Great Leaders Stay Humble

Dr. Anthea Hartig, the first woman to be permanent director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History | Image Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute

In February, Anthea M. Hartig, formerly the chief executive of the California Historical Society, became the first woman to be the permanent director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, one of the most popular Smithsonian attractions in Washington, D.C.  Hartig, a lifelong Californian, takes over a museum that is in the final stretch of a multiyear makeover that includes new galleries focused on American innovation, democracy and entertainment. Aspire recently caught up with Hartig to talk about her new role, the unique challenges she faces as a woman in her field and how she’s raising her two sons to be humanists and feminists. 

Excerpts below:

Q. How have your first few months been?

They’ve been really wonderful. We had a board meeting last week and I joked to the board that short of giving birth to both my sons and those months following, this was the most amazing three months of my life and just like having children, there’s no manual. It’s beautiful and overwhelming and joyous. It’s been really special. It feels like everything I’ve done in my professional career is folded up beautifully into what I have been asked to do, what I’ve been hired to do and what I want to do here. I’ve had a snow day. I’ve had spring. I’ve had a wonderful embrace from all my colleagues and board. As you know, there’s been a sea change, especially with women breaking through to the director level, so I feel very fortunate to feel like I have an instant community.

Q. Does this feel like the culmination of a journey you’ve been on your whole life?

It really does. When I think back over what I’ve been able to do because my career has been in public history and in archives and in historic conservation and preservation, as a professor and a director of a historical society which kind of combines all those things, it certainly does feel beautifully cumulative. Even with my time in historic preservation there was so much of just needing to understand the physical space here – we have almost 800,000 sq. feet on 14 acres here. So we’re totally gifted with this incredible site and building and it, like me, was born in 1964 so it’s showing its age a little bit and, actually in all seriousness, of course has significant needs as we work to keep up with, not just the technological, but also the architecture and building needs. It’s very exciting. 

Q. What do you see as the challenges that might have been unique as a woman?

Being born in ’64, coming of age in the ’70s and the ’80s, there was a moment when I think many of us thought we were on the cusp of equality. We were on the cusp of some pretty radical, social, cultural and gender-based changes, which by all accounts we were and we are, but it’s still very much evolving. I’ve had very similar challenges and opportunities that many women of my generation have had and I’ve had fewer challenges, of course, because I’m of European American heritage.  

It’s been very interesting to gauge people’s reaction both to my candidacy and now my arrival because I realize it matters to a lot of people. I’ll meet people who I don’t know at all and they’ll say, “You’re the first woman director” and it’s both congratulatory but often said with an “I can’t believe you’re the first one.”  I am learning a lot through that lens. Because I’m here at a time when the leadership is the most diverse as it’s ever been, it doesn’t feel as path breaking perhaps in the broader Smithsonian, but it certainly feels very important, especially when I’m speaking to younger audiences, and I’m speaking to girls. I’ve been really fortunate to speak to a number of younger groups and teenage groups:  we just had our Youth Summit and had both Dolores Huerta and Naomi Wadler in the building at the same time. I’ve also able to participate in the Secretary’s National Youth Council. I have two sons who are in college. Both my role and my place as a woman, as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, auntie, it does bring a whole new perspective and it’s a powerful one, especially now with the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, Because of Her Story. It feels perfectly aligned to be here at this moment and to embrace all the great work that has already been planned and then to help lead us through these next couple of years. 

Q. What are the things you learned along the way to this point of leadership that you share with the youth you talk to? 

I try to impart to them that there is generally not one straight path, especially if you look at the workforce. Gone are the days where most people want to have, or even can have, a mono career path or one employer.  I tell them to be open to their path. Choosing to be a history major felt like the absolute right thing to do and I really did it because I fell in love with history. I certainly try to reinforce with them the power of critical thinking and to give context. If you read a poem or a letter, something that was written hundreds of years ago, it’s somewhat abstract, but the Humanities help us make that abstraction into what we hope is a powerful realization. So much of our work today, think of the high tech world, the new tech world, is taking some things that are very abstract [the internet is abstract] but you need to figure out how to make that abstraction real and I think that’s very powerful. I certainly encourage them to embrace their own humanity and to embrace the Humanities as well. 

