Finding Work in the Museum World

The museum field is a difficult area of work to break into.  While there are museums amply spread across the United States, many only have one or two full time (or their equivalent) staff members onsite.  Larger facilities have more money, contacts, staff, and resources, but also much more competition for open jobs.  What can you do increase your chances of landing work? Read on for a few tips:

  1.  Join Professional Organizations:  The National Council on Public History, American Alliance of Museums, and Association for State and Local History are all excellent organizations to belong to.  All have student or new professional rates to help take the bite out of membership fees.  Journals, online career resources, web forums, and conferences provide great information about history, museums, and general job skills.
  2. Never Stop Learning:  Always keep developing your job skills.  Volunteer in your free time at relevant museums locally.  Work on a crowdsourced research project.  Consider enrolling in a formal certificate program in museum studies.  Demonstrate on your resume and with your skills that you are already working, studying, and innovating in the museum field.
  3. Start Small:  Do not turn down small opportunities.  Part-time work as a tour guide, visitor services representative, security, or events staff member can all develop into more involved work.  Getting into the museum, making connections with staff, getting recognized is a great way to slowly take on more responsibilities.  New projects can lead to new career paths.
  4. Network:  This word gets thrown around a lot in college and the working world, but I feel it does not get the explanation it deserves.  Networking is connecting with professional colleagues (could be a fellow volunteer, classmate, friend, ex-coworker), and letting them know what you are working toward/listening to their work goals.  Do not start blasting emails out to folks you have not spoken to in years.  Find colleagues with similar interests, reconnect, learn what they are working toward, see if there is anyway you can help each other.  This is a mutually beneficial relationship.  Great jobs, projects and innovations can come from a phone call.

Just keep trying.  Event when the odds are so low as to beggar the imagination.  You never know what application will get an interview, what journal issue will have the spark of a great project, or what job could lead to a career.  Have hope, and march on.


Building Trust to Build History

My recent visit to the annual National Council on Public History conference was fruitful and though provoking.  My main takeaway is the importance of trust in historical work.  Trust is the foundation the whole historical enterprise is built on.

Asking a person for documents or objects to accession into institutional holdings is a serious request.  An old photo album or a collection of love letters, these are the physical archives of entire human lives.  When historians, archivists, or curators and contact local holders of valuable information, prior relationships must be considered.  Marginalized persons, ignored groups, people whose materials may have been rejected before will not be ready to discuss accession.  They do not need strangers coming to their home to, in their view, dispossess them of familial identity and history.

Many of our institutions are working hard to increase ownership and inclusiveness with their neighbors.  Still, these organizations exist in a reality created by their predecessors’ behavior.  Objects turned away from accession, lack of invitations from museum staff for participation, and disinterest in the perspectives of the minority were all sharp blows.  This is history in action, at the micro level.  Museums must develop long-term plans to begin to construct a foundation that welcomes the lost participants from years gone by.

One suggestion discussed at the conference is engaging in low pressure, relationship building meetings.  Walk the community, and introduce yourself to neighbors.  Bring by some fresh bread or cookies and have a friendly get-together.  In no way say “you are here to help.”  That person has managed a memory of their family without your assistance up until now, don’t insinuate they need assistance.  Just talk, look, and you may be surprised what resources you will find.  Even just knowing what materials are kept where can be a hug boon to local research.  They key it to be open-minded, patient, and diligent in communicating long-term.

This is going to be a long process.  Decades (and even centuries) of neglect must be repaired to bring discussions and communal work to the level it deserves in underserved communities.  By building trust, we can improve the history field, the museum education system, and our homes.


Nashville Bound!

Even in this connected age, face to face meetings are important to connect, share, and develop new ideas.  I have the pleasure to be attending the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Nashville, TN starting tomorrow.  Making the time, and setting aside the money for these events is critical for two reasons:  exposure to new concepts, and exposure to new people.

It can be expensive, time-consuming, and honestly a bit frightening to journey to these events.  For a budget minded graduate student or new professional;  plane tickets, hotel reservations, conference fees and plentiful seminars can be overwhelming to set up.  Huge crows of peers can be difficult to navigate.  Here are a few tips to make the process less crushing:

1.  Apply for scholarships:  Most conferences have a program to help with costs for attending a conference, often covering conference fees and providing a grant to help with air and hotel.  Usually an essay and letters of recommendation are required.  Give it a shot!

2.  Plan Early:  Get the process started as soon as possible.  Apply for time off of work, make travel arrangements, and study what events you want to visit at the conference.  Take the pressure off the planning, and save money by grabbing plane seats, hotel rooms, and car rentals before the rush.  Having time to review the schedule of events also means you are less likely to miss out on an interesting presentation.

