Not many people can claim that they knew what they wanted to be in life as a kindergartener, but Melanie Mathewes can count herself among them.
As she sat in a circle with her classmates and each one picked a career ambition, Mathewes found herself annoyed that the other little girls in the class were limiting themselves to stereotypical careers—a nurse, a secretary, an airline stewardess, a teacher, a mom—while the boys seemed to have limitless (and more exciting) options—an astronaut, a firefighter, a police officer, a doctor.
Wanting to pick something different, Mathewes recalled the excitement she felt during class field trips to museums. As a child, what impressed her most about those experiences were the beautifully dressed docents who led the tours and the museum’s air conditioning, a luxury that many homes in the 1970s did not yet have.
“So when we came around the circle, I told my teacher I wanted to work in a museum,” said Mathewes, who grew up in Richmond. “And that was my path from there forward and that was what I wanted to do.”
Today, as the executive director of the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM), Mathewes is not only fulfilling a childhood dream, but also bringing a renewed sense of purpose to NSLM, which has broadened its offerings under her leadership. From its successful “Open Late” summer concert series to an expanded exhibition schedule to new collaborations with other community organizations, NSLM has established itself as a pillar of the Middleburg community, an essential element of what makes our historic hamlet so special.
To give you a sense of just a few of the exciting events NSLM has planned for the upcoming months, here’s a quick glimpse of some of the highlights:
Mathewes sees these events as part of an overall mission to connect more people in the community to NSLM. Whether that’s visitors who start their journey through Middleburg from the museum or locals who use the library as a quiet place to get some work done, it’s clear that Mathewes’ strategy of increased community outreach has brought more people through NSLM’s doors to explore its offerings.
Events like “Open Late” connect the museum to people’s everyday lives and encourage more people to explore the museum to see what it’s offering, Mathewes said. As a result, she’s seen an influx of people in her three years at the museum.
“I’m seeing more and more people walk on the path that’s been installed on the lawn and more people start their journey into Middleburg by parking in our lot and stopping in the museum and then wandering into town,” she said.
One of Mathewes’ favorite aspects of her job is interacting with the people who visit NSLM and learning from them. Since she doesn’t have an equestrian background, Mathewes has made an effort to learn more about the sport from the museum’s members, as well as by attending the area’s iconic races and private farms.
“I have the best teachers in the world, with our members and the people who come through the door,” she says. “They come through the door, [and] they’re teaching me. I learn a lot from the people that are here.”
Although she is a native Virginian, Mathewes didn’t have the opportunity to visit Middleburg until she interviewed for her position as NSLM’s executive director. Driving to her interview, she saw the clutter of city and suburban life give way to the rolling hills and open space of the countryside, a picturesque setting that reminded her of childhood summers she spent at her grandmother’s home in rural Gloucester County.
“As I pulled to the side of the road, … a large carriage with horses went past me and all I could see was the underside of the carriage and the horses through my window as it went past my car and I thought, ‘This is a unique location. That is not something you would experience anywhere else,'” she recalled. “That was my introduction to Middleburg.”
Her next visit to Middleburg proved even more surprising. Wanting to give her family the opportunity to explore the town, Mathewes chose—unbeknownst to her—the town’s busiest day for their visit. Imagine their surprise at encountering the traffic and throngs that crowd the streets on Christmas in Middleburg.
“If you look at the size of Middleburg but then you come out on a day when you have Christmas in Middleburg and you see all those people, it’s a strange juxtaposition of a small place with a lot of people in it,” Mathewes said.
Despite the crowds, Mathewes and her family could still appreciate Middleburg’s charms. “We loved it. It was just a fun experience,” she recalled.
NSLM, too, had its own draws. Notably, Mathewes appreciated that the library and museum were intertwined. “It seemed like such a perfect connection to have … the written word paired with the visual [experience] that’s in the museum,” she said. “There aren’t very many locations in Virginia or even the country where you find both the library and museum to be on equal footing.”
And so, Mathewes decided to leave her job as executive director of the Hermitage Museum & Gardens in Norfolk to take over as NSLM’s executive director in 2013. Mathewes, whose museum experience spans two decades, was a natural fit for NSLM because of her background in both teaching and museums.
She brings a wealth of experience to her role at NSLM, including working at a number of notable museums such as Agecroft Hall, The Museum of the Southwest, Fredda Turner Durham Children’s Museum, Craven Arts Council, Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens and Norfolk Botanical Garden. Mathewes also holds a bachelor’s degree in art and architectural history from Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University and a master’s degree in museum studies from Virginia Commonwealth University.
As executive director, Mathewes has increased NSLM’s profile, not just nationally, but internationally as well. Still, it’s clear that her goal is to make NSLM accessible to everyone, so that local residents—even those without an equestrian or art background—can appreciate NSLM’s offerings.
“We have exhibitions that receive national and international acclaim,” Mathewes said. “And it’s just right here in town, it’s your local museum, and I’m glad I’m part of that.”