In September, we were thrilled to welcome Michael Atwood Mason as our new Executive Director. Dr. Mason brings to the team proven leadership capabilities and a wealth of experience in the museum field. It was a pleasure to interview him and learn more about his inspirations and aspirations.
Rebecca Kilborne: Michael, we are so happy you are here at President Lincoln’s Cottage. You’ve had an illustrious career in the museum field, most recently serving as the Director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. What are you most proud of in your career?
Michael Atwood Mason: I am most proud of putting people at the center of my work in museums and heritage. From working with a team of community scholars on the Black Mosaic exhibition at the Anacostia Community Museum in the 1990s to building a new program devoted to cultural sustainability at Smithsonian Folklife, my work has always tried to support communities—especially vulnerable communities–in their efforts to document, preserve, and share their stories.
RK: I know you have a PhD in Folklore (which is very cool, by the way). How has this background influenced the way you view Lincoln?
MAM: Lincoln is undeniably a great American president, but he is also a great American folk hero. So in the stories we tell about him, we are rehearsing the values and vision that we hold dear as Americans. We love Lincoln because he expresses our deepest beliefs and ideals.
RK: What quality do you most admire in Abraham Lincoln?
MAM: As a parent and a patriot, the two qualities that I admire most are his gritty integrity and his endless curiosity.
RK: How do you envision the Cottage changing and growing under your leadership?
MAM: After its amazing staff, what intrigues me most about the Cottage is its multiple facets. We are dedicated to preservation and place. We are dedicated to education and inspiration. And we are dedicated to social justice. My hope is that we will continue these interrelated efforts as we elevate the Cottage and make it a leading voice for Lincoln’s life and legacy, just as our nation stands at a new crossroads.
RK: If you weren’t a museum director, what would you be?
MAM: A writer? An eco-psychologist? A dry-stone mason? I am drawn to many different things.
RK: What do you do when you’re not museum directing?
MAM: I love to cook for friends and host dinner parties. I love to walk—especially in Rock Creek Park—and observe the creatures that live there: I am particularly intrigued by the birds and the humans. I love to read and watch movies. I love to visit with my extended family. And I love to hang out with my thirteen-year-old: They teach me so much.
RK: Lincoln loved poetry. Do you have a favorite poem or line of poetry?
MAM: “The fierce urgency of now” spoken of by Dr. King in a speech during the March on Washington. Or perhaps Tolstoy’s “what then must we do”?
RK: What are words you live your life by?
MAM: Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano wrote in The Book of Embraces, “We are the sum of our efforts to change who we are.” I so appreciate this dynamic approach to personal, professional, and organizational identity.
RK: What are you reading right now?
MAM: Lincoln’s Sanctuary by Matthew Pinsker. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmer. Plus, I am almost always reading something by psychological genius C.G. Jung.
Read more about Michael Atwood Mason’s appointment here.