Career Info: Exhibition Project Manager

For those who prefer to work in a more “behind-the-scenes” capacity, the public history profession offers a variety of options that do not necessarily require much interaction with the public at all. A museum exhibition project manager is not one of those options. This position would, however, provide an exciting and rewarding career to anyone who is energized by both individual projects and social interaction. I learned about this career from an exhibition project manager currently working at one of our nation’s most renowned natural history museums.

My interviewee (who shall remain anonymous) did not anticipate having this particular career—or even a career in the natural history field at all—when she was pursuing her education. While she claims that she always had a personal interest in natural history, her undergraduate degrees were in art history and material culture. She went on to obtain a Master’s in History Museum Studies expecting to find employment at a living history museum, a field in which she worked and gained experience during graduate school. Her background in solid history as opposed to natural history, however, has most likely been an asset to her and to the museum; because natural history encompasses so many different narrower disciplines, it allows for people of varying interests to work together on projects, making the projects themselves more diverse. The people with whom my interviewee works closely, for example, have backgrounds in areas such as anthropology, paleontology, and education.

As exhibition project manager, my interviewee describes her primary responsibility as “coordinating” exhibitions that the museum hosts. This task includes organizing an “internal team” for each exhibition to develop projects and conduct marketing and PR related to the exhibition. The exhibitions can be permanent, temporary, or even traveling exhibits, but my interviewee works most frequently with the permanent exhibits due to her personal knowledge of the building’s architectural and spatial requirements. In addition, her job requires a great deal of interaction with the public. While she does work some with museum patrons, her public role extends mainly to the news/media side of the public; for example, she participates in interviews and makes television appearances to promote new exhibitions. “The job is half people skills and half museum skills,” she says.

One of the advantages of this job is the wide range of opportunities that it offers. While project managers are assigned to a specific project, they can “rally” for a project in their area of interest or expertise. The position is also dependent on visitor experience and interest, so projects related to non-permanent exhibitions change frequently, allowing for a great deal of variety. Also, since the museum is large, it is able to host numerous projects with a vast scope.

The only frustration with this career that my interviewee cited–a frustration which all museum careers face–is the issue of funding. Her particular museum is privately endowed by its original donor, but funds still have to be raised for specific projects. As with all museums, funding is not always a certainty and must be consistently sought after.

Despite this frustration, she emphasized that her job is genuinely fun for the opportunity it provides her to work with other people who are highly passionate about sharing their interests with the public. For those who are interested in pursuing a career in this field, she offered the following advice: first, know what types of projects you are interested in working on so you can be sure that a prospective museum will appeal to you with the opportunities it offers; second, consider what level of public interaction you are comfortable with. Because of the highly social nature of this particular job, she emphasized that you can not be in a “bubble” in her position; you must be willing to interact with people.

Much like a history teacher or professor spends time planning lessons and catering to student interest, the museum exhibition project manager organizes exhibits and tailors them based on public interest and response. Perhaps a career as an academic historian is not so different from that of a public historian after all…though it may carry less risk of running into a reanimated Tyrannosaurus.

Playing with Palimpsests

I was particularly intrigued by the idea of “landscape as palimpsest” outlined in the “Augmenting Archaeology” blog entry. However (and maybe I took it the wrong way), the blog’s author seemed to make light of how historians go about reading landscapes as palimpsests, suggesting that “playing” landscapes would help tell a better story of the history of the landscape than merely “reading some aspect of past activity in the landscape.”

Telling stories about the history of landscapes is what historians do already as landscape readers—whether it be through analysis of geographical landscapes, architectural landscapes, or even intellectual “landscapes.” Good historians are constantly “annotating and crafting competing visions” of these landscapes, and rarely stop at stating pure facts as the author seems to imply. The art of history is interpretation—analyzing not just how, but why, physical or intellectual/cultural changes have occurred from past to present—and I think the profession is pursuing this purpose successfully.

That said, there is no reason why interpreting (or “playing”) landscapes could not be done through games as well as scholarship, and augmented reality is a compelling way to do this. The whole “Play the Past” concept and blog reminded me of my childhood forays into the Oregon Trail computer game, which was perhaps the inception of my interest in American western history. While my ten-year-old self probably focused primarily on trying to get my oxen to survive perilous river fordings, I do recall being able to empathize with the plights of the pioneers and learning—albeit superficially—about the landscapes of the nineteenth-century American west.

Fabulous Public History Project Introduction: Drunk History

For decades, scholars and non-academics alike have been trying to bring history to the public through television. Obscure documentaries are shown frequently on PBS stations across the country, while those who consider themselves “too cool” for PBS can choose to indulge their history cravings from the more mainstream menu of the History Channel. The demographic to which stations like PBS and the History Channel cater, however, is still not as vast as it could be; these channels require a television-owning audience, for example (and cable-subscribing in the case of the History Channel), and their reputation is still largely one of nerdiness. A more truly “public” way of promoting history through video and documentary should allow viewers to watch via a convenient mode without the attachment of the “history nerd” stigma.

