Imagining New Careers in Public History

A working group

Archive for the category “willwalker”

Getting ready for the conference

Seth and I are looking forward to a spirited discussion on Friday morning.  We’ve formulated an agenda based on the major themes, issues, and recommendations that arose in the blog discussion.  Thanks to all who have contributed thus far.



Project Management

Many museums and historical not-for-profits suffer from poor management.  Therefore, I would argue that public historians are most needed as project managers.  Good public historians have highly refined skills of collaboration, communication, and teamwork.  They are also extremely well organized.  Coordinating an exhibition or other public historical project requires overseeing various moving parts, including assigning tasks to team members, setting deadlines, making budgets, and identifying clear objectives.

These skills are equally applicable to work in the not-for-profit and for-profit worlds. Here is part of the job description for a project management position at a for-profit corporation that is listed in the New York Times today:

Position Responsibilities:

-Manage multiple projects, with cross-functional impact or significant impact in a single functional area and/or business.

-Develop a thorough understanding of work processes, user needs and client needs for segments of the business impacted by assigned projects.

-Monitor and control projects so they remain aligned with strategic business initiatives, communicate project updates as necessary to sponsors/committees and ensures adequate resource requirements are available.

-Manage the overall project from inception to execution.

-Practice established project management protocols including the development of project plans/timelines, facilitation of project meetings, etc.

-Identify critical paths and contingency plans for large scale projects, including development of a work breakdown structure, identification of major milestones and changes in project scope, and sequencing of project activities.

-Partner with various key stakeholders, internal and external, to gather inputs and develop objectives, project scope, goals and deliverables for key business projects and initiatives.

-Create innovative and robust presentation documents in support of Recruiting efforts.

-Interface with leadership within the business.

-Research, develop and implement practices and procedures designed to eliminate bureaucracy and inefficiencies and improve service quality.

-Act as a subject matter expert and advise / consult with the Recruiting team or other key stakeholders; develop and cultivate business relationships vital to success of projects/business initiatives.

What are the essential skills highlighted here?  1) Organizing multiple projects with various moving parts from inception to execution; 2) Communicating effectively with stakeholders; 3) Interfacing with leadership (in the not-for-profit world that would be the director and board); and 4) Being an expert in a particular subject area.

Sounds like a public historian would be a perfect fit for this position!


Response to Question #2

Nancy, I’d like to thank you for your contributions to the conversation so far.  I hope that you are willing to stay in touch and also wonder if you would be willing to let Seth and me know privately by email exactly how you imagined the working group conversation was going to go.

Seth and I had hoped that the question we posed would be an expansive, inclusive one that encouraged the group to think about low/minimal compensation, moderate compensation, and high compensation.  We were attempting to ask about scale of earnings and about success in the same question, not saying one has to have high earnings to be successful.  In fact, we might have even intended to imply the opposite.  In our eyes, success in public history comes from being a participant in lots of collaborations, regardless of compensation.

As to conference attendance, I can only write about my own experience.  I started attending NCPH when I was a graduate student.  I received no (or very little) financial support for attending my first couple of years.  However, the network of contacts I made at those conferences has proven invaluable in my career.  Without sounding like an advertisement for the organization, I would not be the scholar or public history practitioner that I am without NCPH.  Although everyone must make their own determination regarding the cost-benefit of attending the conference, I can say that it has been an investment that has paid off for me.

So how to proceed?

Our inclination is to revise, but not abandon, Question #2.  To that end, Seth and I would like to solicit suggestions from the group for a modified version of this question.  We’ll wait a few days to give the group a chance to respond and then proceed.

I do hope that we can continue to build on a promising start.


Second question

Thank you for your thought-provoking responses to the first question.  Here is question #2, which will hopefully help us to explore perspectives beyond our own experience.

Many successful public history careers are built on the ability to collaborate or partner with various individuals/groups/stakeholders.  What scale of potential earnings is necessary to motivate SERIOUS participation in unconventional collaboration?

[As with question #1, please respond to this question in a “new post.”  Try to keep your responses brief (250-300 words max).  To make a post, go to the “Dashboard.”  Click on “Posts” and then “Add New.”  Please sign your post with “~Firstname” in the body text.  Click “Publish” and you’re done.  If possible, we’d love to have all of the responses by March 9.]

An oral history gathering

One of my best days each year is when the final gathering of interviewees takes place at the end of my students’ fall semester oral history project.  With most of the interviewees, it is the first time I’m meeting them face-to-face.  Usually I recruit them by letter and on the phone and then my students take the lead in interviewing.  By the time they come to our little get-together, however, I’ve listened to their interviews and, consequently, know a great deal about their lives.  Somehow it feels totally natural for me to get to know people by listening to them speak.  At the same time, I feel a much deeper sense of community with them when we meet in person.  Although the session usually only lasts about an hour, I always feel a strong connection to the people who have willingly shared their life stories with my students.  It reinforces for me, like nothing else, the intimate relationship between history and community.  ~Will

The purposes of our discussion

Seth and I are eager to get the ball rolling.  Before we do, however, we’d like to define the purposes of this discussion—both here on the blog and at the meeting.  They are threefold: 1) to introduce us to one another so we can better collaborate at the OAH/NCPH meeting and beyond, 2) to share our experiences and observations about public history careers, and 3) to come up with new career paths that public historians might pursue.  To structure our discussion, we will follow the model of dialogue pioneered by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.  It has three phases:

Phase 1: Share the diversity of our experiences

Phase 2: Explore perspectives beyond our own experience

Phase 3: Synthesize and brainstorm new ideas

Our main goal is to foster an environment where creativity and innovation can blossom and that means creating something slightly different than the typical conference “roundtable.”  We hope that structuring things in this way will allow ideas to develop organically (forgive the use of such an over-used word) through discussion.

Later today I’ll post some guidelines for our discussion, and then tomorrow, Seth and I will circulate a question (along with some guidelines for posting) that will get us started with Phase 1.


Getting the Conversation Started

This blog is a discussion space for participants in the working group “Imagining New Careers in Public History” at the 2012 National Council on Public History/Organization of American Historians joint meeting in Milwaukee.

Our purpose in assembling this group is to address a question that concerns the very core of our shared enterprise: how will public historians make a living in the years ahead? Conventional logic suggests that, while more and more public history programs churn out new job seekers, and as persistent global economic instability threatens employment everywhere, all of us face diminishing prospects. At least, that’s one way to look at it. We’d prefer to think of this potential crisis as an opportunity to imagine new vectors of practice for public historians.

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