The key to working in public history is to be adaptable and willing to try anything. You will learn quickly in this field that no matter what the job description said you will be asked to do things you never imagined were in your skill set. If this scares you, don’t become a public historian and definitely don’t work in an institution that presents history, for instance a museum. If you like to be creative and like the challenge of coming up with new approaches and constantly learning new skills, public history is the place to be.
For seven years I’ve worked in public history and done everything from research to interpretive programming to managing an exhibit to creating databases and pretty much everything in between. Each contract is different but the one similarity is a willingness to try new things and push new ways of conveying information to the public is essential. In these contracts I have been a website contributor (Active History), event planner, POS expert, interviewer, designer, video editor, researcher, guide, and general assistant to whom even needs assisting. Often I am many of these things at once.
Not convinced? Here are the various hats I’ve worn this week:
Photo Shoot Assistant
Only four of these jobs fall under the umbrella of what you would learn in a history program. The rest are skills I’ve picked up and developed over years of public history work. I am a decent video editor because of the year I spent co-producing EHTV: Live from the Field for NiCHE. I am an event planner because in grad school I organized far too many conferences, social events, and workshops. My academic work in visual history allows me to assist the designers and act as a bridge between the content expert curator and the creative minds who will make an exhibit look amazing. However, my programming expertise is limited to one class in html back in 1998 and I only got to play at app designing this week because the IT guys found a seemingly idiot proof program I could populate for them. (Unfortunately, the program’s linear design means it is useless for what we need it to do so it is useless.)
Next week will likely be more of the same because public history is one of the most interdisciplinary fields around. There is no hard edge to delineate what the job entails. To convey history to the public in a meaningful way you must go beyond the written word and a token picture. Everything must fit together to create something that conveys the richness of a topic that does not rely heavily on text in order to engage multiple learning styles and all ages and education levels. This means incorporating new technology with the tried and tested standards of exhibiting — a text panel and archival image that functions alongside a tablet for exploring old newspaper articles or videos. Layering how information is presented in this way allows makes an exhibit accessible and exciting. It is this challenging process of making history resonate with the public and trying new ways of presenting it — ways that don’t even seem like learning about history — that keeps me interested and working in this field. There is nothing more rewarding than wandering around an exhibit you’ve helped create and seeing visitors interacting with it exactly how you hoped they would.
Public history is the most creative branch of history. Innovations in how to tell history is reflections the creativity and daring of the people working in the field. Telling the story in a new way shows people who write off the past as a dry series of names and dates that it is exciting and interesting and fun. It shows how pertinent something that happened a century ago is to what we do today. If making history fun means I have to learn how set-up a basic program on an iPad then I welcome the opportunity (and will happily leave the really technical stuff to the pros).