Preservation Virginia Blog

Mar
26

Preservation Virginia Cultivates New Generations of Public Historians

By Meika Downey, Preservation Virginia Education Manager

 

“Working in a historic site not only allows you to explore an area of work that interests you, but also allows you to be a part of the discussion about what public history should look like.” – Haley Barber

 

Historic interpreters, educators, or visitor services staff are often said to serve as the face of an organization because they provide the first introduction a visitor has to a site or museum. Because of this important position interpreters have in cultivating not only a positive visitor experience but hopefully museum membership and donors as well, front line staff maintain a vital role in the ecosystems of public history and cultural heritage institutions. However, at Preservation Virginia, historic interpreters and museum educators who staff the front lines of our five museum sites do a lot more than guide the visitor experience. 

Beyond greeting guests, museum educators and historic interpreters at Preservation Virginia sites primarily provide guided tours of our historic sites to the public, oftentimes spending an hour or more with groups. In addition, our staff facilitate school field trip tours and activities, provide public and private presentations both in-person and virtually, as well as conduct historical research and help develop new tours, programs and events. In doing so, our front line staff ends up establishing an even wider set of skills that will serve them after they leave Preservation Virginia for other jobs in public history, academia or any field they enter. In addition, these individuals are also exposed and contribute to the fluctuating trends in public history, historic interpretation, advocacy, memory, legacy, and more. 

Because of the nature of historic interpreter and museum educator positions at Preservation Virginia, however, we do not expect these individuals to remain in their posts endlessly, but rather we find these staff members use their roles in our museums as foundational stepping stones in their careers. As such, while working at Preservation Virginia, we want to help our staff make the most of their time with us. We seek to provide our front line staff with as many opportunities to not only learn about the different facets of public history and historic preservation, but also opportunities to explore what really interests them about the work and to exercise and develop skills. 

In recent years, the cohort of former museum educators and historic interpreters for Preservation Virginia who have gone on to pursue impressive careers in other museums, cultural sites and academia has grown. In reflecting on the impact their work on the front lines of Preservation Virginia museums had on where they are now in their respective positions, our former staff members generated the following conclusions about the value of working as a historic interpreter. 

Pursue Your Interests 

Haley Barber, who worked as a Museum Educator at Preservation Virginia from 2019 to 2023, and who now is the Collections Project Manager for Maymont Foundation in Richmond, Virginia, encourages those curious about the field of public history to “lean into your passions… Whatever it is that interests you probably interests someone else as well, and you should dig deeper into any subject that you enjoy.” Emily Johnson also added that “Preservation Virginia is especially good at encouraging its employees to tap into their own talents in their work.” Within the historic scopes of each of Preservation Virginia’s historic sites, interpreters and educators are empowered to pursue their own interests. Further, Emily hopes that future interpreters will be confident in pursuing special topics in their interpretation, research or programs, and to even “do things they’re scared of…and leave their comfort zone…There’s an audience for everything and, so long as your supervisors give the ‘OK,’ don’t doubt the topic too much.” Emily currently works as an Archivist at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts which is also located in Richmond.

Maximize Opportunities 

One of the benefits of working at Preservation Virginia is that we are such a large and diverse organization which can provide ample opportunities to our front line staff to learn about all that the field of public history has to offer. Preservation Virginia not only owns, stewards and interprets multiple colonial and Early American historic sites across the Commonwealth, but the organization also engages in extensive preservation advocacy initiatives at local, state and national levels, in addition to maintaining an impressive team of historic preservation craftsmen who care for our own historic structures and other owners who contract their services. The cohort of Preservation Virginia alumni noted that one of the best things an historic interpreter can do is to maximize exposure to the varied sub-fields found in public history institutions.

Zoe Brooks, who interned with Preservation Virginia in 2022 said that her internship addressed “questions [she] had not even thought to ask, like: Where does funding come from? How do you care for artifacts on display? How do you engage a public audience with historical research?” Her internship gave her a lens into the inner workings of a museum organization and gave her lead position in creating a self-guided visitor experience at the John Marshall House.  Zoe says her “work with Preservation Virginia certainly both informed and prepared me for my current role as a museum interpreter and tour guide.” Zoe now works at Jekyll Island State Park in Georgia with plans to enter graduate school in fall 2024. 

