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As Bill Brown and Sally Hill prepared in 2020 to retire after 32 years of running the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, a hole opened that not just any peg could fill. A search for their replacement demonstrated the challenge of finding someone with the passion and know-how to lead the organization, known for teaching children creative problem-solving and technical concepts through hands-on, ingeniously designed mechanical projects. Then came the pandemic.

“The near collapse of the Museum as Covid-19 festered and the suspended search for a new Director made a 2020 transition un-thinkable,” Brown wrote to museum supporters in an email in June of this year. “There were days in the last 14 months on which I was the only person at the Museum—not unlike the many quiet days in 1988—the year I arrived. Quiet days: time to think: how did we get here, a million wooden wheels later?”

The museum did not collapse. In March of 2020, Brown and Hill put the workshop to bed, not knowing how long that sleep would last, and donated all of its N95 masks to New Haven’s EMTs. In the summer of 2020, they retooled EWM’s popular camp to run virtually. When schools reopened, EWM brought its programs to them instead of bringing students—with a few exceptions—to the workshop. And, having combed through 200 applications, the museum’s Board of Directors found its new leader in its own back yard: Ryan Paxton, who’d been managing the production shop since 2017.

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After 20 long months, the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop will reopen to the public the day after Thanksgiving, complete with its traditional working display of American Flyer trains designed and manufactured by New Haven’s A.C. Gilbert Company. Paxton is already at the helm, supported by a team of six, most of whom have been with EWM for years, and about 70 middle school and high school apprentices, who are the primary instructors for visiting school groups, drop-in visitors and summer camp.

Paxton seems custom-designed to take on the job of ushering the museum-workshop and its programs into the future. The grandson of an architect and a Boeing machinist, and himself a potter, tinkerer and experiential learner, Paxton is finding his own feet as he fills Brown’s and Hill’s shoes. “Initially I was like, ‘Oh, how do I do what Bill did?’ and I was driving myself totally crazy because nobody can do Bill but Bill,” he says. “I realized he set a very good example for how this place runs, but I do have to make it my own.”

The foundation is already set. Paxton demonstrates his own love for the place and its people as he gives a tour of the main building, built for the ACME Wire Company on a site once occupied by Eli Whitney’s armory. Bill Brown’s original workshop, where projects were dreamed up and constructed before that function spilled into what had been a traditional museum, is lined with high shelves holding clear plastic bins of casters and gears, tennis balls and golf tees, wooden pegs, ridged dowels, spools, tiny metal cylinders, clothespins. If you can see it, Paxton says, you can be inspired by it.

In the larger design arts studio, where many a New Haven child has donned safety glasses and screwed, hammered, glued and wired together parts to make something new, Paxton and his staff are cleaning up display models, taking inventory and getting reorganized. The beloved train display fills the front room, its track traveling between wooded hills and past miniature buildings, people, signals and signs. This year, a new remote feature—a camera on the front of one moving engine—will stream video for virtual visitors. In addition, an ambitious renovation of a large animatronic model of the historic armory, long in disrepair, is underway. Walk-in, make-your-own projects will be back as well. Paxton hints only that the initial offering will involve gears. And soon, Brown’s original workshop will become a public space, “bringing the design process closer to the hands of kids” with a laser cutter: “You draw a line, and then the laser cuts that line,” Paxton says, emphasizing its simplicity.

A self-described quiet kid who learned by observation, Paxton grew up in Seattle and was the first in his family to attend college, excepting his architect grandfather. He dropped out of his first college—“I couldn’t afford to go to school without knowing what it was I wanted to study”—and went to a nearby community college instead, where a pottery class changed his life. “It was the first really structured workshop learning that I had,” he says. His passion for creating with clay led to teaching gigs, pottery-making jobs and eventually a BFA from the University of Oregon. Newly graduated, Paxton moved to New York City with his backpack and a cot to “be an artist.” He knew no one on the entire East Coast.

“It was a pretty difficult landing,” Paxton says of that time. He took adjacent work as a set carpenter and eventually became the chief designer for Standard Transmission Productions, creating retail displays including the iconic Christmas windows at the Macy’s flagship. New Haven entered the picture along with his wife, Jacquelyn Gleisner. Paxton and Gleisner met in Brooklyn, but shortly afterward she moved to New Hampshire to teach. Her sister’s place in New Haven became the couple’s weekend meeting spot and, eventually, their new home.

A local acquaintance steered Paxton toward the job listing for an Eli Whitney Museum shop manager. “I came here, and I thought, ‘Okay, this place is a little kooky,’” Paxton recalls. It was a weekend, and in addition to visitors, there were 30 or 40 apprentices at work. It didn’t take him long to decide: “This is something special.”

Brown and Hill were honored by the Arts Council of Greater New Haven with a lifetime achievement award earlier this month. Daunting as their legacy may be for the new leader, Paxton is growing comfortable with his role. After all, he says, “continual reinvention” is a given at EWM. “We don’t stop thinking here. That’s what we teach, too,” he says. “If you look at the history of Bill and Sally here, it looks nothing like it did when they started… It’s always going to change.”

Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop
915 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
(203) 777-1833 | manager@eliwhitney.org
Website | Reopening (11/26) and Train Show Details

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features Ryan Paxton. Image 2 features detail of the model train landscape being prepared for the annual American Flyer exhibition.

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