In the fall of 1982, I was a very green museum director at a small county museum. To bolster my skills, the board of directors sent me to a weeklong museum conference at Colonial Willamsburg in Virginia. I bought new clothes, and like Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” arrived on “campus” for orientation.
The reaction couldn’t be more like the one Elle received on her first day at Harvard: A kind of who-are-you-and-how-did-you-get-in chill.
We had roommates. Mine was nice but clearly had other things on her mind. She was an “older” woman married to a younger man, and trying to get pregnant. To that end, she took Robitussin every morning. (I won’t go into the details.) After that she slurped, yes, slurped her tea. We would usually eat breakfast together and I wouldn’t see her for the rest of the day.
I learned quite a few things that week, not all of them about museum management. I learned that men who graduated from Ivy League schools wore khaki pants and blue jean shirts, often with a knit tie, and conferences aren’t about learning but about showing how much you know. I learned never to make a statement without having facts and resources to back them up. Me, wrong, the smartest girl in sixth grade? It was a revelation. I learned I was by no means the smartest person in the room.
I didn’t help things. When someone asked me for directions to a restaurant a few of us had been to the day before, I couldn’t quite get it right. “What do you expect?” the questioner said derisively. “She’s from a small town in Tennessee.” Today, I would tell her what she could do with her geographic prejudice. Then, I merely blushed angrily.
The next day I had a glass of wine at lunch and ate my neighbor’s salad by mistake. She looked at me as if I had just draped my underpants over my head. I know which side the salad plate goes on, but the wine went straight to my head.
I went into the conference knowing I was shy and wasn’t very good at small talk. Didn’t matter. I couldn’t do anything for anyone, so few people talked to me at the after-dinner drunk fest, I mean cocktail hour. There also was some resentment among the larger museum staff, who thought small-town museums shouldn’t exist. We were taking away funding they should have, they told me, and our artifacts should be in their museums, not ours.
Despite the negativity, it was interesting to see people jockeying for position with the conference director. It was also interesting to see how, by Wednesday, they universally disliked him and began keeping their distance.
I did love Williamsburg, however. We got “backstage” tours of some of the buildings, special tours and favors. We visited an archeological dig overseen by men in khaki pants and denim shirts. We heard a slave re-enactor’s view of the horrendous Middle Passage and life as a slave in Williamsburg. The perfect facade crumbled when it was realized who built the buildings and the cost exacted. Until then, the question of slavery had been played down considerably.
When I left, I gratefully acknowledged I would never have to see those people again. I arrived at the small airport to wait for the puddle jumper that was taking me to a real airplane.
Sitting next to me was a very handsome older gentleman, who was glancing through a magazine. It was Kevin McCarthy, one of my favorite actors who starred in the original version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” He also was author Mary McCarthy’s brother.
I said hello, we exchanged some very small talk, then I let him go back to his reading. I was thrilled. It was like adding a very rare bird to my life list.
Jan Hearne can be reached at