Historians in Museums
A historian in the museum field was once thought of as another object in the collection—dust covered, hidden away from the world, and usually difficult to comprehend. This stereotypical figure is becoming increasingly rare, however, thanks to the changing nature of historical museums. Most museums have moved away from merely displaying artifacts, and now strive to present these objects in a larger social, cultural and political context. Because of the constant influx of new forms of entertainment and diversion in the culture at large, and continual advances in technology, museum professionals are under constant pressure to move history into the present. In addition to the skills of a historian, many museum professionals must also fulfill such diverse roles as marketer, designer, fundraiser, photographer, or data processor. So where does this leave our dusty historian?
Amidst the atmosphere of slick production and dazzling interactive computer programs, the success of a museum exhibit still lives and dies with the skills of the historian. Holograms and strobe lights may entertain for the short term, but only thoroughly researched and well-written exhibits are able to hold the attention of the visitor and express an understandable and compelling interpretation of a historic subject. In doing so, the museum historian has a unique body of evidence from which to draw. While a newspaper account or other written testimony can give a vivid description of the Lincoln assassination, the beaver hat the president wore that evening at Ford’s Theatre can speak to a visitor more powerfully than any document.
A traditional museum isn’t the only place to find historians trained in museum work. The search for the ideal situation may lead one to a historic house with a collection, a National Park Service visitors’ center, a private art gallery, or a corporate collection. In most cases, the size and budget of the museum is proportional to the diversity of job responsibilities, so the size of a museum can determine the level of necessary education. In a small local museum, an employee may be asked to perform a number of functions (in some cases, all functions) while larger museums allow for greater specialization. Small to midsize museums may seek a prospective employee with a background both in history and an additional field such as development, exhibit design, or educational programs.
Primary and Secondary Education
While you may be able to find a museum position with a B.A., you will almost certainly need graduate training to acquire more responsibility. That training can take a variety of forms, including graduate-level training (M.A. or Ph.D.) in public history and museum studies and specialized short-term training. These programs can be part of a history department or found in a specialized program in the field. Public history programs focus on the practice of history outside of university classrooms. Not all history departments offer public history, but the number of programs has grown substantially over the past twenty-five years. More and more museums are looking to hire graduates of public history or museum studies programs. One of the best ways to judge the merits of a museum studies or public history program is to determine how much hands-on experience is offered.
Volunteering and internships are the best way to establish a relationship with a museum as well as adding to a body of experience. This may also offer the opportunity to explore a variety of job specializations. Be sure to take advantage of the lower student membership rates for museums, professional societies, and organizations. This is an ideal way to stay on top of the important issues and trends in the field, and find internship and volunteer opportunities.
The curatorial department is the area of the museum most closely associated with historians. The federal government and other large museums usually reserve the title of curator for employees holding advanced degrees in a specific subject. The curator’s major duties normally revolve around the museum collection, whether acquiring new objects, writing exhibit scripts, or preparing grant applications. Normally the plum position of curator requires a doctoral degree and a number of years of related professional experience. Other positions, however, like that of assistant curator, writer, or research assistant, offer entry-level opportunities for gaining curatorial experience. Curators are often a museum’s sole link to the academic community, and therefore may be expected to attend conferences, contribute to scholarly publications, and make public presentations.
While the curator presumably has an intimate knowledge of the objects in the collection, it is the collections management staff that actually knows how to find them. The registrar is responsible not only for making sure that the collection is fully documented and accounted for, but also for making the museum’s cultural resources available to researchers. In smaller museums the position of registrar is often absorbed into the role of curator. Duties may include dealing with research requests, cataloguing objects, or creating finding aids. In many ways the duties and responsibilities of a registrar and an archivist overlap. Training for this position requires experience with information technology, cataloguing schemes, and terminology standardization. An academic background in history, in addition to the technical skills needed for the position, will equip the registrar with the research abilities needed to properly identify and classify collection objects. An insight into the needs of the historical researcher will better prepare a registrar to document and arrange the collection in an accessible and logical way.
The bridge between the public and the museum’s exhibits and collections is the education staff. Of course, most exhibits are intended to impart the necessary information through object displays, audiovisual aids, hands-on exhibits, and other methods. However, only a small minority of visitors will read every panel or see every video. Envision the familiar late springtime scenario featuring a bus full of pre-teens and a jittery and exhausted group of chaperones on a school field trip. An effective museum program could spell the difference between a period of chaotic free time and a lasting educational experience.
The education officer is responsible for designing programs that target the museum’s resources toward a number of different categories of visitor. This may include creating several types of tours, creating interactive education programs (often in an education center), as well as planning special events in conjunction with recent exhibits. Recently many education departments have taken their programs out of the museum and into the schools in order to reach a broader audience. By creating materials that connect the museum’s message with some element of a teacher’s curriculum, both teachers and students have the opportunity for an enhanced lesson, and the museum can increase its visibility and attendance. An education office will also usually be responsible for training and scheduling those most valuable of resources, docents and volunteers.
An education officer at a history museum ideally has a background in education as well as history, but most importantly must possess the twin virtues of patience and creativity. Not every museum exhibit is geared toward a universal audience, but the education department is responsible for finding innovative ways to reach a diverse community.
Most of those drawn to the field of conservation are interested in studying history through the physical record of material culture. This philosophy contends that an object is more than the observable information it provides; that the material itself can show us vividly what no written transcription can. Conservators differ from restorers and renovators in that most current conservation theory looks to maintain the integrity of the object as much as possible through the use of reversible repairs and support. The ideal conservator has proficiency and skill in three different fields—history (or art history), chemistry, and studio arts. Because of the rigorous training involved (usually three to four years of graduate work in addition to a period of apprenticeship) and the small number of universities that offer degree programs, conservation is a highly competitive field. Conservators normally concentrate in a specific type of artifact. Paintings, paper, textiles, and three-dimensional objects are a few of the specializations in greatest demand at museums.
Because of the high cost of many conservation treatments, most museums are not able to keep a conservator on staff. For those that can, the conservation staff is normally responsible for repairs and stabilization of collection objects, as well as keeping detailed records of any and all conservation work done, both on the museum collections and on loan material from other institutions. Additional duties include maintaining stable environmental conditions for objects on exhibit and in storage.
Recently, the most common phrase for museum job announcements has been “M.A. in related field and three years’ experience.” A bachelor’s degree, however, is adequate for some institutions. “Related fields” normally include history, but may also include art history, anthropology, archaeology, education, or marketing.
Unlike many other fields, the qualifications for employment vary greatly among institutions, which makes it difficult to generalize about methods of application. Museums rarely come to college campuses for recruiting, so landing that perfect job will be the result of diligent research and targeted application materials. Museums, and the responsibilities of positions within them, are so varied that a successful job search may depend on carefully and closely demonstrating how your particular skills and abilities fit the specific needs of the museum. Determining your ideal museum situation can help to guide your path from training to museum employment.