In Sea Cliff, a museum in motion

As director Sara Reres retires, Courtney Chambers takes over

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Sara Reres grew up in Brooklyn in the mid-20th century, where her parents exposed her to the borough’s many cultural sites. Her father took her to the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza, where she explored the shelves in search of books, and she sketched in the Brooklyn Museum’s galleries, where she took art classes.

She was an English major at City College, but also studied arts and science. She even dabbled in modern dance. She could best be described as an artist.

When she and her husband were looking to relocate from their 1870s brownstone in Carroll Gardens, she insisted on Sea Cliff. Its historic nature had captivated her ever since she was a child, she said. During the summers, she visited family who lived there. “I just thought it was so beautiful,” she said of the village. “Sea Cliff has a really interesting history for a very small town.”

The Rereses moved to Sea Cliff in 1993. At a party one night, Sara met Pru Hurley and Jean Steward, two co-founders of the Sea Cliff Village Museum, on 10th Avenue. After settling in to her 1906 Victorian, she started volunteering at the museum almost immediately. Twenty-six years later, she recently retired as its executive director.

From past to present

Reres, 70, joked that she worked on “the first computer invented” when she digitally recorded all the museum’s collections at the start of her tenure in 1993, which took her about a year. She was also in charge of publicity and bookkeeping, and in 2003 she became the museum’s curator. Two years later, she was named executive director. Both are paid positions.

In her role, Reres tried to see the village through the eyes of residents both past and present. “Once in a while, someone would come in that was the most interesting person I had ever met and would tell me stories of the old days,” she said. “Those characters I’m going to miss.”

She said she would also miss the documents, artifacts, photos and knickknacks that tell the story of Sea Cliff. Most were donated by residents. “Their treasures could’ve been passed on to their children, but instead they decided to give them to the museum,” Reres said. “My dream was to keep the collections out on permanent display. I think if people saw the things residents have donated over the years, they’d be thrilled.

“You have to know where the place you live has been before you,” she added.

The new director

At the village’s annual organizational meeting on April 1, Courtney Chambers, 42, was sworn in as the museum’s new executive director. Originally from Happy Camp, Calif., she moved to Sea Cliff with her husband and children in 2015 after living in Europe. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, but her love of the subject dates back long before college. “In fourth grade, I read my history textbook all the way through,” she said.

Chambers’s love for smaller museums developed when she was an undergradute, working for Stow House, in California — the headquarters of the Goleta Valley Historical Society. She said she was impressed to find a local history museum in Sea Cliff, and was amazed by its collections. “We’re in a very lucky position, since everyone’s very proud to live here,” she said, “so we want to try to get more people to come see us.”

“Courtney is going to do a great job as the new director,” read a statement from the museum’s board of directors. “Not only is she extremely experienced, she is so kind and easy to work with. Plus, she has a lot of great ideas to make the museum even more inviting to families and Sea Cliff residents.”

Chambers’s master’s thesis focused on oral history and public memory, and she said she hoped to start programs in both at the museum. She also envisions children touring the museum using scavenger-hunt maps, and offering them historical-themed do-it-yourself crafts. And she imagines experts speaking about Sea Cliff’s history as part of a lecture series, and would like to organize art receptions at which residents would view the works of their friends and neighbors.

“I want it to become a central part of the community,” Chambers said of the museum. “It’s important to make sure we remember and celebrate our past, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Looking ahead, and behind

Reres said she had hoped Chambers would be chosen as her successor. Before she retired, she said, “I would tell her to follow me around. She has a real interest in history, and I think she’s going to be great.”

The Sea Cliff Village Museum will temporarily close after Memorial Day weekend for renovations in order to move its entrance from 10th Avenue to Sea Cliff Avenue. It is scheduled to reopen in September.