Erin Manning, executive director of the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, begins many mornings taking in Whitehall through the lens of a visitor. She delights in the views from the south portico: the ancient coconut groves, the undulating water that separates the island from downtown West Palm Beach, and the pavilion reminiscent of Gilded Age railway palaces. She feels connected with Henry Flagler as she moves into the library where he spent much of his time, and continues her own education upstairs alongside museum-goers in the Flagler-Kenan History Room.
“Seeing this place wake up every day is such an exciting thing,” says Manning. “[The Flaglers] would invite people to be in the music room [or] the drawing room, and to have incredible meals and experiences, and we’re still able to do that. Hopefully, we will be forever.”
On June 5, visitors can roam Whitehall free of charge as part of Founder’s Day, an annual remembrance of the museum’s founding in 1959. For Manning, the event represents her mission to welcome as many people as possible into the remarkable environment Flagler once called home.
Manning has spent her entire career in museums, most recently as the executive director of the Historical Society of Princeton. Since starting at the Flagler in February 2016, she’s embraced her focus on the Gilded Age and Flagler in particular. She’s now looking for ways to incorporate Flagler’s best qualities—his entrepreneurialism and charitability—into the museum’s present and future.
In terms of philanthropy, Manning has introduced a program entitled Flagler’s Spirit, with the goal of opening up the museum to individuals who might never have the chance to visit. In November, the Flagler hosted a Thanksgiving dinner in its Grand Ballroom for foster children from KidSanctuary Campus. Next, Manning is planning on-site picnics in conjunction with Feeding South Florida.
Manning hopes to devote similar efforts to fostering entrepreneurs who share Flagler’s drive and creativity. She’d love to see the museum become a hub for innovation, whether that be hosting conferences or being a home base for think tanks.
“There are opportunities down the road for us to welcome people who have ideas and collaborate with them,” she says. “How great would it be for innovators of the world to convene here?” After all, as Manning notes, that’s what the Flagler is all about.
PBI recently spoke with Manning about her approach to her role as executive director and her goals for the future of the Flagler.
PBI: What led you to take on the position of executive director at the Flagler? What attracted you to the job?
Manning: I was invited to apply and was thrilled to come down here and meet with everyone. I found the leadership to be incredible. The board of trustees is so committed to this institution, the stories it tells, the preservation of White Hall, and the story of Henry Flagler, which is just so appealing in terms of commitment, innovation, and spirit of generosity. When the offer came up, the whole idea of moving to Florida with my husband was just such an incredible opportunity. It wasn’t difficult in terms of the change in weather. I felt I was at a very good point with my previous position at the Historical Society of Princeton. We had just moved the institution from an historic house to an historic farmstead, so we had expanded it and I felt as if I had achieved wonderful things with that institution and this opportunity came up at the right time.
What key lessons did you take with you from your experience running the Historical Society of Princeton?
Understanding that we serve a wide variety of people and we need to always be expanding that audience. Never take the visitor for granted. Never assume we will always be popular, that we’ll always have a line out the front door. I think we need to wake up every day and work really hard to be kind and understanding to our guest and their needs.
You’ve been at the Flagler for more than a year now. What have you learned in that time and how have you adjusted course?
I’ve learned that it’s really, really good to have a lot of one-on-one meetings with members of the community. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting so many kind people who are interested in the museum and love it as a real cultural mainstay and icon. … I’ve also realized that sometimes the people who live closest to you are the ones who maybe need to be re-invited. We’re starting to spend some time re-engaging with our neighbors, so to speak. We serve so many people from around the country and around the globe, but we’re really trying to reconnect with neighbors here on the island as well, which has been really fun.
How does life at the Flagler Museum change during the summer months?
We try to use the summer as a time to regroup as a team and plan. One of my goals is to stay very focused on the traditional season, but I would love to spread us out and be more of a 12-month institution, too. I think it’s a trend in our area. This summer, we’re going to offer some surprise events we’re calling Pop Ups at the Flagler Museum. We’re not going to announce the date or what it is, but for anyone who’s on the property at a particular time there might be a pop-up musical group or a pop-up plein air painting workshop or a pop-up serving of lemonade—something that just gets people to go, “Oh my gosh, what a special experience. I’m so glad I’m here during these hot summer months.”
What take-away themes about the Gilded Age and Flagler’s story do you hope the museum conveys to visitors?
That anyone can and should strive to achieve anything they want. Whether it’s great personal wealth or great personal gain in terms of new experiences and new ideas—all of those things are what we celebrate today. Also, focusing on children and children’s education is just so important. We want to fill up this house with kids every single day who will look around and go, “Look at this place, what an incredible place for me to come and visit. How can it inspire me to go out and pursue my dreams and to try to do good in the world?” We’re looking at what we can do to share that experience and encourage people to think big.
How would you like to see the Flagler Museum grow during your tenure?
We believe we can never have too many members or too many visitors, so it really is about expanding who we serve and how we serve them. I also think that as we expand to a 12-month platform, slowly over time there will be all sorts of new programing and new collaborations. Flagler’s story is an international story, so who are the other Henry Flaglers out there? And, who else is talking about them? And, how can we collaborate? Given all that Henry Flagler did, we want to explore what can we do here to set up new opportunities to use the museum as sort of a base for their operations, whether it’s a think tank or something related to some new invention or some new innovation in the world. That’s what the Flagler is all about.
* This interview has been edited and condensed