Where Historians Work: Q&A with Anne Petersen of Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation

“I went on to the doctorate because I didn’t want a ceiling on what I could achieve as a historian.” ~ Dr. Anne Petersen, Executive Director, Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation

Anne PetersenWelcome back to the latest installment of “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America.” Today, we venture westward to California to feature a Q&A with Dr. Anne Petersen, the Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. Katy and Anne discuss the dynamic history interpretation taking place at SBTHP, which focuses on the diverse cultures and communities that have called Santa Barbara home for centuries. The pair also consider the complexities of navigating a “dual identity” in graduate school when choosing to pursue an array of history careers.

THE JUNTO: Thank you for speaking with us today, Anne. Tell us about the work that you do at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP). How does it relate – or not relate – to the research you undertook in your doctoral studies?

ANNE PETERSEN: SBTHP is a county-wide preservation nonprofit founded in 1963. The organization’s flagship project is the operation of El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park (SHP) for the State of California. El Presidio SHP is located on the site of the Spanish fort founded in 1782 that evolved into the modern city of Santa Barbara. In addition to El Presidio SHP, SBTHP owns and operates the 19th-century adobe home of the Presidio’s fifth commandant as a house museum, and operates the site of two stone mill buildings affiliated with Mission Santa Inés for California State Parks. In order to manage and interpret these properties we have staff departments that support a research library, curatorial collections and exhibitions, programs, archaeology, visitor services, accounting, maintenance, fundraising and membership.

I began working for SBTHP in a curatorial role while pursuing on my doctorate in Public History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When I finished my exams I was promoted to Associate Director and in that position I managed the library, programs, exhibits and collections. I have been in the position of executive director for one year, and I oversee all of the organization’s operations and liaison with the board of directors.

My doctoral program in Public History emphasized research and a theoretical foundation in public history work. I worked at SBTHP throughout my program and it was the best of both worlds for me, to be strengthening my academic knowledge about the field while working as a practitioner. Continually switching perspectives helped me be more thoughtful in both of my roles. My dissertation research involved case studies of two California Mission towns from 1800 to 1940. One of those towns was Santa Barbara, so I studied my predecessors in local historical preservation and interpretation. I have developed a perspective as a result that I am a history-maker in a long line of local history-makers, as much a product of my time and experience, as those who came before me.

JUNTO: What was the journey after graduate school like for you? Can you reflect on some of the choices you confronted when you made the decision to work for the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation?

PETERSEN: My long relationship with SBTHP paralleled my doctorate experience, and I made a few key choices along the way to continue with the organization. I began working there at a moment when the reconstruction of the Spanish fort, the major project of the 1980s and 1990s, was reaching an inevitable pinnacle. In my initial role, I was of course a participant in the work, but also an intrigued observer of the organization’s model. As I finished my coursework and delved into my dissertation, I began to find a way forward with my own interests inside the organization. I saw opportunity for SBTHP to not only pursue preservation and reconstruction efforts in the park but also prioritize the visitor experience and community engagement. This shift in emphasis would require a cultural change within the organization, and I didn’t know at the time if SBTHP was interested in embracing a new direction forward.

A couple of important things coalesced between 2007 and 2009 that drove my decision to continue. As I reached the end stages of my dissertation I considered my career choices and I had a pretty clear idea about what the work I wanted to do. I re-committed to SBTHP when the organization created a new position for me as associate director for historical resources, which represented an investment in the areas of the organization that directly served the public, and the board agreed to prioritize interpretive planning.

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Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, SBTHP

The organization also acquired a significant property during that time, Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, a 1947 Chinese restaurant run by the same Chinese American family for two generations. This property stood within the footprint of the Spanish Presidio site, but was culturally important in its own right. It provided a new and exciting opportunity to broaden our scope.  And, in 2008, of course, the recession hit, resulting in the dramatic reworking of our funding landscape—ending traditional streams for capital projects and shifting many foundations away from arts and culture to basic needs causes. If we were going to survive in a sustainable way, the organization was going to have to embrace to an outward-facing focus and engage and serve the local community. This was the kind of work I wanted to be doing.

During those next several tough years we pulled back on capital projects, created an interpretive plan and began designing new visitor center exhibits that integrated the shift in direction from our planning efforts. Key to this shift was the concept that the area in and around the Presidio had always been a diverse place occupied by waves of immigrant groups who mixed with earlier residents, and that today the thriving commercial and cultural resources of the Presidio Neighborhood is the result of generations of contributions by all those residents. Anyone who visits, we are confident, can find a something resonant with their own experience.

In 2016 when our previous director of over thirty years retired, I applied for my current position, and made clear during the search process that if hired I intended to continue in the direction of making our resources more accessible and relevant to a wide public. When offered the position, I felt confident in the board’s support of this direction and I am happy to have recently completed my first year as executive director.

JUNTO: What skills as a historian did you bring to your position, and what skills did you learn while on the job? How do these skills complement each other in your daily work?

PETERSEN: My graduate programs trained me well for the writing and research I would need to do on the job. I also appreciate the seminars I took in public history which involved theoretical reading and discussion about interpreting history for a public audience and working with communities. I also credit completion of my dissertation as a course in project management.

