Historical Society Executive Director Izzy Kasdin Shares Her Love of History with the Community
EXPLORING HISTORY: “I enjoy the opportunity to talk with people about history, and see them get excited about it. I also love seeing them get involved with an exhibit or event that we have put together.” Izzy Kasdin, executive director of the Historical Society of Princeton, is enthusiastic about introducing people to history’s unique insight and relevance to today’s world.
It’s not just facts and figures and dates. It’s ideas and events and explorations. And, especially, it is stories. Stories about people and places and not only major historical figures whose names we all know — but about those we don’t know. It’s about what they did, what they thought, how they lived, how they worked.
This is history and this is what engages Izzy Kasdin, executive director of the Historical Society of Princeton.
From the time she was a young girl growing up in Princeton, she has been fascinated by moments from the past and how they resonate today.
“My first exposure to history was through historical fiction,” she recalls. “I was a huge reader as a child, and historical fiction was my favorite genre. When I was very young, the American Girl doll and Dear America books were all the rage. Those were probably the first historical fiction books I read, and they were incredibly powerful — I could read about girls my age participating in major historical events. They made history relevant to me; I saw myself represented in the narrative.”
“In the back of the American Girl doll books, the authors always included a section where they would showcase real photographs, documents, and artifacts from the events or period recounted in the book,” she says. “That was my first exposure to primary sources. Historical fiction was my entry point to history, and I think it’s such a great springboard for conversations about real historical themes and events.”
While a student at Princeton High School, Kasdin became a high school docent at the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP), then headquartered at Bainbridge House on Nassau Street.
“I loved it,” she remembers. “It was my first exposure to public history, and I wanted to learn more about a public history institution. Erin Doherty, the director, took me under her wing, and I learned so much.
Kasdin’s interest in history continued and deepened when she entered Princeton University, where she majored in history and American studies. “I discovered that historical information and historical thinking are two different things. It is important to think critically, examine forces, and understand perspectives.”
During her college years, she also served as a museum education intern with the Ford’s Theater Society. In addition, she spent a semester at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.
After graduating from Princeton in 2014, she worked as a research assistant at HSP, later returning to England, where she earned a Masters of Philosophy (MPhil) in archaeological heritage and museums at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar.
While in England, Kasdin had been offered the position of curator of collections and exhibits at HSP, which she accepted in 2015. She continued in that role prior to becoming executive director.
Founded in 1938 (and one of the first historical societies in the area), HSP’s vision is to serve as a “hub for experiential education, and stewardship of collections and places,” according to its mission statement. “HSP preserves and shares Princeton’s diverse, important, and fascinating stories with wide audiences. In so doing, HSP enhances community vitality and builds historical literacy, cornerstones of healthy civic culture.”
Since its founding, HSP has amassed, recorded, and exhibited a collection of more than 100,000 artifacts, manuscripts, photographs, decorative arts objects, artwork, household items, and articles of clothing dating from pre-Colonial times to the present.
This collection underscores a broad range of educational services and activities that HSP offers to local residents, students, scholars, and visitors from around the world. Walking tours, lectures, recreational activities, and educational programs for school and the general public are all included.
Named HSP executive director in 2016, Kasdin is now responsible for overseeing the smooth functioning of these various aspects of the HSP mission.
She supervises all daily operations and is responsible for monitoring HSP’s fiscal health as well as directing and executing the organization’s strategic plan and long-term vision. She is also active in directing HSP’s menu of programs and exhibits.
“I wear many hats,” she says with a smile. “I’m involved in HR, finance, development, and also serve as CEO. Every day is different. I enjoy working in a small organization and being confronted every day with the operation of an historical organization. We are a small but mighty organization!”
Her appointment as director came shortly after HSP moved to its current location at the Updike Farmstead at 354 Quaker Road in 2016. After nearly 50 years at Bainbridge House (which was once the site of the Princeton Public Library), HSP had an opportunity to move to a new home. The Updike location provides more space and room for expansion for the Society’s collections, exhibits, and events.
Moving to this historic property, which was settled by Quakers and dates to 1690, adds yet another dimension to HSP’s dynamic role in making history come alive both to residents of the area and visitors.
“My office is this historic farmhouse, sections of which date to 1790,” reports Kasdin. “We have also renovated a large barn from 1892, and the oldest beam there is from a tree dating to the 1580s.”
Kasdin’s enthusiasm for the site is contagious, and visitors share her excitement. “Our visitors come to us with varying levels of historical background, and are interested in learning more. Some visitors come from all over the world.
“I am very pleased that we have doubled the audience for the public programming, which has also greatly increased since 2016. We have a variety of walking tours all relevant to Princeton history, among them, Princeton University architecture, the University eating clubs, and a new tour on the contribution of women in the community.”
HSP also provides digital tours, such as the Albert E. Hinds Memorial Tour: African American Life in Princeton.
On view at the new location are many and varied exhibitions. For example, a permanent exhibit, the Einstein Salon, features furniture from his home on Mercer Street and other memorabilia.
Sharing the same room is the Innovators Gallery, a rotating exhibit celebrating the life and work of a Princeton-based innovator. On the first floor of the farmhouse, visitors can also learn about the history of the farm site.
Another current exhibition focuses on Woodrow Wilson and World War I.
Group programs, public programs, school programs, and other various events are all part of the HSP purview. And in many cases, in innovative ways, under Kasdin’s leadership, they are pushing the boundaries of the traditional local historical museum model.
“Exhibitions can be held in other places as well as the Farmstead, including the public library, the Charles Schwab branch on Nassau Street, and the Arts Council,” she points out.
“We also regularly present what we call Open Archive programs, featuring an hour and half look at never-seen collections. These programs are particularly exciting to me because we don’t provide a huge amount of interpretation right off the bat, although the curator is on hand to answer any and all questions. Different attendees strike up the conversations with their neighbors about their observations and questions about each document or artifact. I love how history becomes a conversational and social activity at these programs. They can be held all over, and it’s hands-on, interactive, nothing in glass cases. People really enjoy this.”
“We also have a new Historical Fiction Book Group series. We advertise the book, people read it, and then come for the discussion. I love pairing novels with scholars to unpack different periods and places, and build historical literacy within the community.”
The renovated barn at the Updike location is used for many different events, including rental space for gatherings, receptions, and occasions, notes Kasdin.
“Also,” she says, “in addition to programs for middle and elementary school students, we have recently branched out into high school classrooms. The goal is always to use primary sources to ground a larger historical topic in something recognizable and relevant to students. And also to leverage primary sources in order to hone students’ critical reading and analysis skills.”
As a nonprofit organization, HSP must focus on funding. Revenue is provided through state funding, membership dues, grants, contributions from corporations, foundations, institutions, individuals, and fundraising events.
Kasdin is directly involved in these efforts through mailings, writing grants, and face-to-face interaction.
After more than two years as executive director, Izzy Kasdin has found that her commitment to history had deepened and her desire to share it with others has increased.
“I think what actually surprised me was my ability and zeal for articulating why history education matters. For so long, history has been a personal, private joy of mine, but I never really had to justify why I enjoyed it so much. It’s been quite inspiring — and important — in this role to have the opportunity to explain to the broader community why history is so important, and to search for those reasons within my own historical interests. I was surprised by my own passion in that area. I truly have become one of history’s most vocal advocates because of this role.
“Now, I look forward to continuing to transform the Updike site to be a destination for all types of people and for many different purposes. It’s not just museum space. We want to make it relevant to many people and in many ways.”