The History Center, under one name or another, has been in Ithaca for nearly a century, and now, new executive director Ben Sandberg has taken up the mantel as leader of this long-standing and influential nonprofit.
Ben Sandberg gets around – he spent his early life on the West Coast before going to Oberlin College in Ohio, where he triple-majored in sociology, pre-law and politics. After working in theater for a brief period, Sandberg continued his journey by coming to New York state to attend graduate school at Cornell University’s Institute of Public Affairs, with a concentration in nonprofit management.
From there, Sandberg worked at the 1890 House in Cortland, New York, for several years before hearing about The History Center’s search for a new executive director.
“When Rod [Howe] announced that he was retiring, it seemed like an incredible opportunity, and I was especially drawn to the position because of the potential for creative collaboration with all of our incredible partners in here,” Sandberg said.
Sandberg has been passionate about history since he was in high school, which is another part of why he was so enthusiastic to get this position.
“I’m an absolute nerd about history. I think that Theodore Roosevelt was my gateway drug,” he said.
History plays a crucial role in a community, Sandberg said, past, present and future.
“History is the connective tissue of our communities,” he said. “Local history is such a powerful tool for examining problems or issues in our community today and then developing equitable solutions for the future because a lot of the issues today aren’t brand new.”
Sandberg officially took over for previous executive director Rod Howe on Aug. 12, and since then, Sandberg has hit the ground running, and he is already loving his team.
“I am so thrilled with the hardworking and creative team that we have in place here,” Sandberg said. “Even two weeks in, it is very clear to me that their approach to programing, their approach to developing exhibits, to managing our collections and to telling our community’s local history is inspiring.”
Just this year, The History Center moved from its location at the Gateway Center to its current location on the Commons. As the move was rather recent, many at the center are still transitioning, as curator Cindy Kjellander-Cantu and archivist Donna Eschenbrenner can attest.
Eschenbrenner was on the search committee that helped bring Sandberg into this position, and she said she was confident he could help The History Center thrive after the move.
“I was immediately impressed with his verve, his energy, his enthusiasm for the arts, for culture, for our work,” Eschenbrenner said. “He is very mindful of the difficulties we’ve just lived through with this move. … It’s like packing an elephant with your bare hands.”
Eschenbrenner said she appreciates Sandberg’s focus on making the staff feel as comfortable as possible, giving them everything they need to make their jobs easier.
“He is very concerned about us,” she said. “His sensitivity … has been so encouraging and so reassuring, and it’s been great.”
Outgoing executive director Howe was the main move manager, but now that the center is in its new location, Sandberg can focus more on the next step, like helping the staff transition and focusing on fundraising and development, something Kjellander-Cantu is grateful for.
“He’s ambitious, and he has a great vision for the center,” she said. “Ben, I think, is ready to put us out there and try to get some fundraising avenues open for us, so I think it’s really important. Making sure that people know that we’re here is a big deal.”
That has made her happy for the future, she said.
“I’m just excited to see how things move forward,” Kjellander-Cantu said. “We’re in this great place, and thankfully, we’ve moved this far, and I’m curious what’s going to pan out in the next few years.”
Howe said he loves that Sandberg, who is 31, can bring a fresh perspective to an inspiring place.
“We have this incredible platform here now that I just see someone like Ben taking it and utilizing it to its fullest extent possible,” Howe said. “There’s just unlimited opportunity, and I see Ben fully taking advantage of the opportunity that this new location and this new partnership that the Tompkins Center for History and Culture represents.”
Sandberg wants to focus on making sure The History Center adapts to the changing times, which means implementing new technologies. Since streaming platforms offer plenty of experiences at the touch of a button, Sandberg said, museums and educational centers like The History Center have to provide something unique to get people off the couch.
“For me, the question is, ‘What is our value added? What is the incentive? What is the unique experience here at The History Center to get somebody to engage in the community, to engage in the history around them? What are we doing different that somebody can’t get from streaming at home?’” Sandberg said.
For Sandberg, that value added is centered around audience interaction, and the new space allows for plenty of it, with digital technology, engaging exhibits and vast collections. In all, it is about to appealing to a wide audience of every age and demographic.
“We really want to serve all striations of our community,” he said. “You want to provide something a little different and tailored to experience they’re going to find relevant and engaging.”
Sandberg hopes to use the internet to The History Center’s advantage as well, using sites like YouTube to spread a love of oral history.
The Tompkins Center for History and Culture on the Ithaca Commons houses The History Center and encompasses several community partners, including the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra, Community Arts Partnership, the Discovery Trail, the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation and others. Sandberg said together, the partners work to serve an important, educational and service-oriented role in the community, and he’s proud to be a part of that.
“I’m really passionate about accessibility of cultural institutions and community cultural output,” Sandberg said.
Julia Taylor, director of youth education, likes that quality in Sandberg, and she is looking forward to future collaborations with the other partners.
“He’s very charismatic and energetic and brings a lot of enthusiasm and vision to the organization,” Taylor said. “I am excited about the ways that he has talked about collaboration and connecting with community partners and really building and strengthening our network here as an organization.”
Moving forward, Sandberg wants to continue to make The History Center relevant to more generations of audiences. He welcomes people to come to him with stories that they feel need to be told, like parts of history often ignored or underrepresented.
“It’s awesome that it has played an important role in the community for so long, but I think that there is a great public trust and responsibility that comes with it,” Sandberg said. “If something needs more attention or a story should be told, I’m excited to work with people to tell those stories.”
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