Perseverance is an incredibly critical part of intelligence. I finished my PhD working full time with two babies under three. I’m not special. There’s lots of women who do far more herculean things than that. Because that was my goal to achieve the highest level possible in my business, but it also left me open to a lot of different ways to be a historian. I also encourage them that there are many more ways to be an attorney, or to be a doctor, or to be a social worker, or to be a firefighter, to be open to that.

I also encourage them to be lifelong learners. We had to open up an encyclopedia or go to a library and they have this remarkable access to knowledge through the internet that people have only dreamt of. 

I also always urge them to ask for help, or if you admire someone, reach out and ask them for a few minutes of their time. 

And to be brave.

Dr. Anthea Hartig | Image Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Q. Did you have a big obstacle in your career path that you had to overcome and how did you navigate that? 

I was offered a very important job almost 20 years ago. It would have meant a big move, being away from family. The boys were teeny, they were 6 months and 1¾, and my mother-in-law was dying of cancer and I hadn’t finished my PhD. I thought if I take this big, big job [it was what I thought I had always wanted] 600 miles away… but when you take it out and look at it, you realize the timing just wasn’t right. It just wasn’t the best thing for me to do. It’s the classic, you make the hard decision, there was a little bit of giving up my dream there, but then I was appointed to serve on this commission, which I couldn’t have if I had taken that job because I would have been staff; then I started teaching, those were my professor years and if I hadn’t taught – I taught at the undergraduate and graduate level – I probably wouldn’t have finished my PhD and I wouldn’t have had this job certainly. You don’t have to have a PhD to be director of the History Museum, but it helps. So it’s not so much an obstacle but it’s trusting your judgement and making the best decision you can at that time. 

I thought that job will never come again, and ten years after I turned it down, it was offered to me again. So you just never know. I think of it more in that way, the roads have choices. I’m blessed to have choices, so many women have far fewer choices.

Q. Have you encountered any biases because you’re a woman? 

Oh yeah. The overt sexism that I’ve experienced… I guess I was a little bit blissfully protected as a girl, but throughout college and graduate school and the workplace, even in the fairest of workplaces, it makes itself overtly and then covertly known. It still stops me in my tracks. I’ll have just given a presentation or just done something that professionally I worked very hard on and executed and still today the first thing that comes out of, especially a man’s, mouth is about my appearance. We always make those kind of micro flash decisions on how to handle it.

Q. How do you handle it?

Now at my age and grace, at 55, I say “I’m really glad you like my talk. I’d love your thoughts about my point about blank.”  But it’s still a world where women, what are we up to now?  80 cents on the dollar, up from 79 cents. 

Q. You have two sons, this gives you a chance to raise men who believe in equality. How are you doing that?

I told them they had no choice. They had to be humanists and feminists. It’s hard to dictate that, isn’t it?  I tried to lead by example. I think for all of us working mothers in this age, we still try to be a bit like superwoman, to make every tennis match, etc. but I also structured my work life so I could do that. I also tried to lead by example with them and maybe we tend to treat them like adults too early, but I think they always thought what I did was important because I always worked in the public sector or nonprofit world. Then, like every good working mom, I just brought them along. They traveled with me. They’ve been to places and they got to meet people they would not have been able to if not for my career. 

We also talked a lot, as you might guess, even if we were notorious for our late dinners in our household because I wanted to make sure we all had dinner together as often as we could.  We also cooked together. First I had them in the sling, then I would literally sit them on the counter and they could use the KitchenAid mixer. They could turn it on and off. I don’t know if I taught them to clean house as well as I would like but they are pretty good at that.  I was blessed that my husband and their father was devoted and was just an incredible father and partner. We talked a lot and we read a lot and we tried to travel as much as we could. 

Sure, it’s a challenge. I thought I always wanted girls. I guess you always want what you are, but I have been so blessed by my sons. They are brilliant and thoughtful.  I also tried to make sure they knew, because we are so fortunate, that it was imperative that they give back. I’d much rather have them volunteer all summer than work for minimum wage.  I call them my man cubs because they’re still becoming, they’re not quite grown.

