GREENFIELD — It’s been one year since the Riley Boyhood Home & Museum hired curator Marissa Purcell, and she’s been making a big impact on the local institution ever since.

As a curator, she’s been trained how to manage the acquisition, storage and exhibit of historic artifacts like those found in the Greenfield museum, which is run by the Greenfield Parks Department.

When the previous director resigned, Greenfield Parks director Ellen Kuker said the decision was made to replace that person with a curator specially trained to manage the museum’s unique collection related to Greenfield’ most famous native son, the poet James Whitcomb Riley.

Marissa Purcell looks over one of the piano’s at the Riley Home in Greenfield. Purcell is its first museum curator, who will work closely with the Riley Old Home Society to care for historic artifacts in the home and neighboring museum. March 1, 2023. Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

“Marissa was the obvious choice. She understands the museum environment. She has experience and the background to ensure artifacts are handled properly, but it’s her conscientious approach to all things Riley Home and Museum that has made the most impact,” said Kuker.

“She works well with the Riley Old Home Society and is bringing in new and fresh exhibit ideas. It’s her attention to details that is elevating us in the museum world,” she said.

The Riley Boyhood Home & Museum consists of two adjacent homes at the intersection of Main Street and Riley Avenue in downtown Greenfield.

Riley’s boyhood home was built by his father, Reuben Riley, a prominent attorney and skilled carpenter.

The adjacent museum was a home owned by friends of James Whitcomb Riley — Don and Minnie Belle Mitchell — who purchased the home from James Whitcomb Riley.

“It was Minnie Belle who led the charge to save (Riley’s) house next door because of his notoriety. She was instrumental in preserving the home as a means for celebrating the significance of James Whitcomb Riley,” said Purcell.

“James Whitcomb Riley was such a big celebrity of his time, and I think his poetry can still speak to us today,” she said.

It’s important to keep his legacy alive by sharing not only his poetry, said Purcell, but recognizing the huge impact he made in both Greenfield and Indianapolis.

“It’s important for people to know why the name Riley is so important,” she said, pointing out that Riley Children’s Hospital and Central Library in Indianapolis were started through a trust Riley built.

“It’s really important to know he left us such a legacy,” said the curator, who thinks the impact Riley made in his hometown of Greenfield is equally significant.

His link to the city is not only celebrated through the annual Riley Festival each fall, but through the hundreds of schoolchildren and other visitors who stop by the Riley Boyhood Home and Museum each year.

Purcell has spent the last year getting acclimated to how the museum is run and the programming that takes place throughout the year.

“Now that I’ve been here for a year I’ve got a better feel of where I want to take the programming into the future,” she said.

“I’d like to keep some programs we have but maybe also expand to some programs that are a little bit more welcoming of different age groups, like families and a younger audience, so I’m currently working on those.”

Her team of five Riley Home hostesses have nothing but positive things to say about the job Purcell has done leading the museum over the past year.

“Every director brings their own unique talent and creativity to the job. One of Marissa’s real skills is that she’s a very good researcher. She does an unbelievable job of drilling down, and you can tell she enjoys it,” said longtime hostess Mary Greenan.

“She’s really passionate about Riley and about his life, and she has a passion for introducing people to Riley’s life,” she said. “She’s got a lot of talent and is extremely creative. You give her a topic, and within a few minutes she’s come up with a million ideas to support it.”

Purcell has committed the past year to studying not only the home and museum but Riley himself.

“Mr. Riley continues to surprise me. I learn something new about him each day,” she said. “It’s like peeling back an onion one layer at a time.”

Purcel knew she wanted to become a historian ever since the fourth grade, when her teacher focused heavily on Indiana state history.

“My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson, did a really good job of instilling a love of history in me,” she said.

“I liked learning about what happened in the past that led up to where we are at this point. You can learn a lot from what happened in the past to understand why certain things might be the way they are today,” she said.

Growing up in Irvington, 15 miles west of Greenfield, Purcel always had a love for James Whitcomb Riley’s poetry.

She considers it an honor to now be in charge of maintaining the artifacts in his boyhood home.

Purcell previously worked as the education coordinator at Indiana history society before coming into her current role as Riley home curator.

She earned a degree in history from the University of Indianapolis before landing her first job at the Indiana Historical Society, where she helped students learn how to research history.

She now enjoys sharing the history of Riley and the impact he made as the national poet laureate of his time.

As a historian and curator, Purcell appreciates the fact that the Riley Boyhood & Museum have been preserved over time and continue to be open to the public.

As she enters her second year at the museum, Purcell said she’s focused on enhancing programming in the coming year.