New Leadership, New Energy: KD Montgomery at Essex Shipbuilding Museum


COVID brought countless challenges to local museums.  But it also marked a shift in leadership at some key museums on Cape Ann, with new directors taking the administrative helm at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, the Manchester Historical Museum, and the Schooner Adventure in Gloucester.  It's brought a new sense of energy and a fresh perspective on the local museums.  Let's get to know KD Montgomery ...

KD MONTGOMERY arrived at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum in 2021, and she wasted no time making things happen at the 85-year-old museum.

At 30 years old, Montgomery is one of the youngest administrative leaders at any museum on Cape Ann.  Her experience runs deep, especially in historic boats and education and boat building, which is exactly why the Essex Shipbuilding Museum is perfect for her.  

As a teenager in Gloucester, KD didn’t embrace traditional formats of high school.  That’s a bit of a euphemism, but in KD’s case it’s true.  Luckily, she found an alternative in Action, Inc.’s Compass Youth Program, and their hands-on science curriculum at Maritime Gloucester, led by Mary Kay Taylor and Dave Brown. 

That program proved a key introduction to boats and engineering—specifically working on the Schooner Ardelle, the 58-foot, 49 passenger sailing vessel built and captained by Harold Burnham.  That experience, she said, was the beginning of a deep love of ships, of shipbuilding, and education using both at the Ardelle and Maritime Gloucester. Her management experience matured in her role as Education and Laboratory Coordinator for GMGI’s Gloucester Biotechnology Academy. 

When she was young, KD says her family needed a hand up.  Eager to give back, at 13 she began volunteering at community non-profits, such as local organizations like the Art Space and later went on to work for the Cape Ann Art Haven, YMCA, Action, Inc., Maritime Gloucester and the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute.  It made a difference.  

At 19, she was serving on the Board of Directors of Action, Inc.  KD said she understood that “when somebody gives you a hand out of the hole, the first thing you should do is help the next person.” 

Years later, when the Shipbuilding Museum needed a new Operations Manager after the departure of Chris Stepler to the Peabody Essex Museum, it was Dave Brown who made the connection.  He recommended KD Montgomery. In 2021, she joined the museum as Operations Manager, working well with the long-established staff and volunteers, including Natasha Taylor, Becky Axelrod, Jim Witham, Charles Seavey, Kurt Wilhem, among others.  In 2022 she was named as the museum’s Executive Director, the first to hold that title for the museum in over 25 years.

Soon after she arrived, Montgomery was given an application to participate in the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit, “Crossroads: Change in Rural America” celebrating rural life in all corners of the country.  She completed the extensive application, and it worked.  Months later, the Smithsonian announced the Essex Shipbuilding Museum would be the first Massachusetts community (the first coastal one too) to be selected in the program’s history.  It’s an important milestone.  And a prestigious one.  The exhibit opens next month and will run through October.

“Over the years the museum had become something of another home to me,” she said.  

“A place where like-minded people come together to celebrate and discuss the history, culture, and process behind traditional Essex Shipbuilding and the community that supports it.”

The Essex Shipbuilding Museum secured a grant to start renovation planning for its unique site on the Essex River Basin, starting with the Waterline Center that KD hopes can become a true community resource and education center that can host programming.  That type of initiative will require access to larger funding sources to supplement its

large base of grass roots supporters.  She is also looking to the museum’s educational programming to expand from its existing partners, which includes the Topsfield Vocational Academy among others, to build a purposeful, “holistic” approach to teaching.

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