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D.Grabitske

Recently the National Council on Public History has been discussing this question through its forum. Does one need a degree? If so, to what level is necessary? How much does experience count? This is fairly broad question, and I will be curious to learn thoughts from the field in Minnesota. What prompts the question for NCPH has been the growth of academic degree programs offering Public History degrees. How does that growth change the profession?

 

13 Responses to What does it take to be a local historian?

  1. Mary Warner says:

    How does one get a degree in local history? Other than generalities, a degree is not going to confer the specifics of any locale in any depth to be effective in running a museum in a specific locale.

    Reply

  2. David Grabitske says:

    There are any number of colleges and universities now offering degrees in Public History. Of course, there are still others that provide training in nonprofit administration, museum science and conservation. Any of these types of programs can land the graduate into a local history job. The theory, it seems, is to provide the student with a framework for doing the work, and the assumption that the student will learn the particulars of the locale soon after arrival on the scene. The real question is, it seems to me, is whether or not the reverse could be true: coming in with the local knowledge and quickly learning the professional framework. I think they can, of course. How do we weigh the worth of a degree? How do we weigh the worth of local knowledge? Is one necessarily better than the other? What advice would you give a board considering hiring a new local history staff person?

    Reply

  3. Mary Warner says:

    Two words: Jan Warner. She is our executive director and she’s been in the museum business for over 40 years. She does NOT have a college degree, yet has managed to create a "world-class" facility in The Weyerhaeuser Museum. (The term "world-class" was said by a patron.) Those who are pro-college might be asking how this could be, but a college education does not confer creativity, intelligence, or a maverick spirit on anyone. How many of our greatest entrepreneurs skipped college altogether and learned what they needed to know from direct experience?

    There’s another way to look at this, which David touches upon. Why does a museum professional necessarily need a public history degree? I have a B.F.A. in studio art, with an emphasis on weaving. This degree relates in a big way to many museum tasks. I use my art degree in exhibit design, in page layout for publications, and in identifying fiber artifacts. We were once given a loom that was in pieces. My weaving background gave me the knowledge we needed to put the loom together. Museum professionals, especially those at small museums, must draw on lots of different skills. We could hire someone with an accounting degree, a technology degree, a writing degree, a regular history degree, a library degree, a degree in architecture, a science degree (for conservation & natural history museums) . . . the list goes on and on.

    Absolutely, someone can learn the particulars of the museum field while learning on the job. Indeed, this is the best way to do it. Ann Marie, our curator, has a Masters degree (in Public History, I believe) and she said that her internship and two other hands-on classes gave her the most practical experience for what she does now. That’s not a lot of actual practice considering the time and money spent on a Masters program.

    The advice I would give a board in hiring someone is to look for a person who has a passion for local history and is particular enough to want to get the story right. Excellent writing skills are a must because this is an information business.

    Reply

  4. Bob Frame says:

    Americans have always praised the "doers" and belittled the "thinkers." "Get your nose out of that book and go outside and play with the other kids!" The doers built America, while the thinkers just…well…thought. People are one way or the other in this view.

    There’s nothing sacred about college degrees, but there’s no need to disparage them, either. We all know wonderfully successful, creative people working in local history who have degrees, and many who don’t. A more fruitful approach may be to ask what a college degree–especially an advanced degree–provides.

    Most of the discussion so far suggests that advanced education is usually in a professional area, such as museum studies, administration, library science, or archival work. Even public history degrees tend to be professionally oriented, offering work-related skills for non-academic history jobs.

    But there’s much to be gained from subject-area degrees, such as history, geography, art and architectural history, or American studies. College-level work in these areas can provide a larger structure for understanding and telling the stories learned on the local level.

    No one remembers all the history "facts" from a degree program, but you begin to understand context and structure and how facts relate to context. You understand how a multitude of small details interrelate, forming patterns and creating stories. Putting local details into a broader context makes the difference between a meaningful story and antiquarianism, between history for your community and history for yourself.

    No one "needs" a degree to gain this understanding, but it usually helps. We’re all thinkers as well as doers, and taking both seriously is better than not.

