By Jeb Bing
Museum director putting history, future togetherUploaded: Dec 11, 2009
Few cities our size have their own museum, let alone one with a director like Jim DeMersman with years of experience in making museums come alive as he's now doing with the Museum On Main.
Once a college history major whose counselor convinced him that a business degree might lead to a more financially-rewarding career, DeMersman earned both at Houghton College near his family home in upstate New York. He's combined the training to hold executive positions at numerous museums, historical organizations and even as the manager of Community Services while also running the Hi-Desert Museum in southern California's Yucca Valley, organizing youth softball games and swim meets while developing special exhibits only Yucca Valley could host.
DeMersman became executive director of the Museum On Main--officially part of the Livermore-Amador Valley Historical Society--two months ago. Already change is in the air as he and three paid staff members work with more than 200 volunteers to liven up exhibits, plan new ones and prepare an ambitious program of special events in 2010. First out will be The Horse, which will tell visitors all about horses in the Tri-Valley and how they brought progress to the area, including serving as the focus of the Alameda County Fair and now part of the city's extensive trail system that allows equestrian activities. This first exhibit will show DeMersman's determination to make the museum more than, well, a museum. He wants it to be more relevant, not just historical, becoming a place where everyone in Pleasanton will find something new, exciting and appealing.
The Ed Kenney lecture series will continue starting next month, but again with a bit of flair. Real actors portraying Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and John Muir will look and speak the part of their characters. Then ranchers, who ride and raise horses, will reflect on different eras of the Valley when horses plowed the fields, brought people to town and more recently became a sport of their own. Next October, the museum's popular ghost walks will resume, an event that recently named one of the top 100 things for Californians to do.
DeMersman says he and the staff meet regularly to plan activities, from trips to the Alviso Adobe for school children to special events for the older crowd. He's been in this business long enough to know what sells, especially in Pleasanton where just as many people are focused on historical preservation as on restaurants and night life in the city's downtown.
It's a nice mix for DeMersman whose career started at the Genesee Country Village in western New York where the brewery owner bought old buildings before they were destroyed by interstate highways and commercial developments and moved them to a site near his plant. Today, it's a tourist destination as a village where nobody lives but features buildings dating back into the late 1600s all the way to one just added that was built in the early 1900s. From there, DeMersman worked at the historic Speedwell Museum in Morristown, N.J., where General George Washington spent one of his coldest winters. The museum, occupying an old ironworks, also is where Alfred Vail and Samuel Morse demonstrated the first telegraph system. Somehow, DeMersman laments, Vail never got any credit or we might remember it as the Vail Code, instead of Morse's.
After that, DeMersman came west to Pueblo, Colo. and, as a 28-year-old, became director of the Rosemount Historic Museum, a 35,000-square-foot mansion built by a family that made its fortune in railroads in Pueblo, Colo. Two years later, following his dream to work in Washington, D.C. and also for the National Trust, DeMersman had a chance to do both by becoming a director of the Woodrow Wilson House Museum. He polished up this experience by becoming director of the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver, showing the public that there was a lot more to its owner than the Unsinkable Molly Brown. He also found that Broadway shows and a bit of pizzazz helps attract crowds to museums. He put that to advantage as director of the Hayward Area Historical Society with noted success. When he went there 12 years ago, he was the only paid employee with a budget of $125,000. When he left, DeMersman was one of six full-time staff members with a budget of $1.2 million and endowments of more than $14 million.
With a budget at the Museum On Main of $128,000, DeMersman has a ways to go to match Hayward, but he's starting. The museum's lobby today is filled with Christmas presents wrapped for the needy, a large decorated tree and a slot where children can place their letters to Santa. Each letter, DeMersman promises, will be answered by jolly St. Nick directly.
He's also inviting the rests of us to join in the fun. Memberships in the museum start at $30 for an individual and include the popular newsletter on Pleasanton's history and, at DeMersman's urging, upcoming stories about the city's future from his well-traveled perspective.