Doing History in the Exhibit Halls: The History PhD and a Museum Career
Louise Pubols, February 2004
Few newly minted history PhDs imagine a future for themselves outside of the ivy-adorned walls of academe. Yet their skills and qualifications make them hot property in other venues. Four years ago, I took my history degree to a museum's curatorial department and in this short essay, I share what I've learned about life in the exhibit hall and in the corridors of collections storage.
At the most basic level, history museums are institutions that display historical artifacts, or reproductions or representations of artifacts, in an effort to teach about the past. They can take a wide variety of forms. Most of us know traditional institutions like the Smithsonian or the Chicago Historical Society-places that tell a national or regional story. But history museums also include furnished houses, living history villages and farms, historic sites, and even "virtual" museums on the Web. Taken together, there are more history museums and sites than all other kinds of museums combined.
Yet, compared with natural history or art museums, most history museums are relatively new. About half were founded after 1960. This means that the relationship between professional historians, the academy, and the museum world is still developing. Traditionally, professional scholars in art, anthropology, and the natural sciences have found support and direction in the museum world, while historians, with little interest in artifacts as evidence, felt less at home there. A growing interest in social history changed that relationship in the course of the 20th century. Many historians in the academy now turn to material culture as a primary source to fill in gaps in the historical record. At the same time, historians have been looking for ways to bring their work to wider audiences, and finding museum exhibitions the perfect venue.
Sounds interesting, but what, in fact, would you do all day? You'd be key to the creation of exhibitions in several ways: as a scholar, as a curator, and as project manager. In addition, you would be developing the museum's collections, working with donors, and speaking to a variety of audiences about your museum's mission.
Most PhD programs prepare you well for the role of scholar who can help develop the initial ideas for exhibitions-reading and synthesizing, creating the thesis and outlines for exhibitions, and writing and editing label copy. You'll find the latter job easier if your program also emphasizes writing accessibly, and if you enjoy the challenge of expressing complex ideas in labels of no more than 100 words.
Museums can offer great opportunities for scholars to reach an incredibly broad and deep audience. More than 100 million people visit history museums and historic sites each year. At the museum where I work, visitors range from fourth graders to history buffs, and from families looking for something fun to do with their children to diligent scholars. They may include people with disabilities and those who find it difficult to comprehend texts in English. Writing labels and designing exhibitions for such a varied audience can be tricky, but museum historians have the benefit of doing surveys to test preconceptions. For example, for a new permanent gallery covering the history of the West to the 1850s, we discovered that most visitors, even in southern California, confessed ignorance about the region's Spanish and Mexican past. On the other hand, most had very strong notions of Native American culture, much of it wrong. Armed with this knowledge, we are crafting an experience that meets our audience where they are now, and helps them discover new things in terms that make sense to them.
Of course, creating an exhibit involves much more than writing label copy. As a curator, you'll be charged with finding collections, and putting them together to tell your story. And this, I think, presents real challenges to those of us who are primarily trained to produce monographs. Exhibitions are not linear, and not even a majority of people will read every label in the right sequence. You and the exhibit designer have to be able to create a context for the artifacts that can be entered in many ways, and a floorplan that will make sense even if visitors run through it backwards.
Artifacts present their own challenges. Not only will visitors not read every carefully parsed label, they also generally respond much more immediately to things and to art, and even without any context they will supply it themselves. "How is this used? What would I look like in those clothes? Could I have lived like that? How is that like what I use every day?" Artifacts are not very good for telling dramatic stories or for making a sustained intellectual argument. But artifacts can bring immediacy to the lived experience of the past, offering visitors a snapshot of the material world. Often, they are the only record left by those without access to print culture-women, native people, and the working classes, for example. As a curator, you need to feel comfortable creating a script that works with the messages visitors will get directly from the objects themselves.
Collections development thus becomes a critical part of your job, because it gives you or future curators the tools to interpret a fuller range of history. There are many challenges here. Sometimes you'll find that the types of things offered to, or that are already in, your museum can push your interpretation in directions that you may not necessarily want. Many 19th-, and even 20th-century collectors aimed at finding the best, the most beautiful, or the most representative artifact of the dominant culture at the expense of the material life of ordinary or marginalized people.
Active collecting leads you outward, letting the public know what kinds of history you're interested in telling, and what kinds of objects you want for the collections. As a public figure, you'll likely be asked to give interviews or talks, and to speak in an engaging way to general audiences, community leaders, collectors, and donors, as well as those who might not feel at home in the halls of imposing museums.
Finally, as a project manager, you have to be able to see the big picture and oversee the whole process of exhibition development from start to finish. As a member of a team, you have to be flexible and able to work with a variety of disciplines. When the educator tells you that you're writing at a 12th-grade level and you need to write at an 8th-grade level, you have to be willing to rewrite. When the designer tells you that all the objects you want will make the exhibit case cluttered and unreadable, you have to be willing to trust his or her eye. I've actually found this part of the job the most rewarding, as I've had to learn new skills and a common vocabulary to collaborate on such complex projects.
All of this sounds great, I know, but you have a few lingering doubts. So I want to turn, finally, to how you might develop a career in a museum.
Can a museum historian still be a publishing scholar?
Usually exhibitions aren't given the same peer or critical review as a monograph would be (although that's changing). So you still may want to develop a record as a publishing scholar, even if your museum doesn't require it for promotion.
Museums operate on a 12-month calendar, and your workday will be 9 to 6, or later. This may be the hardest thing for a graduate student to adjust to. You should ask a potential employer how often the curators or researchers on staff publish or present scholarly papers. Does the museum offer support for research trips or writing time? Will you be expected to write exhibit catalogues? In general, public institutions are not well funded but they have a better structure for providing comp time and release time for doing your own research projects. Private institutions are better funded but put more emphasis on the constant production of exhibitions.
Can one go back to the university?
That depends. Your classroom teaching credentials will grow stale after a couple of years working in a museum, unless you teach as an adjunct on the side. Think about whether this is an option you'd like to leave open, and if it's possible to do so in your region. The transition has been done, but it isn't easy and requires planning.
How will work be evaluated, and what are the steps of promotion?
You'll be giving up the possibility of tenure, but also the inexorable ticking of the tenure clock. Some museums have a well-defined series of steps from assistant curator, to associate curator to senior or chief curator but this is often not the case when staffs are small. In fact, at many small institutions you'll be asked to do multiple jobs that may include education, collections processing, or management.
Will intellectual independence be lost without tenure?
Goverment initiatives and demands may shape what topics you'd be working on in a public institution. In private museums, donors may try to influence what topics you'll be working on. There are always such pressures, because you will be relying on fundraising, but a museum with high ethical standards will never change their message to suit funders.
How much does it pay?
From American Association of Museums (AAM) surveys and anecdotal evidence, pay structure and benefits in museums are comparable to those in other job tracks.
This sounds great! How do I get a job?
Ads for museum positions usually show up in Perspectives and the H-Net service, but the chief equivalent for the museum world is Aviso, the newsletter of the AAM. Look there to see what kinds of professional concerns are being debated, and what kinds of qualifications museums are looking for.
In order to make yourself attractive to search committees, it's a good idea to develop competence in the interpretation of visual and material culture. This is something you will have to seek out, either in material culture or art history courses, or in museums themselves. Depending on your aspirations, it isn't a bad idea to prepare yourself to be as flexible as possible-by taking business or education classes, for example. But first and foremost, get the best historical training you can.
—Louise Pubols is historian at the Museum of the West (formerly known as the Autry Museum of Western Heritage) in Los Angeles.
She is currently working on a major reinterpretation of the permanent galleries "Encounters" and "Journeys."