    Reply

  5. Mary Warner says:

    I absolutely agree with Bob when he says, "No one remembers all the history "facts" from a degree program, but you begin to understand context and structure and how facts relate to context. You understand how a multitude of small details interrelate, forming patterns and creating stories. Putting local details into a broader context makes the difference between a meaningful story and antiquarianism, between history for your community and history for yourself." This was the true value of my college degree.

    What I think has happened is that society now equates a college education with job training. While some colleges in the past were concerned with this (Little Falls Business College & St. Cloud State’s earlier incarnation as a teacher-training facility), the overall function of a college was to create well-rounded people who were prepared to take on many kinds of jobs, with the specific training being provided by the business. Because it costs money, businesses don’t want to spend much time training anymore. Employees have to hit the ground running. This is one of the forces driving the notion that one needs a degree simply to answer a phone or sort mail. Colleges encourage this world-view because they stand to gain a lot from it. How many of us have heard the statistics about how much more a college graduate earns than a high school graduate?

    I think that earning a degree can be a worthwhile endeavor, however, when museum’s do their hiring, they should expect to have to provide the proper training to their employees and not rely solely on the degree.

    Reply

  6. David Grabitske says:

    Bob makes an excellent point about post-secondary education providing a framework for public history. I think it also provides by its nature a broader set of experiences that could be helpful coming into a community. On the otherside of the coin, entering public history from the community provides a structure that makes sense on a local level, and the rich breadth of experience with local people who are neighbors friends and relatives. Both have their merits and pitfalls. As long as the board is clear on their vision, finding someone to drive that vision might come from either source. I think this is what is generally meant when someone is said to be "a good fit."

    How would you determine "a good fit" if you were responsible for hiring? Is it more logical? (a set of criteria and matches) Is it more based on intuition? What would you look for in the candidate?

    Reply

  7. Mary Warner says:

    There’s a lot of intuition that goes into hiring someone because candidates can manage the impression they give during an interview. When I was hired, I was asked to write an essay and I was hired based on the quality of that essay. My co-worker took the same test and got the job for pretty much the same reason. Communication is essential in the museum field.

    Seth Godin, marketer extraordinaire, suggests that we do away with interviews altogether and ask potential hires to work for a day or two to see if the fit is right.

    Reply

  8. Trish Lewis says:

    I definitely don’t think a local historian needs a degree. I think the main thing needed is a passion for the history. Having good writing skills, and being a person of integrity regarding accuracy (which can be a tricky thing regarding history) is a plus, also, but a degree? No, definitely not necessary. This I state as a local historian with no degree, of course…!

    Reply

  9. Claudia Nicholson says:

    I’d just like to respond with an experience I had hiring a museum professional in a past life. We had a number of good candidates for a temporary curator/collections manager position at a satellite museum. The bulk of our candidates were out of museum studies programs. They all responded to our questions similarly, but each had a breadth of perspective due to their studies. The last candidate had a BA in some subject or other, and had essentially built for herself an apprenticeship at a major decorative arts museum on the East Coast. As far as handling the work went, she probably would have done as well as the other candidates. The one thing she lacked, however, was this breadth of perspective that the other candidates had. I attributed this to the fact that virtually all of her museum experience had happened at one place, and she had no other frame of reference. On the surface, her work would have been the same, but it would have lacked a depth and understanding of the field that all the other candidates had. Not to mention she would be handicapped in facing new situations because if this young lady had not encountered it at her museum, she was clueless.

    So, I assume, it has to be with local historians. I’ve met many fine, smart local historians with little training aside from passion. Most of these people knew chapter and verse of their locale’s history. But because all of their experience was in their community, they often missed the bigger picture, the *context* that I spoke about in another thread. Their work can be perfectly fine, and whether or not to hire a historian without a degree would be a judgment call for the board, depending upon the needs of the position.

    Remember, "historian" is what one does, it is not a degree. (I have a history degree but would never call myself a historian!)