Q. Are they excited about your new job? 

They’re pretty proud. When I was offered this job we had long conversations. They were absolutely delighted and it was very much “You go Mom.  You go be you. You be the best historian and the highest ranked historian in the nation.” It was very exciting for them. They’ve both been here. I think it’s overwhelming for mere mortals, never mind being the sons of the director. And my older son is a double major in History and Physics and my younger son is an English major. So, trust me, there is plenty to see here.

Q. What does a great day look like for you in this new role?

A great day first includes I get off at the Smithsonian stop: Yellow, Blue or Silver line.  I’m coming from Eastern Market/Capitol Hill. A truly great day starts when I get to look to the West and see the Washington Monument, and look to the East and see the Capitol and then I get to walk across The Mall every day and say hi to our fabulous security guards and really to work with my staff. 

I love being on the floor. Before I talked to you, I just walked out a guest with whom I had lunch. We collected, my second week, the boots, the dress and the wig from Broadway’s Kinky Boots. Historians don’t get to go on Broadway. It’s very rare for us even if we can hum a tune. We just last Friday installed them in one of our cases right next to the Ruby Slippers. The elevator comes up to 5 and I’m taking down my guest and a bunch of school kids are in the elevator. Even though the fourth and fifth floors are staff floors, the elevators come up if we call them.  So we get the surprised looking wide-eyed kids trying to figure out how they got up here and I say, “It’s ok, we’ll take you down.” We start talking about how we’re going to go down and see one of our newest acquisitions with our guest from Broadway and they were asking, “What are they, what are they?”

So I was explaining to a group of like 10, all crammed in an elevator together, Kinky Boots. They hadn’t seen the musical. So it was wonderful.  They were taking pictures. And they were saying “Oh my God, a man wore these.” I told them the story of the show, I love those moments.

It is really kind of connecting and sharing about history through objects and manuscripts and then really thinking about ways to reach people who don’t think that they necessarily have a place here. We’re working a lot with the accessibility office [which is right here in our office] and thinking about members of our community who struggle with sight or mobility.

Also getting to see some of the collection. It’s going to take me many, many years to see but when I get to, of course, with gloves, hold Helen Keller’s watch, which was given to her by an ambassador, the edges have little raised dots because they need to be able to tell time and not be rude, that’s going to be in our Girlhood Show.  We’re doing three shows for Women’s Initiative and the biggest is Girlhood, It’s Complicated. It’s everything from Helen Keller’s watch to the scarf that Naomi Wadler wore when she was, what 12? in the Women’s March.  That’s going to be incredible. I love when I get to see the objects. That’s going to open June 12, 2020 on [The International Labor Organization’s] World Day Against Child Labor.

" I think good leaders understand as much as they possibly can every day, both the perspective and the potential."

Q. What advice do you have for those for anyone who aspire to leadership? What makes you a good leader? 

Along with diligence, which I mentioned previously, compassion. I think good leaders understand as much as they possibly can every day, both the perspective and the potential. I also think good leaders shouldn’t assume much, especially when you’re moving fast and when we work on a really big scale. Courage is a huge part of leadership, knowing when you need to rely both on, hopefully, very deep and well constructed assessment of issues on which you’ll have to decide, but also then relying on that combination of intellect and intuition.

My biggest thing about leadership, especially coming from the non-profit and mothering world, is never ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself.  I’ll never forget my roommate was getting married right out of college. She didn’t have a lot of money, she had a beautiful party at her parent’s backyard and what happens at beautiful parties in people’s backyards? The toilet overflows. My dad, in his beautiful suit – my dad is a plumbing contractor and he probably hasn’t fixed a toilet because he was building Marriotts, literally, and hospitals – so he probably hasn’t gotten down on the ground since he was an apprentice. To his everlasting credit, this was in Southern California, it’s probably 100 degrees in her backyard, and he takes off his blazer, and he goes in and fixes my friend’s mom’s toilet. 

There are a lot of metaphorical toilets.  It’s that you need to stay humble. There’s plenty in this job that’s kind of an exercise of power and humility and the courage that you have to have to do that, but there’s grace and humility that I hope as we walk through life should also shine forth.


*Interview has been edited and condensed.


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