Making a Public Historian: False Promises, the Gig Economy, and a Humble Proposal

Now that final grades have been submitted and the 2015-2016 academic year is turning into a happy memory — one full of intelligent students, engaging presenters, a terrific new digital public history initiative (our CNA Project), a “heritage survival” study, rich interactions with dozens of history museums, and a maddening effort to restart an equestrian program — the summer beckons with questions for many Public History and Museum Studies graduates about what’s next for them. Several major themes have emerged in my experience over the last year and far too few of them are discussed in public humanities forums, which tend to focus on subjective questions of interpretative trends and priorities, rather than the more prosaic, yet critical, questions of practice and the business of public-serving heritage organizations. Leaving aside the continuing and bewildering confusion among many academics that attempts to make oneself into a public intellectual do not also make one a public historian, chief among the themes I’ve discovered this term is that Public History and Museum Studies programs, like academic History departments, are preparing students for professional life in a world that no longer exists.

Of course, there is nothing new about handwringing over the fact that there are too many PhDs on the market for the fewer and fewer available academic jobs that candidates covet, and those are not just the comfortable, closely guarded, tenure-track positions at R1 schools, but even contract positions at community colleges (in short, anything that comes with a paycheck and a title that makes all the sturm und drang of graduate school appear to have been worth it). The same is true for Museum Studies and Public History, as students graduating from ostensibly top programs scramble for anything that will give them a crack at a permanent position somewhere near their actual area of interest. As someone trying to build such a program, I firmly believe that the fault for that situation lies largely with the programs themselves: the vast majority of graduate Public History and Museum Studies programs in America are not giving students what they need to actually do the jobs that our space now demands. Instead, courses on theory are almost everywhere privileged over practice — and don’t kid yourself that some sort of externship or internship fits that bill. As an institutional department head, once upon a time, and member of many search committees now, I’ve done a lot of hiring for historic sites over the last seven years, and only once hired the graduate of a Public History or Museum Studies program (SUNY Oneonta’s) for a permanent position in that person’s field. In fact, of the most interesting thought-leaders in our particular space — directors and staff in progressive places like Plimoth Plantation, the Newport Historical Society, the Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, the Bostonian Society, the Center for Reconciliation, and Monticello, and at least one consultant (well, just the one, actually) — only one is the product of such a program (Brown’s in Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage). What they all share, however, is experience in the practice of public history, from interpretative programming to guest services to donor cultivation to marketing to tech developments, which gives them an understanding of how such elements can and must work together to forward a mission despite budget challenges.

Not only are these programs failing the vast majority of students in not providing sufficient preparation for the limited job market, they increasingly insist — entirely against the evidence shown in placement rates or in the backgrounds of current hires at effective institutions — that PhDs are needed to fill those roles, perhaps by bestowing upon someone a sort of magical status that ultimately elevates them into a rarified rank of legitimacy. Donors like the academic window-dressing but otherwise the impact is largely imaginary. Recently, close friends of mine, all of whom hold or held senior positions at major heritage institutions, had encounters with precisely that sort of ignorance. One submitted an NEH grant proposal that was turned down because the readers had a problem with the fact that my friend had the temerity to refer to his uncredentialed interpreters as “public historians” and, moreover, no one at his institution currently holds a PhD in History or a related field. One of the readers expressly pointed out that she possessed such qualifications, as an academic public historian, and, although she had never held a front-line job at a heritage institution, knew that the PhD was necessary to my friend’s effort (piffle, as my grandmother would say — my word for it would be considerably less polite). The other was told, point blank, by a colleague at a partner institution, that she was unqualified for her current position because she doesn’t possess a PhD. On the other hand, another close acquaintance was hired for a major public history job just because he held a PhD in History from a prestigious program, even though he had zero experience in the field. It took him more than a year before he was able to truly add value in his position and develop as a proper public historian, but only because he applied himself to earning enough practical experience to enable him to use his substantive knowledge in a productive way. But, for the institution, that was something of a lost year. In all these cases, the PhD for public history efforts was and is strikingly miscalculated, revealing more ignorance than expertise on the part of the evaluator, such as that august NEH proposal reader. Don’t get me wrong, I clearly appreciate the skills that come with a trained PhD, but I also know better than most people that it goes way beyond what’s necessary for most museum and public history jobs, for which an MA is perfectly sufficient as a terminal degree, as experience counts for more than any piece of paper. Yet colleges and universities continue to recruit candidates for such programs, with empty, or maybe just hopeful, placement promises, and those of us who are part of them continue to hear the rhapsodic call of our administrators: “enrollment and evals…enrollment and evals…enrollment and evals…”.

That part of the professional problem in the field is not as intransigent as it might seem. A broader discussion in career diversity is percolating within institutions, at professional conferences, during #DrinkingAboutMuseums sessions, and online, with folks like Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife) helping to lead the way. But there is an even bigger issue that is entirely reshaping the practice of public history. Fortunately, it also happens to come with a fairly simple, if not comprehensive, solution.

I’m terrible with metaphors so I’ll skip the neon sign reference and just state clearly that the biggest issue facing the business of museums and public history is not dropping visitation numbers, but a crisis of capacity. Of the organizations with which I’ve worked over the past year, every single one has mentioned it. Most often, they are small institutions that have too few, if any, staff and many don’t know how to get the help they need to accomplish their goals (I get asked most often about training). But the absolute worst of them — annual deficits, abysmal fundraising efficiency, poor mission projection — have one thing in common: too much staff, and of the wrong kind. They’re bloated and top-heavy, which not only leads to the obvious negative budget impact, which can’t be dismissed, but they also tend to be cloistered when it comes to strategic approaches and unresponsive, even listless, on the tactical front. Changes to the status quo, or at least adaptation and accommodation to trends in the field, usually identified by too-few trained and experienced front-line staff, are held hostage to bureaucracies that appear more inclined to rely on high-priced consultants, who often seem to disguise catchy fads as informed innovation, rather than their existing internal expertise. Others have stifling layers of curators, researchers, education directors, marketers, and administrative staff that just aren’t justified by the return on mission or the monthly P&L. More to the point, they also tend to be mind-numbingly boring when it comes to guest engagement. All of that feeds unproductive institutional cultures, even if that institution consists only of a Board of Trustees, two paid employees, and a dozen dedicated volunteers. It’s easy to spot these organizations: behind almost every poor TripAdvisor review or eye-wateringly sad 990 is an institution with an internal culture problem that resorts to schemes for advancement, rather than developing an effective culture through targeted strategies and realistic tactics.

That begs the question about the best organizations that I’ve seen and what they clearly have in common, especially as it relates to the question of capacity. They are those, even among institutions of national reach, that are lean on senior staff, almost to the breaking point. The few folks at the top, with reasonable salaries, supported by healthy, engaged boards, are knowledgeable, secure, and experienced enough to know what they don’t know, and hire and cultivate a core group of young, empowered, wicked smart staff members who can learn all aspects of our trade, especially the critical importance of mission, then, together with front-line providers (whether interpreters or marketers or whatever), implement strategic plans with consistency. Such organizations tend to be exceptionally nimble and willing to take risks, understanding that some tactics won’t work, but the lessons learned from failure are often much more valuable than those gained by success. That’s because the informed connection between leadership and staff often creates a mission-oriented, team-based culture that stretches available resources, boosts donor confidence, and increases program quality, which all lead to positive visibility. Moreover, such organizations generate a sort of frisson that connects with guests — who often like being where history is on the edge.

As important, the leadership at these organizations recognize what is already going on in the broader business world: the “Gig Economy” has arrived and it’s probably here to stay. With 40 percent of the American workforce set to be freelance within the next four years, public history might already be well ahead of that curve, which poses as much promise as peril. The successful organizations that I’ve seen have already embraced that trend, seeing its potential. The best example is a historical society with a tremendous collection and exceptional vision that employs no full-time curator, historian, or education director. The most important long-term bases are covered (registrar, membership coordinator, etc.), but it otherwise reaches out to experts as needed. Need to catalogue a collection of 19th-century landscapes? Hire a guest curator whose expertise is 19th-century landscapes, rather than forcing a full-time curator, whose background might be in 17th-century stoneware, into a role for which he or she is not prepared. Want to put together living history programs to connect with guests about local events during the American Revolution? Bring in an experienced producer of such programs to establish the interpretative ground rules and set up a usable operations template. Want to be rescued from the wretched Past Perfect?  Tap someone with experience in our sector to handle your migration to, oh, Neon and teach you how to use it. Could use a biographical backgrounder on a historical figure for an exhibit? Connect with a historian, even a grad student, who knows the period and sources. And, given platforms like Slack (my current favorite) and Skype, episodic staff does not need to be on-site for many projects or, at least, for most of a project’s term. The result is a leaner, more flexible, and more accountable budget and, more to the mission-oriented point, fresher and more active programming in which the occasional staff can introduce perspectives gleaned from related experience elsewhere. The core full-time staff provide consistency and vision, while freelance experts inject cost-effective knowledge, skills, and insight. Another exceptionally effective organization follows a similar route, bringing in special program providers as needed, rather than increasing the level of FTEs for positions that might not be sustainable. Again, the proof of such an approach is in the clear health of those institutions.

The Gig Economy does have clear drawbacks. People need health insurance, personal and financial stability, and at least a shot at a comfortable retirement. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going away, especially in our space. Many museums and heritage organizations, large and small, are already engaging in it, even though in more limited and less conscious ways. As more of them work smarter to understand it as a long-term trend, and smaller ones that are already understaffed recognize its benefits, the demand will grow. What’s needed is a way to foster the interaction. Groups such as the AAM and NCPH have Job Opportunity listings for varying types of work, from full-time to project-based, but I believe that a dedicated database of experts — think a museum and public history version of Fiverr — would go a long way toward improving gainful employment chances for our students and colleagues. Such a collection would include the nature and scope of one’s expertise, experience, and qualifications, and clearly note rates (even if negotiable) for targeted work. With an organized effort, health and retirement plans can be negotiated. And we all have plenty of stories of just how targeted projects, done well, often lead to full-time, or even just regular, employment.

This concept isn’t new — genealogists have been especially active on this front for decades. A larger and more detailed scope, however, to comprehend the entire field, and a clear commitment to facilitating the connections between curators, historians, preservationists, exhibit developers, etc., and those organizations who need their help, is somewhat novel and, I think, essential for actually giving our students the opportunities we have already promised them for years.