    Claudia

    Reply

  10. Deborah Morse-Kahn says:

    One of the better admonishments from my most excellent graduate studies adviser was this: "Your M.A. wil open doors but it does not confer knowledge." And he was right: everything I understand–versus know–about public history, cultural resource studies, historic preservation issues, etc–was learned down on the ground, working with and in a great range of institutions and agencies.

    I do a lot of pro bono work with young folks wanting to move into historic preservation and cultural resource studies. I always tell them this: "The M.A. today is what the B.A. was 15 years ago. You may not like it, but there it is. Your credentials will open doors for you, you want to make plans for post-baccalaureate education. HOWEVER, you WILL do internships and you WILL volunteer for fieldwork: this is your practical training, and is irreplaceable.!"

    The last decade has seen a greatly heightened expectation for both experience and credentials, from archaeology to public history. What was once nicely negotiable is hardly ever so. And, with a great number of us, we will move more than a few times onward to other–and supposedly more responsible–positions. The credentials, then, become a critical persuader.

    The flipside is also there: too much education for the position. I have seen many postings where the ideal candidate is from the district, has a solid undergraduate degree in history or rural sociology, some internships in museum studies or cultural resources, and good skills with people. More than enough! Overhiring–as I call it–can be an expensive experiment for a local history organization and, unfortunately, also create tension among the staff group who, at the local history level, are often nondegreed volunteers or longtime staffers who "grew up" in the organization. Their knowledge, particularly of the local stories and the institutional programs, is vast yet they will still feel uneasy having someone with an M.A. (I have even seen Ph.D.s hired in this very competitive field) come in to manage a local institution…

    Deborah

    Reply

  11. Deborah Morse-Kahn says:

    One of the better admonishments from my most excellent graduate studies adviser was this: "Your M.A. wil open doors but it does not confer knowledge." And he was right: everything I understand–versus know–about public history, cultural resource studies, historic preservation issues, etc–was learned down on the ground, working with and in a great range of institutions and agencies.

    I do a lot of pro bono work with young folks wanting to move into historic preservation and cultural resource studies. I always tell them this: "The M.A. today is what the B.A. was 15 years ago. You may not like it, but there it is. Your credentials will open doors for you, you want to make plans for post-baccalaureate education. HOWEVER, you WILL do internships and you WILL volunteer for fieldwork: this is your practical training, and is irreplaceable.!"

    The last decade has seen a greatly heightened expectation for both experience and credentials, from archaeology to public history. What was once nicely negotiable is hardly ever so. And, with a great number of us, we will move more than a few times onward to other–and supposedly more responsible–positions. The credentials, then, become a critical persuader.

    The flipside is also there: too much education for the position. I have seen many postings where the ideal candidate is from the district, has a solid undergraduate degree in history or rural sociology, some internships in museum studies or cultural resources, and good skills with people. More than enough! Overhiring–as I call it–can be an expensive experiment for a local history organization and, unfortunately, also create tension among the staff group who, at the local history level, are often nondegreed volunteers or longtime staffers who "grew up" in the organization. Their knowledge, particularly of the local stories and the institutional programs, is vast yet they will still feel uneasy having someone with an M.A. (I have even seen Ph.D.s hired in this very competitive field) come in to manage a local institution…

    Deborah

    Reply

  12. Mary Warner says:

    There are some people, whether with degree or without, whether having worked at one job or 50, who will always remain parochial in attitude. How many of us have run into the perpetual graduate student who can’t ever seem to come down to earth? Conversely, you can have someone who has no degree and has held one job forever and they can be most worldly in attitude because they have an insatiable appetite for learning and will do so from every available experience. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to figure out who is who, whatever their credentials, in the interview process.

    Claudia raises a good question – What is a historian?

    Reply

  13. David Grabitske says:

    A professor in my undergraduate program discussed this very problem. Since there are no "boards" to pass or a license to acquire, determining who was or was not was a personal decision. So, he suggested that when you are ready to call yourself a historian, then you are one. Me? I pencil in "Historian" on my tax returns in the little box marked "Occupation" a the end of the form. My job title is too long, nor would the IRS know what to do with it if I managed to write it in, I suppose.

    Reply

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