Last November, when it was announced that he’d be the new head of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History this year, Luke Swetland jumped into one of the hotter seats in town. By taking over for longtime and retiring director Karl Hutterer, Swetland inherited an ambitious, controversial, and sure-to-be-expensive expansion plan that hopes to renovate, grow, and adapt the 100-year-old institution for the next century. The latest news on that plan, as well as many other aspects of institutional life in Mission Canyon, will be served up to the public along with a continental breakfast next Thursday, January 24, at 7:30 a.m., when Hutterer, Swetland, and the board chair Palmer Jackson Jr. present the “State of the Museum” at Fleischmann Auditorium.
In anticipation of that, Swetland spent a few minutes this week talking with The Santa Barbara Independent, just 12 hours after officially starting his new job. “I’m really honored to be given the chance to make sure the museum celebrates its 100-year anniversary in an appropriate way and that we keep this institution here for another 100 years, strong and healthy and doing what it needs to do to educate all of us,” said Swetland, a University of Michigan grad whose career started at the Henry Ford Museum outside of Detroit before coming to Los Angeles to work at the Japanese American National Museum, which was also undergoing an expansion when he started. “I had to learn to be incredibly sensitive to the nuances of a culturally specific institution,” said Swetland of that experience. “Being someone that’s not of Japanese ancestry, to become part of that community was really a wonderful gift that was offered to me.”
But it also showed him that institutions naturally go through these periods of evolution. “Every institution I’ve been in has gone through a planning process,” said Swetland, who also worked at the Getty Conservation Center and, for the past five years, at the Autry Museum in L.A. “What’s happening here is really not different than what happens in any living, vibrant organization that wants to remain relevant, that has old facilities that need to be tended to.”
The master plan that the board and the staff have put together is really visionary and transformational, a look at what this place can be, could be, and maybe should be,” said Swetland, who moved to town with his wife, Stacy, and has two sons at Cal State Northridge.
Though he’s still getting acquainted with all of the particulars, Swetland is impressed with the Museum of Natural History’s plan. “The master plan that the board and the staff have put together is really visionary and transformational, a look at what this place can be, could be, and maybe should be,” said Swetland, who moved to town with his wife, Stacy, and has two sons at Cal State Northridge. “I feel like I have been handed this amazing welcome gift, this really thoughtful vision.”
But he also seems open to change. “As with any plan, as you get into the implementation phase, you start to say that maybe that piece doesn’t make sense, maybe that’s a little too ambitious, maybe we can’t afford that. You really work through a process of taking that conceptual plan and saying, ‘How do we make it something that’s very doable and that’s very right for this site and for the community? How do we implement the pieces of the plan in a really thoughtful way that’s incredibly respectful for all stakeholders and is very sensitive to this amazing natural setting we find ourselves in?’”
Swetland is planning on a few outreach meetings about the latest iteration of the plan, most likely this coming March, before any more government hearings. But he’s not a one-trick pony, as the plan is just one of many goals on his mind. “You’ve got to tend to your house, but it’s what happens in that house that really makes it a home,” said Swetland. “A home for the museum is the collections, the research, the scholarship, and the education. That’s what I’m going to focus on as much as how we find ways to reach happy solutions on the facilities.”