Meet B. Erin Cole (Ph.D., History, University of New Mexico), Colorado’s Assistant State Historian. Today she gives Erstwhile a glimpse of what her job entails, along with some advice for those considering careers in public history. Successful public historians, she explains, must be able to work across diverse topics, in assorted mediums, and with a variety of people.
I currently work as the Assistant State Historian at the History Colorado Center in Denver. History Colorado (HC) is the new name of the Colorado Historical Society, which was founded in 1879. History Colorado may be old, but it is actively reinventing itself, its audiences, and its mission for the future. Currently, I am working on several upcoming exhibits – one on the Chicano movement in Colorado that will open in February 2015, and another celebrating the centennial of Rocky Mountain National Park that opens in March.
I am part of History Colorado’s exhibits and interpretation department. My main job is content research, writing, and exhibit development for the exhibits in our museum. I also do a lot of public speaking, some other writing and research, work with our education department on teacher-education programs, and, honestly, a lot of other tasks. Most of my work isn’t done alone – I work collaboratively with colleagues in other departments and with people outside the museum. To open an exhibit, I have to work with people in our collections department, our educators, staff in marketing, communications, and development. Most projects also involve collaborating with community organizations, outside scholars and other content experts, donors, and other stakeholders. We also have to work within a budget and on tight deadlines. This is much different from a lot of academic work, where you often slog away in isolation. As you can see, I do a lot of different types of work with a wide range of people at my side.
I started working at HC in 2010 as a part-time exhibits researcher while I was completing my dissertation research. Two years ago, I became the assistant state historian. The funding for my job comes from soft money – donations to the museum, grants, and other forms of outside funding – rather than from the state legislature. I mention this because it is very common in public history. Museums, other cultural institutions, and many non-profit organizations depend on a lot of outside funding to hire staff, produce exhibits, and run public programming. Money that is there one year may not be available the next — the employment landscape for public history is always changing, and you have to be willing to learn new skills and be geographically mobile in order to stay in the profession.
I didn’t originally plan to go into public history when I went to graduate school, but I didn’t rule it out, either. This is not how you’re told to do things in graduate school – you’re pushed to specialize and go after certain types of jobs. But I also kept my eyes open for new opportunities, since you never know what jobs are going to be open or available to you. My only formal training in museums and public history was as an undergrad, when I did an internship at the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction. My Ph.D. is from the University of New Mexico (UNM), which does not offer any specific training in public history, nor does it offer internship programs to help students explore non-academic careers (although this will probably change soon, since UNM is one of four schools sharing an AHA-Mellon grant to explore alternate careers for history Ph.Ds). Still, there are a lot of UNM alumni working in public history, whether for the federal government, in publishing, at museums and other cultural institutions, or teaching public history. I did a lot of networking with other alumni at conferences and other events, while I was still in graduate school. This networking paid off: I got my job at History Colorado through another UNM alumnus.
The best advice I can give about being a public historian is to remember that the audience for what you do isn’t you, and it certainly isn’t academic historians. While I rely heavily on historical scholarship to do my work, and collaborate with academic historians on projects, the audience for what I do is the people who come to our museum – think families with children, out-of-town tourists, and kids on school tours. In a museum, people engage with information in many different ways. Some people respond best to text panels or looking at artifacts, while others learn better through video and audio, or doing hands-on activities. Some already have a lot of background knowledge about the subject, some not so much. My job is to help create content and experiences that engages all of these visitors intellectually and emotionally. Sometimes, to do this, I have to be a scholar. But just as often, I need to not be a scholar and try to put myself in the shoes of the people who I’m creating content for.
In museums, you have to be a generalist. In my academic work, I specialize in urban history, environmental history, and the post-World War II American West. But In the four years I’ve been at History Colorado, I’ve done exhibits, research, and public presentations on everything – topics in Colorado and western history that I didn’t research in graduate school, and, in a lot of cases, knew little about before I began working here. Since I know how to locate the right information and absorb it quickly this isn’t a problem, but it shows that you need to have a broad base of knowledge in order to succeed in a job like mine.
One of the myths of public history is that there are more jobs in this field than there are at colleges or universities. There really aren’t. Governments, museums, and other institutions that employ public historians are subject to the same sort of budget cuts and pressures to employ more contingent and unpaid labor as you currently find in higher education. Salaries aren’t particularly high in the field and public historians don’t enjoy the protections – however hard they are to come by these days – of tenure. But, I think, there is a lot more freedom to create your own path in this field. A lot of organizations, like mine, are trying to reinvent themselves to attract new, underserved audiences and they need people who can be creative, adaptable, and empathetic to others.