3.  Get the most of the experience:  Chances are, the trip is costing some decent cash to undertake.  Make the most of your dollars.  Look into mentor programs for first time attendees.  These programs partner new attendees with veteran attendees to give advice on making the most of conference resources.  The number of mentors is usually limited; check into this early.  Print some business cards inexpensively off of a website like  Having a quick way to provide contact information is professional, makes a good impression, and helps you get connected.  They can also be a cool expression of yourself!  Lastly, spend the extra money for worthwhile programs.  An excellent tour of a historic site in your field of interest, or a fancy meal that can lead to professional contacts are well spent dollars.

I’m sure I will have many more ideas after the conference, but I hope these help for now.  See you in Nashville!


When Old is New Again

Modern technology is wondrous.  I truly mean that in the greatest sense of the word.  We live in an age of miracles and power.  Airplanes connect continents, cell phones connect people anywhere, and computers streamline the flow of knowledge to the breadth of the world’s minds.  These technological marvels are life changing, yet, the old tools can carry a certain charm, and a certain spirit all their own.  We cannot discard them to the trash heap of time.  A pocket watch, a fountain pen, a record player; all have been surpassed, smoothed over, refined.  The tick on the watch, the gentle flow of the pen, the warble of the record, these experiences are worthwhile.  Old tools bring variety to life, a connection that enriches and sustains.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Pocket watches are such delightful machines.  Their clicks, ticks, smooth motion and constant companionship are calming in a sea of digital flashes and beeps.  My wife has given my three pocket watches over a our relationship.  I treasure each one.  The chain reminding me of their presence, the sound of one in a quiet room, the gentle dance of the gears visible in the transparent casing all create such a unique experience.  A cell phone clock may be more accurate, but I will always carry a pocket watch from my wife.  A companion, a talisman, a fine timepiece.

For Christmas this year, I rolled the dice on a fountain pen as a gift for my best friend, he is happy with it.  Why did I get it?  The more I read on it, the more my imagination was captured.  The light touch required for writing, the finesse, and the style of the implement all merged to make writing seem a bit more fun compared to using your average ballpoint.  I ordered a cheap one for myself for a trial, I have a good feeling it will add a bit of flair to my everyday scribbles.

The old tools available today might require more care, time, or money.  There might not be as many features, or might be fragile.  Yet, their unique purpose and spirit provide worth beyond their physical characteristics.  I love museums, I love working with old things.  Taking new versions of some of those objects into my everyday life helps give them a new life in my eyes, and makes everyday tasks just a little more interesting.  Give it try, you may find a old (new) tool to enrich your life!


Tips and Tricks from the Library

I want to pass on a few helpful tips I picked up on recent trips to the library.  There are a wide variety of resources available on library websites, and in the buildings themselves (more than I realized at first).  Please recommend any other tips or resources you know of.

 1.  Journals and Databases:  I love the wide variety of topics that historic journals provide.  However, my local library may not always have a print copy on site, and I can’t always afford the subscription cost of the journal.  Fortunately, many libraries provide access to electronic versions of these journals, free of charge via their website.  Generally you will need to provide your library card information, in return you can access heaps of information from home.  Be patient with search engines, and filter through results listings, the findings can be well worth it.

2.  Use pdf downloads:  Most articles you find can be downloaded as a pdf, to be printed or moved to any device you like.

3.  Pay attention to older sources:  There are so many books that have been sitting on a shelf for years, just waiting for a curious person to pick them up.  Take some time to explore the book stacks.  Let your eyes drift among the shelves.  I have found great books on Roman architecture, Byzantine history, Civil War history and more that have not had much attention in the last decade.  Sometimes older sources can have out of date information, but often they have information that has not been reproduced elsewhere.

4.  Music:  I just very recently discovered that my library allows music downloads!  The music is yours to keep, the only limit is on how many downloads are permitted per week.  Check it out, maybe your library offers a similar service.

5.  Librarians:  These folks are the heroes that keep the whole show running.  Check in with a librarian if you are stuck on where to start for a research project, need help finding a book that seems to be missing, or just want some suggestions for good reads.  Some libraries have a service where you can mention a book you have read, and they will give you multiple books of that type to explore.  It is a great way to find cool, engaging new books and sources.

6.  Web Chats:  Many libraries offer the ability to chat with a librarian from home.  This can be great if you are looking for a few sources for a new exhibit or paper, and want them on hold at your prefered library soon.  The librarian can give you a jump-start from home.

7.  Newspapers:  With the rise of the pay wall for many newspaper websites, it can be increasingly expensive to get news from your favorite papers.  If you do not have the time to visit the library, check for digital access from their website.  Much of the time you will be able to access articles or even full papers from home.

I could fill ten posts with the cool, useful resources of libraries.  Check yours out, walk in with an open mind, and you will be sure to find something new everytime. 