Additionally, Emma Clark (2021-2023) who now works as the Education Manager at the Poe Museum in Richmond, truly maximized her time as a museum educator with Preservation Virginia by “publish[ing] research concerning the enslaved individuals in the Marshall home,” which she calls the “most fulfilling opportunity I’ve had this far in my career.” You can read Emma’s article about slavery in the John Marshall House through Enslaved.org here. Moreover, Emma, who had a great interest in pursuing a career in museum education, said that her ability to shadow Preservation Virginia Education Manager Meika Downey in her work “prepared me to lead my own education department at the Poe Museum.” Likewise, Haley Barber capitalized on her access to Preservation Virginia Curator of Collections, Elyse Werling, by interning in the institution’s archives, which further propelled her into her career in museum collections at Maymont.

Young Adults Need to Engage Museums, Historic Sites, and Cultural Institutions

Young adult professionals are so vital to the continuation and invigoration of public history, and the Preservation Virginia alumni historic interpreters encourage this demographic especially to engage with the field. Ben Lovelace, who worked for the organization from 2019 to 2022 notes that young professionals populating museums and historic sites “makes these places seem more approachable and accessible, especially to younger folks who are less inclined to take an interest in history. Seeing someone from their generation get excited and passionate about something that they might consider ‘boring’ can only help increase interest in the subject.” In considering the importance of shifting demographics of both museum audiences and staff, Ben also adds that “younger people are going to be more experimental and innovative in how history is presented at a place like a historic house, which is sorely needed.” Haley Barber agrees that “cultural heritage sites have often been in operation for decades and have a need for fresh perspectives and new ideas.” However, while there is a desire and need for more young professionals to work in public history, what can the museum field do to better support and cultivate this demographic?

 Realities of the Field 

“The museum field is a notoriously difficult field to secure a job in,” says Emma, even if Preservation Virginia, and many museum institutions, work to provide young adults “opportunities to explore if public history is the career path for them.” Though a rewarding field, “public history needs to offer well paying and accessible entry level positions for young professionals.” Several realities of pursuing a career in museum work is that more often than not individuals enter the field through part-time positions, like historic interpreters or museum educators, but not everyone–especially younger professionals–have the luxury to prioritize part-time work. To better support and cultivate this demographic, our alumni staff want to see museums “offer [more] positions that pay above minimum wage and support regular work hours. [This] will allow for more interested professionals to pursue their career goals rather than allowing those opportunities to solely go to those who can support themselves working minimum wage and irregular hours.” 

Despite these realities of the field, those interested in public history and cultural institutions are also encouraged to build professional networks through internships, workshops, conferences and professional development that also go a long way toward career-building. A great place for both museums and aspiring professionals to look for resources are college and university humanities programs. Ben Lovelace advocates that these departments “should be partnering with museums and cultural institutions to try and groom young talent, and actually give them the competitive edge they need to make their way into the field.” Most university humanities programs offer or even require internship experiences and likely already have relationships with local museums and organizations. Preservation Virginia is proud to provide undergraduate and graduate internships to Virginia Commonwealth University, College of William & Mary, Hollins University and others. Beyond simply gaining entry to the field and practical experience, internships can also sometimes serve as “pathways to employment” and should not be overlooked as valuable opportunities. That said, prospective interns are also encouraged to advocate for what they want and need out of an internship experience–guidance that both college advisors and museum partners really value. 

Furthermore, in advising what those interested in the field should consider in job opportunities, Erin Turbeville (2021-2022) adds that receiving  a “comprehensive understanding of public history work at large, and experience accomplishing independent public history projects and building focused/expert knowledge” is key. Erin says that while at Preservation Virginia, she had “the chance to learn a lot and gain experience in different aspects of leadership and museum management…which has definitely helped me feel confident in my current position” as the Assistant Registrar at Historic Deerfield, in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

For those with entry-level museum positions, spending time on the front lines building experience working directly with the public, pursuing interests, expanding skill sets and gaining accessible views of the field all contribute to one’s professional development. Preservation Virginia routinely hires historic interpreters and museum educators at our five colonial and Early American historic sites, which include: Bacon’s Castle (1665) and Smith’s Fort (1763) both in Surry County (just a ferry’s ride from Williamsburg!), Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown (c.1719) in Hanover County, the John Marshall House (1790) in Richmond, and Cape Henry Lighthouse (1792) in Virginia Beach. If you are intrigued by the art of historic interpretation, engaging the public, participating in complicated conversations, having your own perspectives broadened, conducting research and developing versatile and vital skill sets, you may find work in public history fulfilling. We encourage those interested to monitor our website and social media channels or reach out directly for future job and internship opportunities. 

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