D.C.’s historical society hires a new director and braces for challenges and opportunities


John Suau, the new executive director of the Historical Society of Washington, in front of the society's headquarters at the Carnegie Library building at Mount Vernon Square. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist May 6

The first thing we must establish about John Suau, the new executive director of the Historical Society of Washington, is how to pronounce his name.

The first name’s easy — duh — but the last name can be a challenge. “Suau” does not rhyme with “luau,” the Hawaiian feast. It does not sound like “soo-uh.” It is not Chinese, though John says many people assume it is.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

It sounds like this: “swow.”

“It’s actually the Catalan word for ‘suave,’ ” John told me over breakfast at the K Street NW Busboys and Poets not long ago.

How cool is that?

John became executive director in March, marking another welcome milestone in the society’s steady move to sounder footing. Battered by the eye-wateringly expensive upkeep of its home — the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square — the society once had to temporarily shutter its research library and furlough employees. Help was at hand in 2011 when Events D.C. — the city’s convention arm — took over the building.

“I wouldn’t call it a midlife crisis,” John said of the society’s woes, “but it needs sort of a makeover, a reinvention, and the project that is happening with the Spy Museum is one of the things that appealed to me.”

You will recall that a deal has been inked for the enormously popular Spy Museum to relocate to the Carnegie Library. Some 40,000 square feet of new space will be carved out under the building. With hundreds of thousands of tourists coming to ogle James Bond’s car and squint at microdots, the society should get some bycatch.

The changes will not be without disruption. Perhaps I should have led with this news: In about 18 months, the society will have to temporarily vacate the Carnegie Library. It will be out of the building for about two years, John said.

“I want to keep everyone focused on that,” he said. “We have to move. We have to be prepared for that when the time comes.”

He hopes that whatever temporary space the society occupies will be open to the public and include the library.

“It’s a challenge to disassociate ourselves from a physical space when we move, so we’re working on programming that’s more community-based,” John said.

That includes establishing relationships with other organizations. In July, the society is partnering with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture for a program called “Saving Our African American Treasures.” Members of the public will be invited to bring their artifacts for inspection by experts, a la “Antiques Roadshow.” In August, the society plans to unveil an exhibit on go-go music sponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

John, 51, grew up in Peoria, Ill., went to Iowa for college and then spent eight years in Europe, working at museums in Spain and Italy. He came to Washington to get his master’s degree in arts administration at American University, then worked at the American Alliance of Museums before heading up the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums.

Eight years ago, John moved to Florida, where he did work for a small shell museum on Sanibel Island, then joined a tech company that helps museums put exhibit information on smartphones. He’s not a historian or a curator but an administrator who aims to help the society — with a staff of five, currently, and a budget just under $1 million — navigate some challenging years.

A historical society can’t focus on just the past. It has to focus on the present, too, especially in a city such as Washington, which is rapidly changing before our very eyes.

“So much history has been made in Washington, D.C., in the eight years I’ve been gone,” John said. “I still walk down the street and go: ‘Wait, where am I? This is not the D.C. I remember.’ ”

If John and the society are successful, memories of this Washington — and many others — will be preserved forever for future generations.

And all that jazz

Hot off the presses is the new issue of Washington History, the historical society’s journal. Editors Blair Ruble and Maurice Jackson have assembled a special issue devoted to jazz in the District, with stories that include the haunts of Duke Ellington, the clubs of Seventh Street and the sounds of jazz on the radio.

And on May 20, the society is celebrating its 120th birthday. Historian and author Kathryn Schneider Smith, editor of “Washington at Home,” the invaluable book on the District’s neighborhoods, will receive the society’s first-ever Visionary Historian Award. For information, visit historydc.org.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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