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Kahn Steps Down From History Center

Aired 8/17/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Executive Director David Kahn is leaving the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park after three years. He's being praised for the professional expertise he brought to the job, his fund raising abilities and for renewed interest in the venerable Historical Society. But his tenure also saw the worst of the recession, and tight budgets.

Executive Director David Kahn is leaving the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park after three years. His tenure has seen big ups and downs in the center's own history. He's being praised for the professional expertise he brought to the job, his fund raising abilities and for exciting new interest in the venerable Historical Society. But his tenure also saw the worst of the recession, and tight budgets forcing the center to give up control of the historic Marston House and Villa Montezuma.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Executive director David Kahn is leaving the San Diego history center in Balboa Park after heading it up for three years. His tenure has seen big ups and downs in the center's own history. He's being praised for the professional expertise he brought to the job. His fundraising abilities, and for exciting new interest in the venerable historical society. But his tenure also saw the worst of the recession, and tight budgets forcing the center to give up control of the historic Marston house and via Montezuma. Joining us to talk about his time at the history center and when he thinks about his future, my guest, David Kahn. Hi.

KAHN: Hi there. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: For people who are still unfamiliar with the San Diego history center, tell us what they find there.

KAHN: Okay. Well, essentially the San Diego history center is one of the oldest and largest historical organizations in the entire State of California. So the main headquarters building in Balboa Park includes exhibitions on all sorts of topics relating to San Diego history right now we have an exhibition of the photography of Norman Boehner, the black photographer from Logan Heights, as well as exhibits representing local artists from the early 20th century. And of course core exhibits about early San Diego history. We also operate a major research library that contains really the largest and best collection of materials relating to San Diego in existence. We have two and a half million photographs, millions of documents, maps, you name it. If it relates to San Diego, we've got it. So all that happens at the San Diego history center. And we also operate or offer programs for school kids, adults, families, and on top of all this, we also operate the museum in Presidio Park, which most people think it's the original mission. But it's not.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Now, you visit us on several occasions during your tenure as executive director of the history center. You once told me about all the pictures and the acquisitions, stored, I think it was, in the basement of this center. Have you managed to go through that stuff and organize it?

KAHN: It's an ongoing process given the vast size of the collections. Right now, we've recently gotten a couple of major grants to enable us to press some of the collections. So we got a very large grant from the Mellin foundation, a nationally prominent organization to catalog a large number of archival collections, which hadn't previously been cataloged. We're thrilled to get that grant because we wanted only 17 institutions nationwide to win a grant in the competition with the Mellin foundation. And our fellow grantees include the Smithsonian institute, Berkeley, Hagley, and a lot of other nationally prominent organizations. So we were thrilled to get that grant. We also have some federal funding right now, which is enabling us to catalog a huge collection of Indian photographs from San Diego dating to the early 20th century. And we're working on the different tribes here in the county to catalog those materials and prepare them for exhibits. So it's an ongoing process given the vast size of the collection. But we're making headway.

CAVANAUGH: David, why are you leaving the San Diego history center after three years?

KAHN: Oh, boy. It's a difficult decision, it really has been, because this is a great community, and the San Diego history center is an incredible organization with a great deal of promise. We've been talking about the wonderful collections and the terrific exhibitions that are able to view, and the institution is getting geared up now for 2015, and we expect the history center to have a reading role in that celebration for the Panama exhibition. That having been said, I am a New Yorker, and this opportunity came along to run an institution back in my home state closer to my family. And it is a somewhat larger institution than the San Diego history center. So it's just one of those opportunities that I couldn't pass up.

CAVANAUGH: Some people do miss the winter.

KAHN: It's true! It's true! They have snow there, and the staff was warning me that I have to get a certain kind of boot with cleats in it to make sure that I don't go flying on the ice. So I'm taking all of these pieces of advice.

CAVANAUGH: You were one of the first professional museum curators with a background -- you came here with a background of having managed other museums. To head this history center here in San Diego. So how do you think that sort of expertise has helped the center?

KAHN: Well, I think it's helped to get things back on track. Not necessarily the first person with that sort of background. But there had been a little bit of an interval over a number of years between the last trained museum professional and myself. So I think we were able to get a lot of things back on track again involving new exhibitions, cataloging the collections. We created a long-range conservation man for the collections, are the first one in 20 years. We began to reach out to other institutions. SDSU, the university of San Diego, UCSD, we began to bring in scholars to help create now exhibits and programs. We brought museum educators in from different institutions to sort of audit our K12 programs. So I think there's been a lot of work that's involved not only me, of course, but the professional staff and will board and our supporters and patrons in the community to kind of move the institution in a new direction. And I'm sure that that will continue.

CAVANAUGH: I think a lot of people still know about this center as the San Diego historical society.

KAHN: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: Instead of San Diego history center.

KAHN: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Why was that name changed? Tell us again.

KAHN: Well, we changed the name because this is really a national phenomenon that's been under way for 20 years. The first institution to change its name from historical society to center was the Minnesota historical society, which made the change way back in 1991, 20 years ago. And they did that because consumer research indicated that a lot of people had no idea what an historical society was. It sounded sort of like a private club, something that was a closed operation and not necessarily something that invited the public in. So once the Minnesota historical society changed its name to the Minnesota history center, you gone to see one institution after another around the country change its name. So the Atlanta historical society is now the Atlanta history center. We've become the San Diego history center. Some institutions have done a little variation on the theme. The Chicago historical society is now the Chicago history museum. But it's really something that one finds across the conserve. People are trying to get away from that name society which sounds a little forbidding.

