Public History Consultancy

It was somewhat dispiriting to find that historical consulting is a growing field because organizations can’t afford, or have other priorities, than employing full time historians. It appears that the reality is, as it is for many Americans, that a job no longer comes with benefits and retirement plans. And with government agencies relying more on contract workers, what was once a secure method of entry to the middle-class will continue to shrink. So whereas in the past a national or state public history agency may have hired a full-time staff member the push now is to pay for piece-work. Perhaps, as some would argue this increases productivity and creativity in a competitive market, winnowing out the chaff from the wheat, but it also denies a stable and secure work environment for many who are committed to history. Likewise, in “Crafting a New Historian,” T.R. Putman writing in the Chronical of Higher Education online, “wondered whether history was becoming a world of outworkers” where a career now means a life of short-term contracts and adjunct faculty positions. He also wonders what this means to the craft of history by analogy to his tailoring, in a world where the apprentice has no master craftsperson to mentor him.

The article, “Historians as Consultants and Contractors,” on the AHA website, stresses gaining as much knowledge as possible outside your specialty to enhance your utility for a potential employer. This advice make practical sense as evidenced by the person who can say “not only can I build exhibits, instruct educational programs, lead a group project, but I also have experience in accessions, storage, and as a docent,” versus a one dimensional applicant. We are informed that interning is the path to build a diverse skill set, while “writing, research, and communication are essential components,” for anyone aspiring to a successful career in public history. Additionally, knowledge of the rules and regulations concerning cultural resources, land use and preservation is helpful.

Bob Beatty’s advice in “What employers seek in public history graduates (Part 1),” is to join professional organizations, regularly attend conferences, read the latest publications online and take onsite workshops and training. Basically, he says be attuned to the career field, be part of it and don’t underestimate the importance of collaborative work experience. The second part of the post has Scott Stroh exhorting us to go beyond our discipline and expertise for a “personal, societal and organizational advancement within the context of historical understanding, an awareness of place, and a relationship with humanity.” He lists eight steps that mix common sense (hone public speaking skills, get involved with a civic organization, get a mentor, continually evaluate your intentions/goals) and idealism (annotate everything that inspires, raise money outside your organization for a cause you care about, and “be relentlessly positive”). I doubt I could ever be relentlessly positive, but I agree with Stroh that “professional development, however, is a life-long commitment.” His comment that there is an “unbreakable link between mission and money,” was epitomized by the History Factory’s website’s sales pitch for their consultancy. I have to admit to finding something sleazy about it, despite its haut monde patina. Maybe it affronted my Western US sense of polite self-effacement, or my naive view of history as something grand and noble. It made me feel dirty, to be in the business of history, as opposed to the vocation of History, of having to sell history like it is common wares in a haberdashery. I suppose this makes me guilty of romanticizing history, while also crediting it with something that lifts it above the pedestrian, in an elitist claim to avoid the market place of ideas and public support. As Putnam, mentioned above, says “historians need to spend less time in the library and more time confronting the rigorously critical world of the nonacademic public.”

However, I did like the statistic presented on the History Factory site, informing us that people are ‘twenty-two times more likely to remember and internalize a “story” as opposed to a series of facts or bullet-points.’

I enjoyed learning about The Arrow Rock Group which now is owned by two sisters with an office in Boise. They are a local company making it in the history consultancy business, showing that it is possible to make a living in history outside of teaching. They, as the AHA post did, stressed the importance of knowing how to run a business and having basic knowledge of the finances, regulations and procedures to be a viable concern. Their website sparked a debate amongst my friends over the sisters’ US Department of Transportation (DOT) classification as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE). According to the Idaho DOT website, a DBE must be at least “51% owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals,” a category that automatically includes women, once their “adjusted personal net worth is no more than $1.32 million.” Some friends thought it was insulting to women because it assumed they were disadvantaged without looking at an individual’s situation. Others wanted to know why a woman whose net worth might be $1.2 million, just under the cap, qualifies to be an “economically disadvantaged” person, and presumably would get preference for contracts over a man whose net worth might only be $100,000. All reasonable questions but on the whole the answer is to be found in historic patterns of discrimination be it overt societal norms (“women’s work”) or covert institutional practices (not lending money to women). In the Idaho Statesman’s May 30, 2013, Business Review website it was reported that women are least represented as business owners in construction (8%), and in the insurance and finance fields at 20%. Furthermore, the businesses women are most likely to own are in the health and education arenas, in part because these fields are more amenable to childcare, a responsibility that primarily falls to women. It was noteworthy that two of the women owners of construction businesses in Idaho, were quoted as saying they had grown up helping their fathers, in one case work on engines and in the other, he had taught her to weld.

Clio’ website has an interesting presentation on “Antipictorialism,” and the emergence of visual literacy in the early 1800s. Prior to this date illustrations and pictures were seen as a corrupting influence, bringing undue emotionality to serious topics. It made me wonder in what ways the past is interpreted differently when words and pictures are used versus words alone. The piece also delves into the relationship between the writer, illustrator and editors of early illustrated American histories highlighting the tensions in the process of presenting a history. On a further note of interest, we are told that one writer used “unabashed nationalism” as a theme to unite his narrative, while he also generalized slavery “by universalizing” it as an experience. It seems to me that this skewed version of history is still quite popular today.


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