The value of history (Part 1)

Editor’s note: During the fall of 2013, the NCPH Consultants Committee distributed a survey to the NCPH consultants community in order to learn more about the community’s members and how best to serve them.  This piece is part of a series examining the results of that survey.

Kathy Shinnick at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in front of guest curated exhibit Tennis and Hollywood. One of many rewarding opportunities available only as low or no paying internships. Photo credit: Kathy Shinnick

Kathy Shinnick is standing at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in front of her guest-curated exhibit Tennis and Hollywood. This is one of many rewarding opportunities available only as low- or no-paying internships. Photo credit: Kathy Shinnick

When I changed careers from sales to public history I did so in the spirit of some great advice, “Choose a profession that allows you to do something you would be willing to do for free.” I just don’t think I realized how much of it I actually would be doing for free or at least cheap. Sound familiar?

The history dollar is short. It has to go a long way to feed us all. Part of that problem is simply because there are so many of us. Part of the problem is in the way history is valued by society, our consumer. Part of the “problem” is not necessarily a problem at all as history is often viewed through the lens of education that should be free (or cheap) and available to those who are ready to learn. However, part of the problem also lies with how we, as public historians, value or understand the value of our work. Continue reading

Consulting Alliances Working Group: An introduction

The working group that we have organized for the upcoming annual meeting in Monterey explores both the extent to which consulting historians have formed joint ventures to bid for and execute projects and the retention of independent consultants on the part of consulting firms (historical and otherwise) on a project-by-project basis. The group will interrogate the challenges consultants face in forming alliances for particular projects, such as logistics and budgets, assessing opportunities that may exist, and brainstorming ways of taking advantage of identified opportunities going forward. Continue reading

Consultants survey reminder

One week left to take the Consultants survey! The survey will remain up through October 15, 2013.

The National Council on Public History Consultants Committee is seeking responses to a survey that will help the committee determine how best to serve the consultant community. If you are a historical consultant or considering a career in consulting, please take a few moments to fill out the survey. Results will be kept confidential, and the committee will use what it learns to improve the NCPH Consultants List and other resources for the community.

Here’s the link to the survey. We look forward to posting the results once all of the surveys are in!

~ The Consultants Committee

Consultants survey

Calling all consulting historians/historical consultants:

SurveyMonkey icon courtesy of SurveyMonkey.com

SurveyMonkey icon courtesy of SurveyMonkey.com

The National Council on Public History Consultants Committee is seeking responses to a survey that will help the committee determine how best to serve the consultant community. If you are a historical consultant or considering a career in consulting, please take a few moments to fill out the survey. Results will be kept confidential, and the committee will use what it learns to improve the NCPH Consultants List and other resources for the community.

Here’s the link to the survey. We look forward to posting the results once all of the surveys are in!

~ The Consultants Committee

Unpaid internships: A foot in the door or a step backward?

woman sowing coinsA recent History@Work post by Matthew Exline prompted a lively discussion of the challenges of getting a foot in the door as a new public history professional.  One topic that appeared several times in the many comments was the unpaid internship, and the opinions on it were divergent enough that we thought it was worth following up on them.   So we asked a number of practicing public historians from various areas of the field to share their thoughts on pursuing unpaid internships or volunteer opportunities as part of public historians’ professional training.

There’s no clear consensus, as you’ll see, but we hope this roundtable post will further clarify some of the issues and questions. Continue reading

Preserve historic properties by selling them

We’ve all no doubt heard the line thrown back at us: “If you preservationists don’t want this building torn down, then why aren’t you putting your own money into it? How dare you tell a private owner that he can’t tear it down?” A quick keyword search for “preservationists” in my local newspaper provides examples aplenty of variants on these questions.

While they are ultimately wrong-headed, these questions point to some basic truths. First, taking appropriate steps before a proposed demolition enters the planning phase will have a better chance of success than trying to halt a demolition once the permit has been issued. As preservationists, we need to look forward, to help individuals, businesses, and municipalities find ways to protect historically significant buildings. Second, individuals and groups with “skin in the game” are more likely to maintain a building, even if not always in adherence to the standards of historical integrity, and thus prevent the deterioration that often prompts calls for demolition in the first place. Successful preservation requires working collaboratively to identify potential stewards of historic properties and then providing them with the tools and incentives to act on behalf of preservation.

Burritt Mansion. Photo courtesy Bruce Harvey

As a historian and photographer, my capacity to lend brick-and-mortar advice is decidedly limited. I can change light bulbs reasonably well, and I know the difference between 1890s and 1990s window types, but beyond that, I’m not really to be trusted on rehabilitation issues. However, I’ve recently had the chance to become involved in efforts to find good stewards of historic properties from a source that I hadn’t anticipated: the real estate industry. This collaboration has the potential to be a fruitful one for both the cause of preservation of historic buildings and my consulting practice. Continue reading

Looking for a job in public history: an outsider’s perspective

“‘He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all those close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to. . . . ‘

“‘And then you can ground him?’ Yossarian asked.

“‘No. Then I can’t ground him.’

“‘You mean there’s a catch?’

“‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doc Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’”

–Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

The Penrose Staircase: an illustration of a logical paradox (public domain)

The Penrose Staircase: an illustration of a logical paradox (public domain)

The ink was hardly dry on my new history diploma before the awkward conversations began. “Congratulations on graduating! That’s exciting,” co-workers, friends, and family members would say. “So, what are you hoping to do next?” I would launch into my standard speech about hoping for some kind of job in public history. “Maybe a museum, or a historic site, or consulting,” I say optimistically. Nobody likes a complainer, so I usually smile and pretend everything is fine. Now it is time to start telling the truth. After completing three history internships, stacks of term papers, two book-length theses, a feature-length documentary, and everything else that went into getting my two history degrees, I still feel as far away from my dream job than I was when I graduated from high school. I am facing my own personal Catch-22, because the hiring qualifications for many public history jobs seem deliberately calculated to shut out a recent graduate like me. Continue reading

Russell Lee in the Northwest: Documenting Japanese American Labor Camps in Oregon and Idaho

As a full-time consulting historian, it is difficult to carve out time for my own research interests. Michael Adamson has discussed this challenge in this space.

In graduate school, I studied Farm Security Administration documentary photography. Upon starting my business, I found little time to continue my research–until a year ago. While researching images in the FSA collection, I found several hundred photographs of Japanese American labor camps in the Pacific Northwest, taken by Russell Lee in the summer of 1942. The sole Oregon camp–near the town of Nyssa in Malheur County–was created to bring in laborers for the sugar beet crop. Continue reading