Useful Historical Websites I’ve Stumbled Upon

We are in such a wonderful time for only history resources.  I remember when poorly formatted websites and questionable sources were the norm.  Now most major universities, museums, and professional organizations have online portals filled to the brim with historical treasures.  Here is a quick list of a few I’ve stumbled upon.


The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest:

What a great resource to begin a research project.  The online portal contains lists filled with links for digital collections, history organizations, museums, state/provincial histories, and special topics of interest.  Many hours can be spent wandering down the rabbit hole, linking from page to page.  A personal favorite of mine is the Asahel Curtis Photo Company Collection.  It contains over 1700 photographs of daily life, industry, and scenic views around the Pacific Northwest.


Civil War Pathways:

A product of producing an exhibit at the Washington State Historical Society Museum, the Civil War Pathways website creates new thoughts and possibilities.  The project (and exhibit) focus on information regarding the land and people in what is now Washington State relating to the American Civil War.  Lorraine McConaghy and a team of volunteers across Washington State combed through archives, libraries, and museums to create a scanned, searchable database of their findings.  I find the best way to work through the database is using the search box, entering appropriate topics and titles.  Entries include scanned images of documents, descriptions, bibliographic information and more.  Their work saves a lot of time and energy, and will be most useful to those looking at this underserved topic.


Public History Commons:

This project by the National Council on Public History is filled with reference information, blog posts, conversations and professional development leads.  The NCPH created the website in 2012 as a place for scholars and others with an interest in the interpretation and showing of history to the public to gather and share ideas.  It is regularly updated with professional development links, interesting articles, and a additions to their growing reference library.  It is a great place to find out about new projects, ideas, and connections.



A development of the American Antiquarian Society, this website provides free scholarly articles on a variety of subjects on American history before 1900.  The goal of the site is provide a less formal location for discussing a very wide portfolio of topics, from literature to politics to architecture to economics.  It seeks also to be more formal than a popular magazine.  Overall, it is an excellent website, filled with interesting articles that are not riddled with the usual history jargon that can put off the casual reader (or exhaust the more serious one).  It has the worthy goal of providing an online presence for a text focus time period that is getting left behind as more websites become multimedia focused.  Common-Place is updated October, January, April, and July.  I recommend it to anyone looking for a good read on early American life.


I hope my readers enjoy these few websites I have found over the last few months.  Please let me know if you have any suggestions.  My aspiration is that these sources of knowledge help to inspire engaging, interesting, and just cool historical work.






Civic Forums and Pulling Back the Curtain

Museums hold a place of trust and respect in communities.  The behavior of these communities confirms this trust.  Visitors give up family heirlooms willingly, with the expectation that those objects, and by extension, their own history, will be presented clearly and accurately.  Parents take their children to visit local museums and history sites, encouraging them to read up on what the institution is saying about their community.  School groups are taken to these institutions, out of town visitors brought over to see them, and engaged locals wander through from time to time to see what’s new.  Communities trust museums with their history, a trust that can foster new connections, discussions, and learning.

I feel this trust should be used to create discussion forums by utilizing the unique environment, information, and respect built up in museums.  History institutions already educate; by using their facilities to foster civic discussion, we can hopefully provide a calm space filled with information to provide for all sides of the story.  Starting with an education on historical research and curatorial tasks can help invigorate this unique communicative atmosphere.  By demonstrating to the interested public (amateur historians, local educators, general visitors, and anyone interested who has a desire to contribute or learn) the fluidity of history, I hope that museums can help prepare their extended local communities for meaningful civic discussion on contentious issues.

Obviously, there are problems right away with using museums as open forums.  No one wants to see museums ripped apart by partisan politics.  Special emphasis would have to be placed on presenting the museum as a meeting ground for talks, not as an endorsement machine.   Museums command a place of trust, balanced on the idea of objectivity.  An issue when discussing controversial topics is that objectivity comes into question.  Opening up the curatorial/historical process and teaching about its mechanisms would present the influences of staff, objects, research, and surviving materials on exhibits.  Showing that objectivity is never perfect would open up public history more to the public eye, demonstrate that museums have to work with interpreting sometimes conflicting topics, and serve as an example of how to be open for discussion. This work can help prepare the local community for seeing other sides of issues that had not been considered before.

Reinforcing open minded discussion can be done through curatorial education, since visitors may be asked to have preconceived notions challenged, or see local stories rewritten based on new evidence.  Many visitors may have an historical education the ended in high school, which focused on straight facts with little interpretation.  Many may have been taught with information that has since been revised with new research.  The reinterpretation of that originally taught information can help open doors to new thoughts of current events.  The flowing nature of history, subject to change based on new work, conclusions, and evidence is not well communicated to the public.  Educating visitors on this nature can help prepare them for discussions on current issues.


A second post in the near future will examine some current exhibits and thoughts on pulling back the curtain of curating, and any impact they may have on future civic talks in museums.