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New Driehaus Museum Director Seeks to Boost Collection's Profile

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The old Nickerson residence sits at the corner of Erie and Wabash in River North's Cathedral District, nearly hidden among the high-rise condos. Built by banker Samuel Nickerson between 1879 and 1883, the three-story stone mansion was once the biggest private home in Chicago. Investment mogul Richard Driehaus bought it in 2003, restored it, and turned it into a museum. The building now houses his art collection and preserves the a piece of the Gilded Age.

Though the Driehaus Museum opened to the public in June 2008, it's maintained a low profile. That may change with the appointment of Lise Dubé-Scherr, 44, as its new director. Formerly deputy director at another historic house museum—the Mount, a bucolic estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, built by author Edith Wharton—Dubé-Scherr discussed her plans for the Driehaus.

First of all, welcome to Chicago.

Thank you. I've been here 48 hours now!

What brought you to the Driehaus Museum?

I remember saying, years ago, if I ever moved back to a city, I would love to live in Chicago. So, when I saw this job posted, I thought "Wow, this is really interesting," because it combines my interest in historic house museums and my experience in art museums. And I knew this was a new museum. I knew they were just starting to get operations in place, and I thought, given my experience on the operational side, that might be something they were interested in.

And is it? What is the Driehaus board of trustees most interested in? Getting the museum's operations off the ground?

Getting a stable operating plan in place and also developing programming and exhibitions and really engaging audiences. We're trying to broaden our reach, engage more people, make more people aware of the museum and why it's special and unique. My background is in museum education, so my whole career has really been anchored in how you connect people with art objects—or with historic houses—and how you create meaningful, relevant experiences that resonate.

The Driehaus retains a lot of its original furnishings, but a big part of the collection came from Richard Driehaus himself. Don't his pieces compromise the house's authenticity?

I think we can look at a broader picture. We're living through our iPods and through our computers, and everything is coming to us through a screen. We need to have authentic experiences where we can come and see and smell and be surrounded by the real as opposed to the virtual. I think that's where historic house museums and art collections are so important to our world right now. The house was never meant to be a time capsule, but it helps people understand a period of time and how people were living. And Mr. Driehaus's collection helps reinforce those themes and messages.

How do you get the public to relate to the class of superrich people who've lived here?

I don't think it's much of a stretch. If you look at a show on HGTV called Selling New York—and there was that MTV show called Cribs—we have a fascination for how the superrich currently live. It's no different for people who are interested in history and are interested in this time period.

What about the other class of people who lived in this house? The servants, the staff, the people who helped maintain the household?

Absolutely. There were many different people who lived here over the years. There were different staff that helped support it—all the craftsman, interior designers, architects, all the different people who had a hand in not only the creation of this house but the running of it on a day-to-day basis. One of the more popular areas on the tour is the servants' area. People have many questions about that, and so we'll definitely be looking to share that story, whether it's through a guided tour or through programs.

What are your plans in terms of programming for the museum?

We're just starting to have discussions about that, but I think there are many different themes that we can look to and many different ways that we can bring people in. We can do music, we can do readings, we can do living history performances. It's going to depend on the audiences we're looking to engage. Also, our exhibitions will form a focus, so we'll want to spin programming off that. We want to not only have people come for a onetime experience, but we want to create an opportunity for repeat visitation. For people to develop an affinity with the museum.

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