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Smithsonian names woman to top post at American History Museum

Anthea M. Hartig will take over the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on Feb. 18. (Roman Cho)

The chief executive of the California Historical Society has been named the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Anthea M. Hartig becomes the first woman to be permanent director of the museum, one of the most popular Smithsonian attractions. She succeeds John Gray, who retired in May.

Hartig, 54, spent seven years at the San Francisco-based historical society, where she oversaw more than 20 exhibitions and worked with hundreds of state and local agencies and nonprofit organizations. The American History Museum, which opened in 1964, is a much larger institution, with 262 employees and a $50 million budget, compared to the California Historical Society’s 30 employees and $5 million budget.

“There’s a Native American proverb: ‘At a certain point you will come to a great chasm. Leap, for it is not as wide as you think,’ ” Hartig said in an interview. “It’s a big leap, and I am incredibly honored that the Smithsonian has placed its trust in me.”

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A lifelong Californian — “a K through PhD public school girl through and through,” she said — Hartig will take over a museum that is in the final stretch of a multiyear makeover that includes new galleries focused on American innovation, democracy and entertainment. She starts Feb. 18 and will earn $300,000 a year.

“The closing pitcher” is how Hartig described the role of bringing a long-standing project to completion. “How I’m approaching this is deeply understanding the work that has been done and positioning it and seeing how best to adjust it,” she said.

Hartig said she is eager to work on the recently announced Molina Family Latino Gallery, a joint effort with the Smithsonian Latino Center. Latinx history, she said, has been critical to her work in California, adding, “It’s a real gift to be able to inherit that partnership.”

Before joining the California Historical Society, Hartig was director of the Western Region of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where she created the Modernism and Recent Past Initiative. Before that, she was a history professor at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., and a municipal preservation planner.

Hartig also served on the California State Historical Resources Commission and in 2011 was named California preservationist of the year. She earned a master’s degree and doctorate in history at the University of California at Riverside.