Katie Caljean distinctly traces her love of history back to second grade, when she was living in Dover, New Jersey.
“I had a wonderful teacher who made social studies engaging and prompted curiosity through hands-on lessons,” she recalled. “I found discovering how to read maps and use a compass particularly exciting. I was drawn to learning about world cultures and Indigenous peoples of the Americas throughout high school.”
That love of learning continued through college when she studied anthropology and archaeology with a focus on the peoples and cultures of Latin America.
As the first woman to be named president and CEO of The Maryland Center for History and Culture, formerly the Maryland Historical Society, Caljean wants to pass on that love of historical learning to the 100,000 visitors that come to the center annually.
She also knows that her historic appointment is bigger than her.
“While I am the first female president and CEO of the Maryland Center for History and Culture, other women paved the path for leadership roles at the institution,” she said, mentioning women such as Romaine Somerville, who served as curator and director from 1978-1984; Barbara Katz, who led the organization as the first female president of the board from 2001-2004; and Louise Lake Hayman, who was Chairperson from 2015-2020.
“I stand on their shoulders and will continue to lead the organization forward with creativity, collaboration and empathy,” she said.
Caljean succeeds Mark Letzer, who stepped down after seven years in the leadership role. Letzer, who now becomes the institution’s executive chairman after being affiliated with the organization for 28 years, said he is “confident” in her abilities to lead and that she is the “right person to take MCHC forward.”
Board chairman Clinton Daly said in a statement that the board is most impressed with Caljean’s “abilities, her demonstrated leadership, and forward thinking on behalf of the organization.”
Caljean, who has been with the organization for the past decade, has served in various roles — most recently as senior vice president of education and strategic engagement.
In addition to leading the development of the center’s new virtual learning studios and other successful initiatives, Caljean has also overseen several departments: K-12 education, university-level programs, youth and family programs, adult tours, virtual public programs, community outreach, strategic partnerships and academic publications.
The center, which was founded in 1844, is believed to be the oldest cultural institution in the state. With 38 employees, the institution has an endowment of $12.7 million and an annual operating budget of $4.2 million.
The Baltimore Banner asked Caljean her thoughts on several topics related to her recent appointment.
How has the killing of George Floyd and the racial reckoning affected the center and the way it operates?
Despite recent national events and movements, the racial reckoning is not new for Baltimore. Our city has been at the center of many pivotal moments of the long civil rights movement, and MCHC has documented these events and stories for decades, including most recently Freddie Gray.
MCHC’s oral history collections are at the heart of our most recent exhibition, ‘Passion and Purpose: Voices of Maryland’s Civil Rights Activists.’ Archiving these stories is important for future historians, but it is also our responsibility to share these personal accounts in an accessible way today. Visitors can now listen to and read excerpts from dozens of oral history conversations with notable civil rights leaders — many recorded more than 40 years ago — including Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Clarence Mitchell Jr., Gloria Richardson, Esther McCready, Walter Sondheim Jr., Verda Freeman Welcome, and others.
‘Passion and Purpose’ also exhibits recent oral histories about the civil rights movement, including a collection created in the 2000s by Baltimore City high school students who conducted research at MCHC and interviewed people involved in the civil rights movement as part of the Doris M. Johnson Project oral history collection. The students picked up where the earlier oral histories recorded in the 1970s left off, casting a wider view of the continuing struggle for civil rights. The exhibition also shares oral histories recorded during the 2015 Baltimore Uprising.
‘Passion and Purpose’ also serves as an educational tool for students, teachers, and the community about civil rights history. It originated from the growing needs of MCHC’s education department to aid teachers and students across Maryland to address civil rights topics in the classroom. We also have created a community space in the exhibition intentionally designed to be a place for people to gather together, reflect on the stories heard in the exhibition and gain inspiration from activist organizations and projects throughout Maryland. We welcome artists or groups that are interested in hosting an event, calling a meeting or highlighting a project in this space.
