© herreshoff.org / Gabrielle Purchon

A third generation boatbuilder and the newly appointed Curator at the Herreshoff Marine Museum & America’s Cup Hall of Fame in Bristol, Rhode Island, Evelyn Ansel is preserving maritime history and loving her work.

Evelyn is the granddaughter of Willits Dyer Ansel (1929-2019) and daughter of Walter Ansel, both shipwrights at Mystic Seaport Museum’s Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard. “Growing up in a family of boatbuilders had a very direct impact on my interest in boats,” says Evelyn. “When I was a kid, it was just a job that my family did. Getting out on the water was something we did on weekends, and there was always a half-finished boat project in the basement or backyard. But in my early teens I started to become aware that maybe it wasn’t a world that everyone grew up in, and that getting to work alongside several generations of your own family is kind of a rare opportunity.”

“I began volunteering at Mystic’s boat livery when I was 13 or 14, but I was always more focused on a future museum career. Mine was a family of teachers, writers and librarians (my mother, aunt, and grandmother, to name a few), and that had an equally significant impact on my interest in historical research, storytelling, and helping people find what they’re looking for. Growing up in a museum town also sparked an interest in preservation, history and interpretation early on.”

Evelyn earned her Bachelors degree at Brown, double majoring in Studio Art and Art History. “My student jobs in the libraries at Brown had a much larger impact on my career path than my coursework,” she explains. “This was when I really started to get involved with digitization of archives. Digitization, photography, accessibility and preservation have continued to be a huge part of every museum job I’ve had since.”

“My grandad and I were very close, and in college I moved up to Maine for a semester to build a sixteen-foot Gartside-designed pulling boat with him. We were exactly sixty years and five days apart in age, and I was very lucky to get to have him as a grandfather a kid and then basically fifteen years of a relatively grown-up friendship before he died.”

After graduation, Evelyn was part of the team at Mystic Seaport Museum that restored the whaleship Charles W. Morgan for her historic 38th Voyage. “I was just an apprentice!” she chuckles. “It was an exciting time to be around the yard with this amazing crew. There were about fifty people, and every bench in the shop was full. There were so many talented folks to learn from who had been there forever, working patiently alongside a bunch of ‘kids.’ The most junior of us did a lot of the fastening, trunneling, caulking, painting; whatever was needed to support the planking crew. Sometimes we got pulled off to help with other things – moving flitches around the yard, or helping out with milling stock. I helped my dad with the transom rebuild, dubbing out this huge rider and helping with the tailfeathers, quarter knees and so on. It was a bit of a stretch coming from my student job in the special collections conservation lab at Brown, but to my mind it was just the far end of the ‘preservation’ spectrum I was interested in.”

Before joining HMM, Evelyn worked at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, and the MIT Museum in Cambridge. “At the Cooper-Hewitt, I was a small part of a large team photographing nearly 250,000 artifacts – virtually the entire collection! – in about 18 months. After that project ended I thought I’d like to get back to the maritime world, so I got in touch with Kurt Hasselbalch, Curator of the Hart Nautical Collection at MIT. He hired me to digitize (photographically scan) the museum’s collection of Herreshoff-related drawings. This was a huge project, and I was primarily responsible for some 13,000 oversized original drawings and plans from the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company’s drafting office, dating from the 1870s through 1945.”

“I joined HMM in 2016, and my first job was as a Collections and Digitization Specialist. They’d received a grant to start working on digitization and documentation. After the grant funds ran out, Executive Director Bill Lynn kept me on to work with the collection alongside our Registrar/Librarian/Archivist Norene Rickson. I was then promoted to Curatorial Associate and most recently to Curator. I do a little of everything, from exhibit development and installation to preventive conservation and photography, answering research requests, fielding donation requests, developing content for the website, and occasionally working on lectures and research projects.”

Founded in 1971, HHM is celebrating their Golden Jubilee. “So much planned!” Evelyn enthuses. “We have two very exciting projects for the history oriented – a digital exhibit of the N.G. Herreshoff Model Room launching in June, and a recent transition to a new collections database means our whole collection will be searchable via our website (herreshoff.org/50th/). That is set to launch this fall. There’s tons going on in our summer sailing programs and shop classes, and our lecture series will continue in its new digital format through the fall.”

A Providence resident, Evelyn relishes going for a sail when she can find the time. “I really love the perspective shift you get from being on the water and moving at a slower pace (I come from a camp cruising family, not a racing family!),” she says, “and the wildlife you encounter on the way if you’re lucky.” ■

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