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Sarah Kautz: A Passion for History

Tue, 04/02/2024 - 07:09
Sarah Kautz, seen here outside the Rogers Mansion, brings a peripatetic career as a historical anthropologist to the Southampton History Museum.
Mark Segal

What does the Town of Southampton have in common with a small man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, named Dejima?

Both are the focus of Sarah Kautz, the historical anthropologist who took over the Southampton Historical Museum last September, and whose Ph.D. thesis at the University of Chicago explores the Dutch East India Company's global expansion, which had a base on Dejima from 1641 until 1858.

Ms. Kautz recalled digging in a dirt patch outside her family's home in Queens, and loving the Indiana Jones movies, but it was only when she arrived at Stony Brook University that she saw her future clearly.

"There is a specialty called historical anthropology where you study historical documents," she said during a conversation at the historical museum. "It’s history with an anthropological frame of theory and method. And there’s also historical archaeology, which is archaeology from periods where there are documents."

Her first excavation was at the Brewster House in Setauket, which dates from ca. 1655. But, influenced by of one of her professors, John Shea, a paleoanthropologist, she elected to travel to South Africa for her semester abroad. The focus was Stone Age archaeology. "It was just fantastic. We dug in sites tens of thousands of years old." 

After graduation, Ms. Kautz entered the M.A. program in historical archaeology at the University of South Carolina. While there she did some "contract archaeology" -- archaeological survey and excavation carried out in areas threatened or revealed by road building or other development. 

One project she worked on involved the medicinal practices of the Gullah people of South Carolina's Lowcountry. She also took part in "conversations between descendants of plantation families and the people who worked on the plantations whose ancestors had been enslaved. There were fascinating conversations about how to preserve plantation museums but tell everybody’s story."

Ms. Kautz, who holds a graduate certificate in museum management, links those experiences to her new job in Southampton, where the dominant stories of the Rogers Mansion, for example, center on the Rogers family, who became wealthy through whaling, and on Samuel Parrish, a Gilded Age lawyer who eventually bought and expanded the mansion.

While that history is important, she said, "We want to find ways of bringing other stories into the space. For our next exhibition, we're going to work with Ma's House and Jeremy Dennis, and the theme will be reclamation of all the stories that are part of our history. The mission of the museum is Southampton at large, and the Shinnecock Nation is very much part of the community."

After earning her master's, Ms. Kautz considered continuing for a Ph.D. Ever since Stony Brook, she said, she'd been focused on early global expansion, specifically that of the Dutch East India Company in East Asia.

She knew about Dejima, which had been built by residents of Nagasaki in 1636 as a base for Portuguese traders who were not allowed to set foot on the mainland. The Portuguese left soon after, and the Dutch replaced them, in part by assuring the Japanese that they were not looking to proselytize, only to trade.

That history, and the excavation of Dejima, is known in both Japan and Holland, "but not so much beyond that. So I thought, this is fantastic, because it really challenges a lot of the narratives about global trade."

Ms. Kautz, realizing that she would never be accepted into a doctoral program to study an area she'd never visited, applied to a foreign exchange program run by the Japanese government to teach English, and was accepted. She was in Japan for a year and a half, making connections, picking up the language, and meeting archaeologists, who were astounded to encounter an American who was interested in the history of that area.

Back home, she was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago and started there in 2007. Four years later, having finished the course work and wanting a break, she returned to New York and landed a job at the Elliott Galleries, whose specialty was cleaning out estates.

Ms. Kautz worked with appraisers, trying to bring order to what was often a hodgepodge of collectibles, and helped with the cataloging. "I learned a lot about decorative arts and fine arts and furniture. It was a great experience that helped enable the pivot back into museums."

Her next stop, in 2014, was the Museum of the City of New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission, part of whose job is to excavate city parks and other city-owned land for historical artifacts. Ms. Kautz worked on the cataloging of those discoveries, which led to the creation of the New York City Archaeological Repository. Its almost one million objects can now be accessed online.

Between jobs, Ms. Kautz would return to Chicago to meet her teaching requirements. With only her dissertation outstanding, she was advanced to "candidacy," a term that refers to someone who has completed all other formal requirements for a doctorate.

When the repository project ended, the position of preservation director opened up at Preservation Long Island. "It was funny, because when I had first gone from rural upstate New York to Stony Brook 20 years earlier, it seemed very suburban to me, very dense. I thought there wasn't a lot of history here. Now, having traveled the world, I could see things I hadn't seen before."

Her role was to help venues seeking to obtain landmark designation. "There's a lot of misunderstanding about local landmark designation as opposed to state and national registries of historical places. There's a fear they will have a lot of burdensome restrictions placed on them, and I was able to help guide them to the right people to help them through the process." 

Among the East End sites she was involved with or weighed in on were Guild Hall, the Brooks-Park Art and Nature Center, the Elaine de Kooning House, and the SANS neighborhoods of Sag Harbor.

Ms. Kautz left Preservation Long Island in February 2023 to start the Sarah Kautz Consulting Corp, whose mission is to help clients navigate "complicated regulations and technical details" to "protect, preserve, and celebrate the places we love."

Not long after she launched the consultancy, which is still active, Tom Edmunds retired from the Southampton Historical Museum. People Ms. Kautz had worked with, among them Georgette Grier-Key of the Eastville Community Historical Society and Brenda Simmons, the founder of the Southampton African American Museum, urged her to apply for the position.

For all the time she'd spent on the East End, the new head of the museum had never lived here until settling in Sag Harbor. She called the job "another adventure. The East End has a lot of challenges that seem intractable. But one thing about historical preservation that's galvanizing is that everybody loves buildings and old stuff. So in my work, a great way to get people to come to the table is through this shared interest in history and historic things."

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