Have public history degree, will travel

One of our Marble Springs staff members is moving on to a position at a Civil War-related site, the T.R.R. Cobb House in Athens, GA. Cobb was a lawyer who figures prominently in Georgia’s legal history, but he’s best remembered as a member of the Confederate congressional committee responsible for drafting the CSA’s constitution and as the organizer of the Georgia Legion.  His military career didn’t last long; he bled to death from a mortal wound received at Fredericksburg, but the Legion went on to serve in many of the war’s bloodiest battles.  I don’t know if he was any relation to Wilbur Cobb of Ren & Stimpy fame, but I desperately hope so.

Anyway, we had a little send-off for our colleague (who we were very sad to lose) a few days ago, and she mentioned that she’s about to start studying up on Cobb’s life and times for her new job.  After years of working on the Tennessee frontier, it’ll be quite a change.

It occurred to me that this is one of the differences between public historians and their academic counterparts.  Academic historians have the tremendous luxury of specialization.  They spend years immersing themselves in the literature and primary sources of a particular field, and their success depends on how well they can navigate within it.  Of course, they’ll end up teaching courses that fall outside their specialization.  When it’s their turn to teach the survey course, they’ll have to have a working knowledge of a tremendous swath of historical knowledge.  And the academic who can rework his or her specialization to fit a particular department’s strengths and expectations will be at a great advantage on a job search.  But if they’re lucky, academic historians will spend much of their time on whatever it is they’ve chosen to study.

Public historians, on the other hand, have to learn to adapt.  Their reading and research will depend much more heavily on the job they find themselves in than on their own inclinations.  Again, the differences aren’t absolute; some public historians will be fortunate enough to find a position that suits their particular interests and expertise, just as some academic historians will find it necessary to adapt quickly to meet the needs of a department looking to hire new blood.  But adaptation is more likely to be a fact of life for the public historian.

A change of job doesn’t just mean a change of zip code and getting to know a new city.  It also means getting acquainted with a new mental geography: new contexts, new historiographies, new themes.  It might mean a crash course in World War I for your first job, labor history for your second, the antebellum South for your third.  One of my former bosses has worked at museums specializing in subjects as varied as the Trans-Mississippi West, the history of firearms, and Abraham Lincoln.  I know people who have been posted at sites dealing with the pre-Columbian Southwest and the Kentucky frontier, Jacksonian canals and the Civil War, twentieth-century education and eighteenth-century Appalachia.

On top of all this, remember that public historians have to be generalists in another sense, too.  They have to be familiar with the tenets of historical research as well as all the practical know-how required to manage a museum or a site: preservation, exhibits, budgets, pedagogy, and so on.

Adaptability and versatility just might be the two most important qualities for the aspiring public historian.  It’s not a career choice for the faint of heart, but if you like learning new things, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

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