What unique perspective will you bring to the job as a woman?
There are many women in leadership roles in the museum world today, especially in the arts organizations in Baltimore. Our city has been a wonderful stage for women leaders across the nonprofit sector. In terms of leadership style, I will bring openness and collaboration to the position. It takes a village and I welcome partnership in all forms.
What is the biggest obstacle the center faces?
Visibility and awareness have been the biggest challenges for MCHC. In September 2020, we rebranded the organization from the Maryland Historical Society to reflect a change in identity and purpose. MCHC seeks to be seen as a space where the community can come to discover and develop a deeper understanding of our nation’s history and culture through a Maryland prism.
We are more than a museum and library; we provide essential educational services and resources serving over 65,000 students and teachers each year. Moreover, many people do not know where we are physically located in Baltimore (we are in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, across the street from the Mount Vernon Marketplace and two blocks from the Washington Monument) or if our building is a space that invites anyone to walk through the doors (yes, all are welcome!).
What are your thoughts on critical race theory and banning books that include themes of race?
Choosing to not teach students about the structures of inequity that exist in society is a disservice. Students will inevitably ask questions about current events and the world around them. As educators, we need to be able to have open dialogues about race in classrooms and beyond. History enables us to ground conversations about racism with evidence from the past and facilitate thoughtful discussion regarding the inequities embedded in societal institutions, laws, and procedures that lead to racial discrimination today.
What can average citizens do to improve their historical IQ?
History is a constellation of truths that humans piece together in the present. There is no singular, objective history that has been written, nor is it a simple timeline of dates and facts to memorize. We each uniquely interpret past events with material evidence and data.
Whether we realize it or not, we tell ourselves a story about yesterday and how we choose to remember it. The best thing you can do as an individual is expand your worldview. Have a conversation with someone with a different perspective than your own. MCHC’s virtual and in-person public programs center on dialogue and bring together expertise and lived experiences for fuller conversations about the past and connections to the present.
What are the three features of the center that everyone must experience?
Engage in conversation with other history lovers at one of our dozens of public programs, either in person or virtually. ‘Do history’ yourself and dive into genealogical, neighborhood, or historical building research in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library, a rich archival resource for personal discovery. Explore the 10 exhibitions currently on view, especially the latest exhibition centered on oral histories: ‘Passion and Purpose: Voices of Maryland’s Civil Rights Activists.’
Who is your favorite historical figure in Maryland?
Benjamin Banneker is a fascinating person who was connected to the rhythms of the natural world around him. He was a self-taught mathematician and astronomer, one of the first African Americans to be recognized for his scientific achievements. He was also a successful farmer, surveyor, and almanac author.
MCHC is the home to his astronomical journal, which is one of my favorite items in the collection. The journal contains details of Banneker’s everyday life, as well as memories of his dreams and nightmares. He also documents the 1749 brood of 17-year cicadas (which we remember so fondly from 2021), a copy of his correspondence with President Thomas Jefferson, graphic projections for solar and lunar eclipses, and practical descriptions of how he obtained his data about planets, movement of stars, and different quarters of the moon.
Who is your favorite overall historical figure?
As a student of anthropology, Margaret Mead is the most inspiring. As a professor, researcher, author and museum curator, she taught Americans the value of looking at other cultures to understand the complexity of the human experience. Her goal was to apply the principles of anthropology to complex societal issues, such as world hunger, childhood education, gender inequality and mental health. Mead’s work reminds me to ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’
Who is Katie Caljean?
Title: President and CEO of the Maryland Center for History and Culture
Education: B.A. in anthropology with minors in archaeology and arts administration from Drew University and an M.A. in museum anthropology from Columbia University, a joint graduate program with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Resides: Towson (Has lived in the Baltimore region since 2012)
Born and raised: Dover, New Jersey
Interests and activities: pre-Columbian ceramics and material culture, puzzles, board games and yoga