Muir said. “Joan has a lot of museum experience, which is something we really wanted and Sean has some as well. Together, we think they will make a great team.”

Whitlow said Newburyport’s maritime history doesn’t begin and end where the Merrimack River meets the Atlantic.

“To be positioned on the mouth of a river where it actually hits the salt water is kind of unusual,” she said. “There are not many maritime custom houses or museums that are situated in this sort of waterway, that really was a major means of transportation and livelihood. So, I’d like to bring in those stories, too, because sometimes people outside of the great clipper ships are the everyday lives of people.”

Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at jsullivan@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.

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