I had to pick up a large number of skills through on the job experience, however, including the necessity of working on a team—not a team of like-minded colleagues, but a team of diverse stakeholders whose points of view and objectives generally differed from my own. I also gained valuable experience in creating project budgets and managing expenses, interfacing with government agencies, personnel functions such as writing job descriptions, interviewing and on-boarding staff – all of the administrative functions of the job. I am ambivalent about whether I could have expected to learn more of these skills in a research-based graduate program, but it would have been helpful in hindsight to have had some preparation for these essentials qualities of work I the field during my graduate training. I’m just not sure what that would look like in a curriculum.

JUNTO: In our phone conversation, we chatted a bit about the notion of “dual identity” – the complex dynamic of balancing life as a historian who has a foot in both the scholarly and public worlds. How has your own dual identity shaped your career choices and your approach to the work you do?

PETERSEN: My core identity has always been as a public history practitioner. Unlike many of my colleagues, I only intended to pursue the level of graduate training necessary to remove any potential education-based ceiling to my dream career. After the M.A., by which time I had completed several internships and had a decent professional network in the history museum field, I found myself competing for jobs with historians with their doctorates who were struggling to find academic work and were “falling back” on museums as a second choice. This was a shock to me, given my careful preparation for a career in museums, and devotion to the field as my career of choice, and the result was that I returned to graduate school to complete the Ph.D. so that I would have the professional experience and academic training to match any candidate for top level positions.

While in graduate school I maintained level of discomfort about academic culture and its frequent focus on individual intellect and research interests and the corresponding idea that this training, when completed, earned one a title that set one apart as an intellectual. Those qualities and perceptions, I knew, were not always going to serve me well doing community-based history. Rather, I needed to become a member of a community with diverse backgrounds and join teams with others who believed the qualities and experience they brought to the table were as important as mine.

I have been chastised a few times in professional settings by people who felt I shouldn’t have worn “Ph.D.” on my name tag, due to their own assumptions about what that title means. I have since learned to navigate situations based on whether I believe using the title will help or harm me accomplish an objective. Pursuing the doctorate transformed the way I approach all of my work, and most significantly the underlying thinking behind each choice I make as a nonprofit director, whether that thinking is transparent or not. That is its real significance for me. And, it was definitely influential in my board’s decision to hire me in my current position.  I use the three little letters like any other tool in my toolbox—I deploy them when useful and put them away when it will be a distraction. This reveal/conceal approach is not always comfortable, but I do feel it gives me a certain flexibility and that can be liberating.

JUNTO: The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation is located in El Presidio State Historic Park—a site with roots that stretch back to the colonial period, but also encompasses the experiences of Chicano and Asian-American communities in the 20th century. How have the histories of these diverse communities shaped the stories you tell?

PETERSEN: El Presidio SHP has had a rich history of immigration and settlement from its founding generation. Although the primary interpretive period for the site is the Spanish Colonial period, I believe the success of our park and the organization lies in connecting with our contemporary community based on the rich layers of this site’s history. We can pull out many common themes from these experiences, including the immigration experience, institution building, cultural continuity and change, generational difference and ties to the homeland that not only describe generations of people’s experiences in this neighborhood, but are common to the American experience. Long histories of immigration north from New Spain, then Mexico and East from Asia in addition to West from Europe, also make this a particularly Californian story that can be experienced here on one site. I believe there is a tremendous power of place that one can feel in the Presidio Neighborhood, and I’m proud to be a steward of the historical places that bore witness to those experiences.

JUNTO: You stressed that the PhD “should be a gateway not a barrier to community engagement.” Are there specific professional organizations or associations that graduate students should know about if they are interested in getting involved in community or local history?

PETERSEN: I learned about the American Association for State and Local History from intern colleagues during one of my early internships. I was lucky to speak at an AASLH conference as an intern, which was a crash course in the organization, and conferencing in general. In Fall 2015, I completed the organization’s Seminar in Historical Administration, and amazing three-week leadership seminar. Connecting with AASLH was the first time I really felt like I had found my people, in a professional sense. I also joined the American Association (Now Alliance) of Museums as a student member, and our Western Regional Association of Museums as well. These organizations, and their conferences, news magazine, job listings and training opportunities helped shape my understanding of the job market and how to position my own skills and experience to the best advantage in that market. The history museum fields is especially collegial and networking is essential. Its best to jump in as soon as you are able.

JUNTO: Any current projects happening at SBTHP that you’d like to share?

PETERSEN: We have recently completed restoration of the 1925 Alhecama Theatre at El Presidio SHP and are making it available for community use. Next, we’ll be restoring the 1871 Cota Knox house, one of Santa Barbara’s earliest fired brick buildings. The building needs a roof replacement, seismic retrofit and façade restoration. It’s a big project, but when we are done we will have returned another great piece of vernacular architecture to the downtown. We are beginning a strategic planning process this summer, our first in our 54-year history and a top priority for me as director. On the program side, we are working on building innovative partnerships. One exciting partnership in progress is with a local folk music orchestra that will hold their concerts in the chapel at El Presidio SHP at no cost in exchange for serving as sort of “house musicians” at our own events and programs throughout the year. The overall goal of all these projects is to continue to strengthen SBTHP’s role as a good neighbor and community partner.

JUNTO: We appreciate your willingness to share these experiences with The Junto, Anne. I’m sure our readers will be eager to follow the many exciting projects underway at SBTHP.

“Where Historians Work: The View from Early America” will return next Thursday.  

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