ITHACA, N.Y. — Ben Sandberg has taken over the helm at The History Center in Tompkins County at an exciting moment. After a massive effort spearheaded by former executive director Rod Howe, The History Center is now one of 12 organizations with a new home on the Ithaca Commons in the Tompkins Center for History and Culture. As Sandberg begins his tenure as executive director, The History Center is poised to reach more people than ever at its new spot in the heart of Downtown Ithaca.
That’s exactly the spot Sandberg wants to be in.
“This new space and especially the fact that we are housed with so many other creative organizations is what was really attractive to me about the position — the chance for collaboration.”
With a background that includes work in theater, art collectives and music groups as well as an education in nonprofit management and experience as the executive director of the 1890 House Museum, Sandberg said he is excited to hit the ground running in Ithaca.
Ithaca Voice reporter Devon Magliozzi sat down with Sandberg for a Q&A to see what plans are in the works.
DM: Tell me about the path that brought you to The History Center.
BS: Out of undergrad I started working in theater and specifically one of the main theater organizations I worked in was concerned about accessibility of community cultural output — the idea that a lot of our community cultural institutions tend to only be accessible to a certain class of people. And so as a theater group, we ran on an admission-free model and most of our publicity was in communities at or below the poverty line to try and make, in this case specifically, attending theater a habit that people could afford. And so that is really what spurred my interest in working for accessible cultural institutions.
And then I got involved in thinking about policy and how public organization or public institutions can effectively support cultural institutions in their communities, and that’s what eventually brought me to grad school here at Cornell in the Public Administration program with a concentration in nonprofit management…
And after finishing my grad program I ended up working over at the 1890 House in Cortland … That was an incredible experience, my first position as an executive director, and I really had a lot of fun over there. That eventually led me here to The History Center in Tompkins County.
DM: At the same time you’re making this big move into a new role, The History Center just made a big move onto the Commons. What are some ideas you have for bringing the public into this new space?
BS: This new space and especially the fact that we are housed with so many other creative organizations is what was really attractive to me about the position — the chance for collaboration. That has always driven my work and my programming because every non-profit is operating at a pretty significant, you know, bare bones, in order to be able to invest as much into their mission as they can.
When you have partners I find that you’re able to really produce an end impact that is much more than the sum of its parts…
I have a lot of existential worries about cultural organizations in America. The short of it is that I really think cultural institutions need to think about how you are creating interactive opportunities where your audiences have an important part in creating the experience… And so the challenge, broadly, for cultural institutions is how are you creating a meaningful experience that is both educational, that offers the opportunity for a meaningful learning experience and impactful change. How are you creating programs, how are you designing exhibits, how are you designing experiences for people to have those opportunities? Because the ones that successfully answer that question are the ones that are going to thrive in changing technology, in changing audience behavior, in changing consumer demands.
DM: You’re inheriting a pretty well-established set of programming and exhibits and archives. What are some of the things that are already in place that you’re excited to build on?
BS: (The) Eight Square Schoolhouse … It is actually the biggest item in our collections. … Right now we have a really incredible sort of living-history educational program for fourth graders in Tompkins County, who go there and sort of get to spend a day in the life as a school child in the year 1892 … I think there are a lot of opportunities during the summer where it’s not used to the extent that it could be. And with my theater background and some of the other talents here on staff, I’m really looking forward to exploring that space as sort of a space for living history as a method of engaging with local historical figures and local historical stories.
DM: You had mentioned before that you’re excited to collaborate with the other partners here at the Center. What are some ideas for collaborations?
BS: So this one is probably a little self-serving but my dad is a professor of silent film. And so one of the things I was ecstatic about was the presence of the Wharton Studio Museum here. I’ve already started throwing ideas by Diana (Riesman). I think that the story of the Whartons in Ithaca is an incredible window into just a field of programming and interactive experiences, from learning about the technological innovation that happened here to create film and creating opportunities for people to make their own silent film. Or I’m a huge fan—Sam (Buggeln) over at the Cherry (Artspace) had done a walking tour based on the history of silent film, that was sort of walking, audio, a theatrical tour. That’s the kind of programming that I think really blends performance inspired by history.
And the key to that for me is, OK, now that an audience has had that experience, how do you then prompt them or use that experience to have them come into our archives and engage with our really incredible collection of both archival material and collections?
DM: Are there any parts of Tompkins County history that have been overlooked that you want to bring into the forefront?
BS: It’s a big question and I guess, succinctly, yes.
One of the things that has been really exciting here is that coming into this space in our atrium tower out in our lobby we specifically wanted to tell stories, show artifacts and highlight stories of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ and the indigenous cultures here.
It was pretty important for us symbolically that that was the first thing out there, given their incredible history of being in this place which makes the space of Western civilization here pale in comparison. I mean it’s a pretty simple graphic, but pretty impactful, out in the atrium of the years of Native peoples living here and then how long we have been here. And I think especially through local history, it is so powerful to use it to highlight and support marginalized communities. And that’s often very difficult because many times those stories aren’t flattering for us.
I think we will never have achieved, we will always be striving to achieve. And so continuing to work to support other organizations, other communities here than the dominant narrative that is, given the structures of our culture, simply more accessible. So how do we make other narratives as accessible?
DM: What should people in Ithaca and Tompkins County put on their calendars for this fall?
- The Eight Square Schoolhouse — An open house with historical activities and ice cream, 2-4 p.m. Sept. 14
- Amelia Earhart — Programming throughout the day will commemorate Earhart’s aviation and Ithaca’s own Tommy plane, Sept. 22 [check date].
DM: Anything else?
BS: I’ve been incredibly impressed with the warm welcome from the Ithaca community. There’s an incredible depth of people who care and are passionate about our history here. And the willingness to come forward and help share those stories and tell those stories makes me incredibly excited for the work ahead of us and for where The History Center could be in a year and three years and five years.
- Photos: Now-open Tompkins Center for History and Culture celebrates region’s past and future
- Related: History Center launches youth series to explore Haudenosaunee culture
- Related: History Center artifacts pass through community hands to new home on Commons
Featured image by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice