Mabel Donnelly, a Guiding Force at the Museum
Mabel Donnelly was the Museum’s supervisor and first employee—a longtime school librarian and music teacher who was tapped for the position by the mayor of Yonkers, Ulrich Weisendanger. Between April 1924 and June 1926, she single-handedly recorded some 5,000 artworks, historical objects, and scientific specimens. Additionally, she sketched a detailed floor plan of Glenview, evaluating each room’s strengths and weaknesses for Museum use and suggesting which objects to display in them. Donnelly was also involved in many of the Museum’s activities with the public, including teaching nature studies to children, speaking to adults at special events, and helping found the Women’s Auxiliary, a group of volunteers who helped bring the community into the Museum.
Although Donnelly did not have the official title “curator,” she essentially acted as one, as well as administrator, until William Berkeley was hired in 1926 as the Museum Director. Given the era, society likely would not have accepted that a woman could lead an institution on a permanent basis. Nevertheless, a history of the Museum written that year says of Donnelly: “The industry, efficiency and taste that she has displayed in the execution of her exceedingly important and onerous duties entitle her to the warmest thanks of this community.”
Donnelly retired in 1947 after 23 years of service to the Museum. “She really cared about what she did,” says Donnelly’s great-great niece, Amy Thomas. “She was dedicated to education,” adds George Morrison, Donnelly’s grand-nephew. “Over the course of our history, many women have served as curator,” says Laura Vookles, Chair of the Curatorial Department who has been with the Museum since 1985. “Whether I am researching the collection, planning the restoration of Glenview or even discussing our mission, Mabel Donnelly is never far from my mind. In a way, I feel like I knew her. She cast a long shadow, and I am proud to be standing in it.”
Image courtesy the Donnelly Family: David and George Morrison, Amy Thomas, and Lisa Wilson-Osborne