CAVANAUGH: A little cliquish.

KAHN: Just a little.

CAVANAUGH: You're saying you're leaving the center just a couple years before one of the biggest operations it's ever going to have. There must be plans however under way as to how the history center is going to celebrate that. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

KAHN: There are a couple of ideas for major exhibits that we're already beginning to work on. One has the working title of 1915, 2015, 2115, and the whole idea would be to take a look at what has taken place in San Diego over the past hundred years since the exposition, what kind of progress has been made, what's San Diego become over the last century. And then also the plan is to look forward to try to speculate a little bit about what's going to happen over the next century. And we would love to invite visitors to the exhibit to share their thoughts about what they would like to see happen in San Diego over the next century. So that's one of the projects that we've just begun to work on. And another exhibit that we'd like to present would be called San Diego innovates. And that would particularly drill down and look into what's happened in all the high-tech industries in San Diego over the past 50 years or so that have really transformed the economy here. And in working on that project, we're collaborating with Mary Walshock who's a professor over at UCSD, a sociologist, who's coming out with a book on this subject some time next year. So we'll be working on her and her coauthor, professor Abe Schrag, to map out this interesting exhibit. And it will be interactive and hands on, and ask people to think about what the problem solving components were that led to all sorts of innovations in the area of telecommunications. How Qualcomm came out with its great inventions, and we'll also ask people to think about what's been going on in the biotech industries and think about some of the problems that the great innovators have faced when developing their products and services and applications.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: With the wealth of material that you must have gone through about San Diego in the past three years as executive director of the history center, I'm wondering what are some of the things that came to light that you found most fascinating?

KAHN: Well, it also always relates to people, the people stories are what are really compelling. And it goes all the way back to the very beginning. You've got father Sarah showing up here way back in 1769 and coming over the hill with a small contingent of people and founding a mission here in what then seemed to be the middle of nowhere. So that's an interesting story. And also knowing about the interplay between the native population and Sarah and the missionaries. That's a big S story that still probably could use a little more attention these days. But also I guess all the kind of fascinating story that there aren't all that many native San Diegans here. And that people come from all over the place, and they've brought their stories and their traditions with them. And that's as much a part of the story of San Diego as that of the founders. I think it's equally fascinating. Just to give you one little example, we have among other things, one of the largest historical costume collections west of the Mississippi, which is just a miracle. And so we have had scholars come in to look at that collection. And they found there's an incredible amount of late eighteenth century and early 20th century material in there. So the question is, what's it doing there? Because there really weren't that many people here. And the answer is, people in the mid and later nineteenth century brought these things with them from back east or the Midwest or wherever as precious hair looms, and then handed them onto the history center. So behind each of these costumes there's a fascinating story.

CAVANAUGH: Now, there's a caller on the line. I don't know that we actually have time to take the call. But Suzie in Julian has heard that the history center is on the verge of bankruptcy. What can you tell us about the financial health of in institution that you're leaving?

KAHN: Yeah, well, that's not true at all. We ended the fiscal year 2010 last year in the black. We came pretty close to it this year. But there'll be a small deficit. So I think we're in pretty good shape. But we're facing the same issues that all nonprofits are in the wake of the downturn in 2008. I've been a museum director for 30 years. And I've never seen as difficult an environment as the one we're in now in terms of going out and finding government foundation, corporate and individual money. So it's always a challenge. But we're doing fine.

CAVANAUGH: Has the financial situation been any factor in your deciding to leave? Is the New York museum doing better financially?

KAHN: Well, I don't really think it would be worthwhile to get into that kind of a comparison. I think the main issue is that as I said, I'm a New Yorker and I'm kind of going home. And I don't know that I miss the snow that much. But I do have a lot of professional friends back east. So no, I would say the financial issue is not the major factor here.

CAVANAUGH: If you had the power and an unlimited budget, how would you make the San Diego history center more of an essential experience for visitors and for the local population?

KAHN: Well, you know, we actually have an outline of a plan for how we could accomplish that. And essentially, it would take $20 million. So if there's somebody out there listening who would like to write a check, we'd love to have it. But the objective has been throughout my tenure to move the San Diego history center more in the direction of being a hands on and interactive history museum sort of on the model of what you find in science centers and children's museums. That's really the dream to have interactive experiences that can engage people of all ages and get them really excited about San Diego history. And I'm sure that that goal will be accomplished. And I'm sure it will be accomplished by 2015, the center of the California Panama exhibition.

CAVANAUGH: So are you telling us your leaving is not a sign that we should worry about the future of the center?

KAHN: Oh, no. Keep in mind, the history sister center is 80 some odd years old. All of us might like to think that we're irreplaceable and indispensable, but that's not the case. And I'm confident that the very strong board of the San Diego history center will pick a dynamic successor who will continue to move the organization in the right direction.

CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with David Kahn, outgoing executive director of the San Diego history center. Thanks very much and good luck.

KAHN: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

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