Public History Career

I had a conversation with Ken Swanson about a public history career. Ken has been involved in museums for over 41 years and has been a member of the Idaho State Historical Society for 31 years. He has held positions at every level in Idaho, from volunteer to the director of the Idaho State Historical Museum. Ken was the Executive Director of the Idaho Military Museum for five years before he retired, but still fills in as a volunteer when they are shorthanded. We talked about the job of a curator generally, but with an emphasis on smaller non-profit history museums.  Ken considers himself a “backdoor historian” who had a youthful infatuation with museums and artifacts. Because of this, he volunteered at local institutions eventually pursuing a degree in archeology.  He got his master’s at Idaho State University and while there, he also oversaw the university’s archeological collection.

I was impressed, or more correctly, intimidated by the breath of responsibility a curator in a small non-profit museum has.  In this position, you may have responsibility for presenting ideas to the board, fundraising, planning exhibits, building exhibits, publicity events, staging reenactments, bringing exhibits to schools and civic groups.  Furthermore, as the only full-time staff member in a small museum you need to understand museum collections, including conservation, storage techniques/environmental criteria, collections record keeping and how to work with conservators, specialists, technicians, volunteers, interns and obviously the board. Additionally, you have to know something about the legal aspect of accepting donated objects and the law concerning museum governance.  When I told Ken this sounded overwhelming to me and would scare me away from a career in a small museum, his reply was that it is one of the best training opportunities for learning about every job and position a museum has to offer, despite its grueling nature.

The biggest hurdle Ken identified for small museums is probably the same for all history museums—funding—seeing as it is easier for art or science museums to receive patronage than history museums. Art has a cachet for a certain social set and industry sees potential profits in supporting science exhibits. As a 501(c)(3), educational non-profit institution, all the museum’s activities, are entirely funded by charitable donations, gift shop sales and special events.  This is very common except for those organizations that are specifically designated as state or federal museums.  An indirect consequence of school funding cuts, in the last several years, has made it less likely that schools can go to museums. In order to provide children with the opportunity to learn about their exhibits the IMHM has gone to schools to make presentations increasing their workload and expenses.  I wonder how many other museums would be willing or able to go to schools, or what the rules are from a school’s perspective on allowing museum staff/volunteers/exhibits in their schools.  Ken said they even have gone to senior centers.  It seems to me this is a form of outreach, a going to the audience, rather than waiting for them to come to the museum that is participatory in one sense we have talked about in class.

In talking about the push since the 1960s to include voices that previously have been excluded from history, Ken told me that the IMHM had included more women’s exhibits to help bring women’s role in the military more to the fore.  However, he explained that any exhibit costs time, effort and money, resources that your organization wants to see a return on in terms of an audience who comes to see the exhibit, and your area may not have an audience to support such an exhibit.  While understanding Ken’s point of view I still believe it is incumbent upon us to include those voices that may not get a large audience.  And are we sure, say an exhibit on Mexican-American/Hispanic contribution to the military would not garner a large audience?  Or how about an exhibit on Japanese-Americans’ whose families were interned in Idaho, or were from Idaho who served in WWII.  How many people know the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese-Americans is the most decorated US military unit ever, and many were recruited from internment camps?  Ken’s experience was that sometimes the board or others would be the active agent for a project, but for the most part, he discovered that if he was proactive and brought ideas to the board, with a rough plan of how to bring a proposed exhibit to fruition, his ideas were endorsed.  Given this possibility, perhaps what might be perceived initially as a low interest event could be birthed with the right kind of preparation.

I saw Ken become most animated and enthused when we talked about the power of the internet to facilitate participation versus seeing an artifact in person.  He told me he still sees himself, even after 41 years in museums as a “carny barker” using an artifact as a “hook” to enthrall visitors with a history story.  His enthusiasm made me think again about how to get artifacts out of the museum and to people if they can’t or won’t go to museums.  Where is the artifact and the passionate storyteller in any museum that could leave the building to go to others and inspire them.

Ken’s advice to anyone interested in a public history career is get as much experience as you can through volunteering and internships. Firstly, this will help you assess whether it is something you really want to do; secondly, it gives you practical experience and knowledge in the field; thirdly, it helps you build your resume and fourthly it earns you recommendations from your supervisors. He also advised getting as broad an experience in all facets of museum work as possible because you never know where a job opportunity might arise.  Based on course readings, class discussion, and life experience this seems like reasonable advice.  In terms of formal education, his opinion is a BA or BS in history or anthropology/archeology is sufficient for entry-level positions,  a master’s degree for more senior positions, but not necessarily anything more advanced as it becomes too specialized, unless you are absolutely sure of your goal.


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