HANDLE WITH CARE: Riley museum hires curator

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Marissa Purcell stands next to the desk used by Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley at the Riley Home in Greenfield. Purcell is the new museum curator. She will work closely with the Riley Old Home Society to care for historic artifacts in the home and neighboring museum. March 1, 2023.

GREENFIELD — The Riley Boyhood Home & Museum has hired a new curator — the first one the museum has had in over a decade.

Marissa Purcell starts work Feb. 21, bringing with her years of experience working at the Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana State Museum.

She’s had a fondness and appreciation for the works of James Whitcomb Riley since she was a young girl.

“I want to help spread the word about Riley and get kids interested in him,” she said.

Having grown up in Irvington, Purcell has fond memories of visiting the Riley Festival and downtown Greenfield businesses with her family.

Now 27 and living in Fishers, she said she’ll never forget the first time she visited the Riley museum in Indianapolis as a fourth grader at a private Lutheran school.

“That year we were learning about state history and I had a teacher — Mrs. Johnson — who had such a passion for history,” she recalled.

“I will never forget her rendition of (Riley’s poem) ‘The Bear Story,’ which she recited when we got back from the museum. She read it in the Hoosier dialect the best she could. The way she read it and narrated it just really grabbed me,” said Purcell.

The next year, she visited Riley’s boyhood home in Greenfield with her sister and mother, who then home-schooled the girls.

“I thought it was so cool that there was this famous guy I’ve been learning about and here is the house where he grew up,” said Purcell. “It was the first time I kind of realized that everybody has their own childhood experience.”

When she walked through the Greenfield home and museum again last month, as part of the interview process for the curator position, she experienced Riley’s boyhood home from a new perspective.

“As an adult, I was struck by the homeyness of it. I could envision the Rileys living there day to day,” she said.

It was her appreciation for Riley that drew her to apply to become the museum’s curator.

“Not only was Riley known as the Hoosier Poet, he’s one of the biggest literary figures we’ve had come out from Indiana,” she said. “His writing and the Hoosier dialect he uses really captures the perspective of his time. I really think his work is enduring and continues to endure today because of what he wrote, about nature and childhood and things like that. I think people can find something that speaks to them in his work and apply it to their lives today.”

Purcell feels it’s vital to carry on Riley’s stories, as well as the Hoosier dialect he used to tell them.

“(The dialect) was an important part of us and something we can’t really lose. It’s important to look back on it and see how we’ve evolved,” she said.

Greenfield parks director Ellen Kuker said Purcell rose to the top of applicants for the Riley museum curator job.

“She comes to us with a lot of experience in exhibits and displays, and she has a natural love of history,” said Kuker, who was thrilled to obtain the city funding necessary to hire a curator.

“When I joined the parks department in 2012, we didn’t have anybody in that capacity, and then slowly over the next 10 years we were able to get a part-time coordinator and then a couple years later a full-time coordinator, and we’re now growing that role back into a curator position,” she said. “Hiring a curator is just the natural next step in the evolution of the museum that means so much to our community. In order to continue to keep the museum relevant, we need someone like that at the helm, and Marissa has a strong background in programming and artifact handling as well as an appreciation for Riley, which makes her perfect for the job.”

Purcell briefly worked as an exhibit facilitator at the Indiana State Museum before working three years for the Indiana Historical Society, two years in visitor services and one as education coordinator.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Indianapolis, where she minored in experience design.

“Experience design is a new and upcoming field that basically focuses on programming as well as creating and designing interactive exhibits,” said Purcell, who is excited to now focus her efforts on Greenfield’s most famous native son.

“I really feel like the historic people and places in a community are at the heart and the root of a town, and I want to be a part of that. I also want to make sure those roots stay firm to help the community grow,” she said.