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The S.B. Questionnaire: Anne Petersen

Stewarding the Past and Present with the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation’s Leader

Anne Petersen
Paul Wellman

“Museums are not only about preserving the past, but about engaging in the contemporary issues of the community,” says Anne Petersen fervently. As executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP), she leads the team that runs El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park, which is Santa Barbara’s 18th century birthplace, as well as Casa De La Guerra. The trust also manages other properties in the neighborhood, including the building that once housed Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, which they acquired in 2007.

“The Presidio neighborhood has dense layers of immigrant history,” explains Anne. “The Asian-American history is important. It was also a big Mexican neighborhood. We are the stewards of the past and the present.”

Anne started working for the trust in 1999 when she began her doctorate at UCSB. She served as a curator and then as the associate director for historical resources. She was named the leader in 2016, at a time when the board of directors was searching for an executive director who’d be able to adapt to the modern era.

“The city is going through a lot of changes,” says Anne. “I have a vision and it requires our organization to be very proactive.”

One of her primary goals from the start was to create a strategic plan and engage stakeholders from many viewpoints in the planning process. “I wanted to know what we are doing well, as well as what we are not doing,” explains Anne, who enlisted more than 70 citizens in the exercise. The result is a new mission statement and new goals, which include improving the visitor experience and supporting the trust’s role as a community hub for that part of downtown.

Anne is quick to credit Hugh Margerum for his marketing effort to brand the Presidio Neighborhood. “Hugh’s done so much,” she says. “SBTHP’s job is to support what he’s doing for the neighborhood and to create a synergy between our organizations and our tenants.” Current tenants include Three Pickles Subs, the Pickle Room, Make Smith Leather Company, Anacapa School, Panino, Playa Azul, and Zaytoon, among others.

“Academic work was never my main objective,” reflects Anne, who was born in Orange County and attended Capistrano Valley High. Her mother taught history and government at Laguna Beach High. “Growing up, we attended history museums, and I thought everyone did that,” she says. “I understood that history can explain the world around me.”

She started college at UC-San Diego, and then transferred to the University of Washington in 1995 to study history and American ethnic studies. One summer, she worked in Jackson Hole, Wyoming at the Teton County Historical Society, helping with the inventory of Native American artifacts. It was a role that put her in touch with that community, and she was set on her path.

She interned at museums across the country, including the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, The Heritage Preservation Commission in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian in D.C., and The Peabody Essex Museum at Salem, Massachusetts. “I was looking for experience,” she explains. “I had this sensibility to understand the U.S. — not just to travel but to understand the community.”

In 1998, she graduated from Brown University with a Master’s degree in American civilization and museum studies. Then, to be competitive in the job market, Anne sought a Ph.D. from UCSB because it was one of the few universities that offered a public-serving rather than academic look at history. Plus, her mother got her graduate degree from UCSB in 1965 and Anne’s grandparents had retired here.

“This was always paradise,” Anne exclaims. “To come back to California to UCSB, to a prestigious program, and to a place I loved, it was a dream come true.” She also met her husband, Michael Cox, in Santa Barbara at a New Year’s Eve party.

With all of that education and experience, Anne was well prepared to handle the work demanded as head of the SBTHP. “I learned how to understand the pushes and pulls of immigration,” she explains. “It trained me for what we have at the Presidio.”

Anne Petersen answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

William Morris, the founder of the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement. I share his respect for craftsmanship, organic materials, and the way that knowing how, where, and by whom things are grown and made helps give us agency in our communities. I also try to abide by his motto, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” I think that can translate to other areas of life as well.

What is your current state of mind?

Optimistic about my community and looking forward to working together on some big issues but feeling less positive about the state of the country. Focusing on thinking globally and acting locally.

Who do you most admire?

I admire my dad. He doesn’t talk much about why he does certain things, but his actions are a model for moving through life with integrity, responsibility, and kindness, and the older I get more I understand how rare those qualities can be as life tosses around your plans.

What do you like most about your job?

Historic places can bring out deep-seated ideas about identity and belonging in a community. The Presidio Neighborhood is a complex and layered place, and I enjoy facilitating meaningful experiences for the community and visitors.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I try to make happiness a habitual state. Nothing is perfect. I try to think about the happy moments of each day.

What is your greatest fear?

Spiders. Especially if they have fur on them. Gives me the creeping willies just thinking about it. Also, bad things happening to people I care about.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Spending an entire day reading.

What is the quality you most like in people?

I love getting to know people with diverse life experiences and talents who are sincere and willing to share. I am frequently inspired by others and search for ways I can learn from people I meet.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Aggression and narcissism. I can usually detect that it comes from a place of fear or lack of confidence, and learn to empathize, but when it’s a first impression, it’s definitely off-putting.

What do you most value in friends?

I’ve had most of my close friends for a very long time. The shared history, and understanding of each other, and mutual support makes them like family. They are wise, and kind and can help tilt my perspective when I need it.

What is your most marked characteristic?

It might be that I’m driven. I definitely am always working to improve, learn, help, and enjoy this world more. I’m pretty organized too. And a classic introvert, which I’ve learned to embrace.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

What’s the plan? We need to make a plan. What/where are we going to eat? It’s freezing in here!

Which talent would you most like to have?

A facility with multiple languages. That includes spoken languages, but also mathematics and coding. I’ve tried, but the struggle is intense.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I wish I could work through things a bit faster and just trust my gut. My gut is wise. My head is sometimes overly analytical.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Being able to live in Santa Barbara with much of my family close, knowing what I love to do, and doing it. Making this life happen. I feel very blessed.

Where would you most like to live?

I’m here!

What is your most treasured possession?

My glasses. I am very nearsighted. On the infrequent occasion when I wake up and my glasses aren’t where I thought I left them, my world shrinks to one foot in front of me. Usually some grasping around produces them quickly, but the moments in between are the stuff of nightmares.

What makes you laugh the most?

My sense of humor comes from a deep affection for my fellow humans was we try to navigate the rituals of daily life. Watching my dog navigate her daily life also cracks me up. When I really get going I cry, like tears streaming, nose running, crying. That’s when you know something really hit my funny bone.

What is your motto?

“All I can do today is my best.” I’ve repeated this to myself for many years when I find myself getting overwhelmed or feeling like I’m falling short. It helps me forgive myself and get back at it the next day.

On what occasion do you lie?

When I don’t want others to worry about me.

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