Historians as Consultants and Contractors
A career in consulting is ideal for historians with a sense of adventure, or for those who prefer flexibility and a variety of projects. History consultants can perform almost any of the jobs described in this publication—preparing a National Register nomination for a community, surveying a site’s historic resources for a construction company, processing an archival collection for a corporation, or researching an exhibit for a museum or court case.
The historical consulting industry is a growing field, for a variety of reasons. Cultural institutions, for example, often suffer from limited resources, limited staff, and heavy workloads. Local and state agencies, private companies, and individuals sometimes need the skills of professional historians, and will hire short-term contractors to complete a project. These and other organizations and individuals in need of historical services have created a thriving market for professional historical consultants and contractors.
The individuals and agencies that fulfill these needs have to apply their specialized skills, knowledge, and resources to provide services in a timely and cost-effective manner. Contract historians most often work on projects in historic preservation, archaeology, architectural history, historical architecture, landscape architecture, and litigation. Each client brings new questions and opportunities to explore different subjects and resources. While some assignments may be short term, such as preparing a short history for an organization’s or town’s centennial celebration, others may involve extensive research and travel, and perhaps even testifying as an expert witness.
In addition to the skills of the historian, consultants and contractors must possess keen business savvy. Consulting is a business, and customers expect the prompt completion of what consultant and editor Shelley Bookspan terms a “deliverable.” In a field where a reputation for professionalism is crucial to continued success, the historical consultant should be skilled in dealing with a variety of clients, preparing realistic and fair proposals, and completing high-quality work on schedule. This can determine career failure or success. The historical consultant, therefore, is offered exciting new challenges and often nontraditional forms of historical research and presentation.
Flexibility is important for those interested in the historical consulting field, and a solid foundation in the discipline of history is a good first step. Writing, research, and communication are essential components, regardless of any specialization, so an undergraduate education in history should develop proficiency with these skills. Most consultants need to be familiar with the bidding process and the ability to accurately outline and propose a potential project. There is no direct route to a position as a consultant, but a good start would be to decide upon a historical field of interest, keeping in mind that almost any option in this booklet can be contracted to an outside firm. Since much of the work performed by consultants involves compliance with cultural resource regulations, an understanding of local, state, and national statutes can give a prospective consultant an upper hand in the market.
Many public history programs also offer courses on the administration of cultural resource legislation, covering such issues as native repatriation, the Freedom of Information Act, or the maintenance of the National Register of Historic Places. Since most consultants and contractors work with a variety of historical institutions, a working knowledge of areas outside a chosen specialty could expand employment possibilities. For example, a degree in history could be complemented with course work in archaeology, architectural history, planning, or document management. Internships or summer employment is offered by many larger consulting firms as a way for students to become exposed to the pace and diversity of undertakings unique within the historical profession.
Most consulting positions will fall into one of two categories, either a staff position within a firm or agency, or the role of independent contractor/consultant. Predictably, most firms are located in urban areas, while a successful independent consultant may have greater flexibility in terms of location.
Some firms are devoted primarily to cultural resource issues, which require expertise in such fields as archaeology, historic preservation, and museum and exhibit production. Because of the far-reaching effects of Section 106 (see the chapter on historic preservation), consultants are often called upon by public and private agencies to conduct surveys of historic resources on a potential building site. Section 106 compliance, however, is not the only impetus for hiring a contractor. A consultant may be called upon to propose potential sites or districts for nomination to the National Register, or provide guidelines for local architectural design standards. Planning firms will frequently employ a historian with architecture or planning experience. A thorough knowledge of historic land use can also be helpful to geographers, biologists, and hydrologists who are trying to trace changes in environmental conditions over time. Historic land use can be important in determining potential environmental hazards that would endanger future development.
Museums of every size can often benefit from the experience and resources of an outside contractor. Because object conservation can be a costly endeavor, few museums are able to maintain a proper conservation lab and a full-time conservator. Contract conservation, whether performed by a firm or by independent conservators, can provide specialized skills and equipment for repairs, exhibit preparation, re-housing, and preventive care. Other museum contractors provide assistance in exhibit production. A contractor or consultant may bid on a curatorial project, which usually involves researching and writing exhibit scripts. An outside agency can also be called upon for exhibit design and fabrication for a specialized exhibit, either to assist a busy staff or simply to offer a fresh perspective. Many design firms specialize in museum production while others are hired to facilitate large-scale traveling exhibitions.
The often staggering amount of new acquisitions, in addition to a substantial backlog, can lead some archives to hire an outside contractor or consultant to assess the preservation status of an institution’s holdings, process a discrete collection, or perform another project-based task. Independent archivists can also be called upon by private businesses looking to reorganize their institutional files.
An increasingly sophisticated audience is demanding greater historical integrity in media productions. Producers of documentaries, dramatic films, and educational programming often hire historical consultants to advise on costumes, scenery, props, dialect, and content accuracy. Most television networks and large production companies will require the services of a historian, and some consulting firms specialize in media productions and the entertainment industry.
Other Consulting Projects
Small, specialized companies fulfill other historical needs, and starting a unique business that addresses a particular interest may be the answer for the ambitious and independent-minded consultant. Recent trends in the job market include genealogy research firms and house biographers that answer the needs of families in search of a sense of identity. Similarly, for occasions such as retirements and anniversaries or simply as an attempt to improve public relations, corporations will often seek contract historians to research and present personal histories and biographical information. Law firms occasionally employ historical consultants to conduct research for litigation involving historical background material.