Rather than describe a single informational interview, for this post I wanted to discuss my first experience at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History, which took place this week in Baltimore. I chose to attend the conference to get a better sense of developments in the field and the range of jobs and projects that public historians engage with; I also hoped to meet a few new people and talk to them about their work. On both counts the conference was a success. I left feeling inspired by many of the thoughts, ideas, and questions I heard, and I got a better sense of what the opportunities and challenges of certain types of positions might be.
For example, I spoke to a young woman who works in exhibitions at the 9/11 Memorial Museum—the institution about which I wrote my undergraduate thesis, and which I find fascinating. She came to the job with an MA in international history, not a museum studies or public history degree, and explained that much of what she enjoyed about her job came from the excitement of welcoming hundreds or thousands of visitors every day and getting to see how the museum’s displays affected some of them. Since exhibition development is an area of the field I am considering, it was helpful to hear that her history background had prepared her well for the job—I hope that mine will do the same! I am also hoping that my future positions will include a variety of types of work, something else that she confirmed is part of her current job.
In addition, I have been considering ultimately pursuing work in the federal government, perhaps with the Smithsonian or the National Park Service. Based on presentations at sessions and on a couple of conversations, I have been thinking more about the limitations that can be placed on historians working at federal sites, particularly when such sites are controversial. Some of the presenters were reporting on jobs that they no longer occupied, and indicated that they could now speak with more candor than would have been possible while they were federal employees. I also wonder if I have the temperament for the diplomacy that can be necessary for these types of jobs, especially if the topic area they deal with is controversial. The former historian of the Nixon Presidential Library, who oversaw the transformation of the Watergate Gallery there from a largely false presentation that excused Nixon of responsibility to a more accurate and damning portrayal, described receiving complaints every day of work about his oral history project, his exhibition development, and even his clothes.
Overall, I found that my first experience at NCPH was a valuable one both in terms of learning about some timely issues and problems in public history, and in terms of illuminating my vision of what kinds of positions I might be best suited for in the future.