Museum: Rob Schwenker is the new leader at the History Museum. Courtesy photo

Santa Monica History Museum (SMHM)’s new Executive Director is a familiar face around the institution located on 7th Street between Santa Monica Boulevard and Arizona Avenue: longtime Executive Board member Rob Schwenker.

Over the past couple of decades of community service, Schwenker has done it all, from the Santa Monica Kiwanis Club to the Jaycees to PAL (Police Activities League) to the Santa Monica College Associates and on and on. Most recently, he has spent more than seven years on the SMHM Board, including serving a tenure as Chairperson. 

Outside his impressive volunteer experience, Schwenker has also spent the last five years founding and running a communications company called 6th St. Communications; before that, he spent more than a decade on the business side of the Daily Press.

“For a while, I have wanted to feel like what I did for a living every single day was making some kind of impact in the lives of people,” Schwenker said in a recent interview with the Daily Press. So, starting in August, he decided to pivot away from his communication company and take on the full-time job of running the history museum. 

The local museum spent its first few years as little more than a concept. In the time between its inception at Santa Monica’s centennial celebration in 1975 and opening its first physical space in 1988, supporters were diligently compiling what would become the museum’s vast collection, before it could finally go on display. 

For the next decade, it bounced from location to location around Santa Monica. It was not until 2009 that the SMHM’s permanent home was found on the campus of the Santa Monica Library.

Today the museum boasts six galleries, a research library and more than 600,000 rare photographs, making it one of the largest collections in Southern California, according to the SMHM website.

In 2021, the all-volunteer museum leadership board decided its funding and ambitions were high enough that it was time to take the next step, hiring the first SMHM executive director, John Kearns. About one year later, Kearns departed and this time, the museum decided to recruit from within its ranks to find its next leader.

“We just created this role last year, and so, in many ways, part of my responsibility is defining what this role is as we move forward into the future and how the executive director interacts with the board of directors,” Schwenker said. “Having a deep familiarity with the organization, and in many ways having shaped how our governing board has come together over the last six years, that’s something that I’m really concerned with. I want to define this position for the executive director 10 years from now. I want to make sure that we create a sustainable organization across the board.”

Part of that 10-year plan includes a draft strategic plan currently in the works, laying out strategic pillars including community engagement, education and equity, Schwenker said.

In the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the surrounding cultural reckoning, SMHM responded by redoubling its efforts toward representing the real, diverse history of Santa Monica and lifting up voices that had previously been silenced. Part of that was the current exhibition, Broadway to Freeway, the opening of which in March 2021 coincided with the reopening of the museum for the first time since it was closed due to the pandemic a year earlier.

“In the summer of 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, I think a lot of organizations said the right things about diversity, equity and inclusion; I think fewer organizations did the right things,” Schwenker reflected, “and I think even fewer of those organizations continued to follow through on those aims. One of the things that excited me the most about this role, and something that the Santa Monica History Museum has done a fantastic job of, is really leaning into our focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.”

But to Schwenker, Broadway to Freeway is neither the beginning nor the end of SMHM’s efforts toward equity.

“I think that that work is living, I think that that work is evolving,” Schwenker said. “I think we have to live up to that every single day, and I think that’s a challenge for us. But I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

When asked what changes might come about due to his tenure at the helm of the nearly 35-year-old institution, Schwenker said success would continue to depend on the dedication of the museum’s “amazing Board of Directors.” He also added that exhibits would continue to focus on broader context and lessons for the community going forward.

“I think that together, our group is going to make sure that people who are fans of the museum, who’ve known us for a really long time, continue to see us produce the kind of exhibits that they’ve always loved,” Schwenker said. “I think the change that they might see is that you know, we’re going to try to teach a lesson or send a message or make a point, every single time we do an exhibition.”

emily@smdp.com

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of John Kearns’ name.

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