by Steven Dugan
For 34 years, Karen Wade has called the Homestead Museum home. She arrived in California with her family in 1982 as director of education. In 1986, Karen created her own company and took over management of the museum. After 30 years as the Homestead’s director, Karen is retiring as of July 1.
We recently asked Karen to share memories of her time at the Homestead and working in the field of history museums. (She has quite the story to tell about her early exposure to museums!)
Karen’s has left her mark on the museum and all that we do. We will continue to focus on ways to better serve the public because of her strong and thoughtful leadership. Thank you, Karen, we wish you much success as you begin this new chapter in your life.
Did you always know that you wanted to work in museums?
I’m well aware that one’s college years are intended to be a period of self-exploration when you investigate various options for your future. But, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I had pretty much settled on a career in the museum field long before graduating from high school. However, during college and well into graduate school my focus was on art history and a career as a decorative arts curator—so, I guess you could say that I did a bit of exploring before settling down.
What was your first job in the field?
I actually began my career in the history museum field as a junior high student when my mother became executive director for the Jackson County Missouri Historical Society and director for their small museum. While much of my early “work” was done on a volunteer basis, I soon began earning a whopping $1 an hour. But, I have a sneaking suspicion that money came from my mother’s wallet versus the historical society’s bank account. Over the next several years, however, I did gain valuable experience about the runnings of a historic site when assuming tasks ranging from emptying the accumulated water from the basement’s dehumidifier, to helping conduct the museum’s first professional cataloguing under the supervision of the Truman Library staff. So, from an early age I knew the diversity of jobs required to manage a small history museum.
What are some of the greatest changes you have seen in the museum field?
Oh, there have been so very many changes in the field over the past few decades, and nearly all are positive! For one thing, history museums in particular have begun embracing a more honest approach to interpreting our past, versus retelling a white-washed version of history that was so prevalent during much of the twentieth century. How, after all, can we use history as a tool to lead us to a better future if the history we learn isn’t an honest history? Two other important improvements in the field also relate to interpretation: the increased use of storytelling and objects to tell those stories; and a move away from telling a history that only looks backwards, to greater interaction between interpreter and visitor on the relevance of history in today’s world. These are all topics I feel passionately about, so if you want to hear more, all you need to do is ask!
How did you come to work at the Homestead?
Well, this is one of those stories that make you believe in fate, or at least very good luck. At the time my husband, son, and I decided to relocate to Southern California due to my husband’s career, I was the director of a house museum in New Orleans’ French Quarter. A local colleague of mine, who had recently attending the Seminar for Historical Administration (now known as Developing History Leaders @SHA), told me of a woman she had met at SHA who was the director of a brand new historic site in Los Angeles County. Well, by now I’m sure you have guessed the name of that new historic site, then known simply as the Workman Temple Homestead. So I sent in my resume, even though there was no posted job opening, and set up a meeting with Carolyn Wagner, the Homestead’s first director. To make a much longer story short, Carolyn hired me on the spot as Director of Education—and the rest is history.
What were some of your first impressions of the museum?
While I had numerous positive first impressions of the Homestead, three stand out. First: having just come from the already horrid heat and humidity of New Orleans, the almost perfect late spring weather on the day of my interview convinced me I wanted to spend the remainder of my career in the cool calm of La Casa Nueva’s courtyard. Second: as an art and architectural historian, I fell in love almost immediately with both the architecture and architectural crafts of the site. And third: Carolyn’s vision for the museum grabbed ahold of me from that very first day, a vision that I have had the privilege over these many years to help realize through the work of our incredible team.
Tell us about some of your proudest accomplishments at the museum.
And speaking of our incredible team, both current and past, I must say that one of my proudest accomplishments as director over the past 30 years has been the nurturing of team management at the Homestead.
How do you plan to spend the next chapter of your life?
First of all, I think I need to figure out a way to clone myself, since I have so much I want to accomplish during this next chapter. And, before we go any further, let me make it perfectly clear I don’t plan to “retire,” but rather transition to an “unpaid encore career” of helping to bring greater peace and justice to the world and promoting an understanding that there can be unity in diversity. Pretty lofty goals you say? Yes, but I want to do my part by continuing to promote history as a tool for creating a better future. But, in addition to remaining active in a variety of professional history organizations, as well as faith-based peace movements, I do want to enjoy life to the fullest by traveling, spending even more time with family, and frequently recharging my batteries by soaking in the art, music, and literature I love so dearly. Well, do you think I’ll be bored? No way!
What will you miss most about the Homestead?
Above all else, I will miss my almost daily contact with the paid and volunteer staff, for they are the heart and soul of the Homestead I love so very much.