Museums and Historic Sites in the 21st Century : Observations from the Field

Ever wonder what a group of talented, ambitious, passionate and creative young museum professionals would discuss if they got together on a Tuesday evening?  So did I.  

Hence, this event, which took place April 21, 2015:

We had a terrific panel discussion with practitioners working in historic museums, historic sites and other corners of the field.  I was so impressed  by the thoughtfulness and generosity of our panelists -- Bethany Groff Dorau, North Shore Regional Site Manager for Historic New England, Doneeca Thurston, Adult Programs Coordinator at the Peabody Essex Museum, Kate Preissler,  Executive Director at Wisteriahurst Museum and Jonathan Parker, Chief of Education, Interpretation and Collaborative Partnerships at National Parks Service -- Salem Maritime and Saugus Ironworks National Historic Sites.

The panelists engaged a series of questions --- taking one question at a time, each answered from her/his perspective. After each responded, they conversed together on the topic at hand.

The questions posed were:
  1. How did you get to your current position?  (Interests, major in college, graduate work, internships, other work, connections in the field, etc.)  Essentially, tell us about your journey.
  2. From your vantage point, where are the places of possibility in the world of museums and historic sites? Have they changed since you began paying attention?
  3. From your vantage point, what are the real challenges and problems facing the world of museums and historic sites? Have they changed since you began paying attention?
  4. What are some of the things you really wish someone had told you when you were in college or grad school about this line of work and breaking into it?

B. Dorau, D. Thurston, K. Preissler, J. Parker
From my perspective as a public historian and an educator, there were three things about this event that made it particularly productive.  First of all, the panelists were honest. Second, they captured the complexity and unpredictability of work in the field.  Third, they managed to convey savviness and passion in equal measure -- and I don't know about you, but I think that is amazing.  It is one thing to know your way around the pitfalls and land mines.  It is also one thing to be eager and idealistic and full of the joys of doing history in public. But to be both -- to do both --- is pretty unusual.  To have a panel of four people who each did this in her own way --- was quite amazing.  I felt so honored to listen and generally just humbled by them all.

Here, in no particular order, were some of the observations, suggestions and comments I found  most compelling:
  • Finding the right fit in the public history field has a lot to do with knowing yourself.  You need to think about the scale at which you want to work.  You need to be clear about what you really need -- the non-negotiables-- as well as about the things you are willing, if not happy, to put up with, because no job is perfect.  Do you want visitor contact?  Do you need to be around artifacts, to deeply engage your sense of place?  Or do you want to be able to develop and then implement a vision on a larger scale, even if it means letting go of that immediate access to people and even to objects? Do you want to be at a small site where you have close colleagues, like a family?  Or do you like being part of something big, something with many moving parts? (Bethany, Doneeca, Kate)
  •  You have to take care of yourself.  The work is demanding.  There are never enough resources.  There is never a lot of external (or even internal) acknowledgement and recognition of your efforts.  Finding ways to fill up the well when it runs dry, to say no or scale things back down, to step away in order to jump back in refreshed, are necessary in order to avoid burnout in public history jobs.  Turnover rates are high because people don't tend to themselves and there is subtle expectation that you will go above and beyond your job description every day, all day.  You serve the field, your site and yourself when you remember that everything cannot happen today and that you can't do everything yourself.  (Kate)
  • Being innovative and pushing boundaries does not always make you the most popular public historian on the block.  And that's OK -- as long as you know your allies and keep your focus on the big picture.   From introducing -- gasp!  alcohol --- to events at your historic site to providing more nuanced, historically accurate interpretations that challenge celebratory narratives your museum has comfortably retold for decades -- younger professionals challenge the status quo in all kinds of ways. It is really important to understand and be OK with the pushback.  It is also really important to have the support of your boss and critical players on your board and/or advisory committee.  (Bethany, Kate, Jonathan, Doneeca)
  • On a similar note, everyone on the panel reflected on the challenges of inclusivity and engagement -- these are ongoing.  The demographic of visitors and leadership in the field skews older, whiter, more highly educated than the U.S. public.  Public history professionals face the challenge of sharing, collaborating and including and engaging publics in meaningful ways every day.   (And sometimes the public doesn't want to engage.....imagine that?:))
  • Trust your path, even it is really circuitous.  Your English degree offers something unique in the world of historical narrative.  Your passion for the outdoors will come in handy as a young Park Service ranger.  Sometimes you have to take a job counting cutlery or teaching sailing to  make ends meet.  You have to jump from site to site without putting down roots.  Things have a way of coming together --- eventually, everything connects.  Or, almost everything. Don't ever disparage the work you do to earn a living --- waiting tables, catering, teaching in an after school program -- these all provide invaluable skills and unpredictable connections that will serve you well in the public history field.  Take heart. Have faith.  (Bethany, Kate, Jonathan, Doneeca)
  • If you don't want to do this more than you want to make money, have lots of free time and a predictable job description and schedule, this might not be the right career path for you.  Ditto if you see yourself doing work that is easily explained at a party or in an elevator.  There are countless benefits to working at museums and historic sites, just as there are lots of down sides.  It is not for everyone.  But if you think this is a safe, calm, dependable career choice, keep on moving -- nothing to see here.

I know, right?  Pretty awesome advice.  I don't know about you, but if these are the emerging leaders in the public history field, I think we are in really good shape!