Cue Derek Waters, a young actor and producer who happens to have a passion for history in addition to filmmaking. In 2007, Waters decided to combine his love of history with his love of drinking, and began filming his friends discussing topics in history–while drunk. The experiment subsequently evolved into Drunk History, a series of short films narrating historical events that originated as web videos and are now appearing on HBO.

Drunk History is a genuinely vernacular form of public history that appeals to a younger audience who, though perhaps interested in history, is not necessarily inclined to watch a lengthy, cerebral documentary. Anyone with an internet connection and five minutes to spare can access these videos, which feature drunk but enthusiastically knowledgeable narrators describing historical events that are simultaneously interpreted by well-known actors such as Jack Black and Don Cheadle. The fact that famous actors—and drinking—are involved is sure to attract a wide audience who would be indifferent to less of a popular approach to history. (There is certainly no “nerdy” stigma attached to watching this type of historical interpretation.) Moreover, the language employed is casual, to say the least, and as far from convoluted academic jargon as it could be.

While the historical facts included in the videos may not be the most detailed or, in some cases, even completely accurate, the videos serve as inspiration for further research into the event or topic narrated. More importantly, they make history—and the process of retelling it—appear trendy, which seems to be Waters’ objective in producing the videos.

The public itself is not involved in the project (although ordinary people with passion for history are the ones who narrate the videos). However, the idea has spawned various imitations on YouTube, and will no doubt continue to do so as it gains popularity. While historians may balk at the idea of conveying inebriated interpretations of important historical events, the use of accessible internet videos could surely be an asset to public historians aspiring to provoke widespread interest in history. Even without the drunken aspect, the short, entertaining film approach could be adapted for museums, mobile walking tours, or publicity purposes. It may not always be possible to achieve, but having a notable celebrity appear in a video advertising some important historical event or aspect of your city would be fantastic publicity to elicit widespread public interest. Who wouldn’t want to watch Jack Black dressed as a Basque sheepherder recounting Boise history?


An article on the Drunk History project:

An interview with Drunk History’s creator:

Drunk History’s YouTube Channel:

Reading Landscapes

I agree with Peirce Lewis’ argument that students can be taught to “read” landscapes, developing the “necessary skills and vocabulary” for doing so if they don’t possess them already (86). However, with regard to historical landscapes, I wonder if the direction that public history is taking—particularly the trend towards technology—is making it more difficult rather than more efficient for people to develop the skill of reading landscapes.

Lewis states that students “need to develop and cultivate the habit of using their eyes” and questioning the landscape they are observing (93). Interpretive signs and mobile devices, for example, may serve well to give people the necessary “vocabulary” that Lewis mentions. However, if the landscape they are observing employs an overabundance of signs, or if observers need to focus intently on a mobile device in order to learn facts about the landscape, does all of the reading and technological stimulation hinder them from truly “using their eyes”–i.e. actually observing the landscape itself?

Technological innovations can of course be crucial in conveying information about a particular landscape, but I sometimes wonder if too much technology isn’t more likely to get in the way of students’ “readings” of the physical—as opposed to the digital—landscape. (As helpful as I think it may be to have mobile tours of national parks, for example, the prospect of visitors staring at iPhones while the scenery passes them by worries me.) Although I may be somewhat of a Luddite when it comes to the use of technology in education, I am by no means completely pessimistic about it, and I look forward to seeing what comes of our attempts to impart knowledge of various cultural landscapes through our mobile public history projects this semester.

The Ideology of Odology

I am surprised that I had never heard of “odology” before this week’s reading on J.B. Jackson. It seems to encapsulate that clichéd American ideal of being footloose, and fascinates me on a personal level since I have always loved driving for the sake of sightseeing.

In Chapter 5, Timothy Davis speculates about the future of odology in light of the lack of contemporary “Jacksonian approach[es] to landscape studies in general” (76). (Maybe the fact that I had never so much as heard the term “odology” until now implies that Davis’ fears were well founded.) It is true that cultural landscapes and roads themselves have changed since Jackson’s time; however, these changes should not be the demise of odology’s significance to American cultural studies.

Perhaps Jackson’s approach is not now irrelevant, as Davis wonders, but evolving. I think that cultural landscapes can and should be studied on an ideological level in addition to the physical; while physical landscapes may change drastically over time, there is of course significance in how they change, and even behind the implication of change itself. More than just canvases for cultural expression as Jackson saw them, roads are also ideological symbols themselves. Old scenic byways and the interstate highway system, for example, denote different underlying American values, and their respective decline and development demonstrate how cultural ideologies have changed over time. George Henderson most clearly acknowledges this ideological approach to landscape studies in Chapter 11 in his identification of “landscape as discource”—“the idea that the landscape is an ideological expression” (182).