By Julia Kyles
Kevin Cabrera’s journey from being a student studying business management in California to director of the College Park Aviation Museum was not a direct flight.
“Aviation was not my field of expertise. I would consider myself a public historian, oral historian, a cultural historian. My experience was leading a museum, setting vision, setting mission and reaching those goals,” Cabrera said. “When I saw the job opening at the College Park Aviation Museum, what really intrigued me was the history of the place. Who wouldn’t want to work next to the oldest operating airport in the world?”
He accepted the job in May 2020, and then the pandemic struck.
“It was definitely a huge shock. I had accepted the position and was planning to start at the museum in April. And then March hits, and everything kind of shut down,” Cabrera recalled. He started in May of last year and did his initial training virtually, from California, before moving east that June.
Because the museum was closed, Cabrera couldn’t observe normal day-to-day operations or easily connect with colleagues and local schools.
“The hardest was not being able to see the community,” he said.
Cabrera could familiarize himself with the museum, though. He was allowed to enter the building and went in every day.
“It was [a] challenging time but allowed me to see the museum, to start to plan, to see some of the things we could possibly do, look at some of the exhibits that we currently had and make some little changes that were easy to do,” he noted. The museum reopened to the public in March 2021.
Cabrera had spent time in this area, but relocating to College Park held some surprises. “When we moved out here, I was in shock and awe of all the nature. All the trails, all the parks, all the trees, all the greenery,” he said. Cabrera enjoys running and bicycling.
But how did a student who was majoring in business management become a museum director? Cabrera first changed majors, a step that took him back to his early interest in history. But while history was his favorite subject, Cabrera didn’t enjoy school and described himself as an average student.
When he started working on projects related to California’s history, Cabrera realized how highly personal and alive it can be. One of his projects, in particular, focused on the experience of Mexican students integrating into California’s white-only schools in the 1940s, after 20 years of being excluded from them.
“To see you had these students who were Mexican, but segregated, I felt like that really connected to the work I was doing at the history room,” Cabrera said. His work involved collecting and preserving the oral histories of local Latino, Vietnamese and African-American communities, people who typically aren’t depicted in U.S. museums, Cabrera noted. He felt a personal connection to the desegregation exhibit. “For me, being a Mexican American, having a Latino background — that was the first time I saw an exhibit that connected to me.”
Cabrera also worked on a project exploring the cultural and social life of African Americans in California’s Orange County, from the 1920s to the 1990s, and the experience was meaningful for him. ”With oral histories, you’re getting [an account] from that person’s point of view. And that’s why I really enjoy doing oral history. That’s what I really enjoyed about working with and doing history that is considered more modern. You can still have those in-person conversations,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera’s work landed him a job as an educator at the Heritage Museum of Orange County. He went on to become interim director in 2015, then permanent director, a position he held for five years.
Then he learned that an aviation museum on the other side of the country was looking for a new director. He applied for the job and was soon booking a flight. He landed safely, and now it’s the museum that’s taking off.
“One of the things that we do share at the museum is how much innovation has occurred in aviation,” Cabrera said, adding that he wants the museum to spark visitors’ curiosity and inspire them to dig deeper.
He’s considering creating a design studio where museum visitors could learn how to create a pre-flight checklist, design their own airplane and even explore piloting. He hopes that such offerings would attract students at any level who are interested in engineering, technology and aviation.
Cabrera is also invested in partnerships; he noted that he wants to “build a much deeper relationship with our surrounding communities … and surrounding neighborhoods. I’m very big on bringing in communities.”
Increasing diversity in the museum profession is another area Cabrera feels strongly about, and he would like to help minority students envision themselves as curators, archivists, educators and museum directors. “From a personal standpoint, it’s something that is very important to me. I feel like there’s a lot of lack of diversity in the museum profession. When I became a director, I was kind of taken aback when I went to a meeting, and I was the only minority.”
Cabrera also wants students to know that there’s more to life than grades. “Just because you might not do well in high school or middle school, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to do well in something else,” he said, speaking from his personal experience.
Cabrera’s path to College Park is helping him innovate how history is taught at College Park’s beloved landmark — the oldest continuously operating airport in the world.