Nicole Webb

“I remember my 8-year-old self thinking: This is what I want to do.”

– Nicole Webb

Kelsey Wardwell/Missoulian

The sense of destiny started back in grade school in Michigan for Nicole Webb.

It led her, at age 24, to the position of curator of collections at Missoula County’s history museum.

“I was really into ancient Egypt and history in general,” said Webb, now 26.

“I came across the word ‘anthropology’ and I remember getting the dictionary out, pre-Google.”

She fell in love with the concept of studying people, what they do and why they do it.

“I remember my 8-year-old self thinking: This is what I want to do,” Webb said. “Every moment from schools to careers to jobs I’ve always geared myself

to becoming what I am today. You can ask my mom... It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do.”

That’s what led her to applying for internships at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula and the Missoula Art Museum four years ago when her fiancé, Dean Foster, applied for graduate school at the University of Montana. Even before Foster was accepted, the historical museum had signed Webb up for its only paid internship position.

She spent the year inventorying Missoula publisher Stan Cohen’s diverse collection of papers and artifacts that Cohen has willed to the county museum. Webb counts Cohen as her most influential mentor as she dived into Missoula County history.

“The stories that he knows and the people he knows and the objects he has in his warehouse could have been Missoula’s history exhibit all on its own,” she said.

That exhibit, “Growing the Garden City: Missoula’s First 150 Years,” opened at the museum in April for a two-year run.

Webb became interim curator in June 2011, days after her 24th birthday, at the recommendation of her predecessor, Jason Bain. By September, after a search process, the “interim” tag was removed.

“She just continued to awe us in everything she did,” said the museum’s executive director, Bob Brown, who retired this spring.

Webb’s first major exhibit was a physical display of some of the more than 650 World War II posters the museum has, but she added a new twist. She fitted all of them with bar codes that make the entire collection available on smart phones.

New to Missoula and its history, Webb flung herself into preparing “Growing the Garden City” with typical zest.

“I crash-coursed myself. I read every single book that has anything to do with Missoula,” she recalled.

The exhibit, which Webb is quick to note was a collaborative effort and not a one-woman job, is a potential award-winner. It’s garnered rave reviews so far.

“With the wood and the feel she brings to it, it’s not that dry, static history exhibit any more,” Brown said.

Still, there lingered a fear when the exhibit opened April 12.

“What if I leave somebody out, or what if I don’t tell the story right?” she said. “That’s kind of the nerve-wracking thing of this job is I’m telling an expert’s story and I’m certainly not an expert.”

Brown, she said, “really helped me in recognizing that this is the museum’s story, this is what the museum has chosen to tell. That’s something that I’ll definitely take with me on any exhibit that I do.”

Brown feels Webb’s energy, enthusiasm and innovation will be a good match for that of the museum’s young incoming director, Matt Lautzenheiser, who starts July 1.

“The potential for that kind of partnership – I’m excited for it,” said Brown. “I’m excited for her. She has taken the museum to new heights.”

And Webb has done it at an age when many are just getting their careers off the ground.

“I have had to kind of fight my way through some battles with people who might not trust someone in my position because I’m so young,” Webb admitted. “But I’ve wanted to do this for so long. I know this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and I’ve definitely taken the time to prove to myself that I can do it and want to do it.”

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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