Chief Operating Officer, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park
It is a question of perpetual interest, but one I only started to ask about ten years into my career in the field. Experience was my own, personal entrance into the field. But, then again, I never charted out a path to a career in history museums, so my story is not a “traditional” one. From people I’ve talked to in the field, though, I’m not sure there is a traditional story, though. Still, if it is of some help, I’ll provide some highlights from my own experience.
I received an undergraduate degree in history from a small school in Indiana called Taylor University, but I did not plan to apply it directly in my work. For me, a history degree was one interesting path in liberal arts, where I could learn how to better think and write. My plan was to get a degree (any degree) and then go find meaningful work somewhere. Then I stumbled into a front line staff position at Conner Prairie, where I soon learned I had less to offer as a historian and more as a manager. After a decade and a series of positions with progressive responsibility, I found myself thinking about gaps in my own understanding and whether
more education would stand me in good stead for another decade or two of service to the field.
While considering formal, extended programs of study, I explored other options. Among those was the Seminar for Historical Administration, held in my own backyard in Indianapolis. It turned out to be one of those career milestones that has played a significant role in my professional development. Coupled with my work experiences at the time leading staff teams through organizational change, SHA helped broaden my view of the world and extend my capacity for influence.
After exploring graduate school museum studies and non profit management programs, I determined that a masters in business administration (MBA) would actually provide the best foundation for me to stretch to the next level of contribution. So, I enrolled at the Kelley School of Business through Indiana University while also serving as the Chief Operating Officer at Conner Prairie. That experience has proven invaluable for me, giving me the opportunity to apply rigorous business thinking to the very real challenges of managing and leading a learning institution.
In all of this, though, one career‐defining conversation stands out. When I was assigned my first full time museum programming position, I decided (on somewhat of a lark) to go to talk to the man at the top of my division about what a career in the museum field might look like, and what I should do to pursue such a career if I was so inclined. While I can’t remember specifically what Steve said, I do remember the gist of his advice: “Work hard at what you do, follow through, and consider getting an advanced degree in something that will help you be better at what you do.” Very good advice.
Former Outreach and Partnership Coordinator, Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission
Much can be said for the invaluable lessons learned through experience. As someone who has worked for 13 years in the museum field, I can understand that point of view. While I am proud of what I have accomplished, I know that I am missing a fundamental component in my career by not having a master’s degree.
I’ve been fortunate over the years; I’ve been the director of a small museum, director of a national technical assistance program, and a board member of a museum association. Through this experience, I gained a variety of perspectives whether it is on local, state, or national levels or through small, medium, or large museums. I’ve seen it all!
The one thing that I learned is that some “education” cannot be found in a classroom. Take the example of an internship or volunteer position for the college‐to‐graduate‐school student. For people who have not yet worked in a professional museum environment, the experience can be eye‐opening. I hired a number of interns who went through a “reality‐check” only to discover that most museums do not practice at the highest level of standards as they learned in their studies. Also, I encountered a variety of challenging situations, such as managing employees with hidden agendas and navigating politics in the work place. Challenging circumstances such as these can be only truly understood through experience.
But despite my experience, there is no mistaking that my lack of a MA has been an obstacle for my career advancement. There have been several instances where I lost a job to a candidate with an advanced degree. The obvious solution is graduate school and it has been a goal of mine for years.
Yet, there has always been something that came along to distract me or postpone my application. I now find myself at a point in my life ‐ both personally and professionally ‐ where graduate school is the only next logical step. After looking into various master’s programs and talking to friends and colleagues for advice, I found a program that excites and motivates me. This degree will provide the education to complement my experience and will give me a solid foundation in non‐profit administration.
President Emeritus, Virginia Historical Society
I retired in late 2008 after spending nearly three decades in the field of public history. During most of that time, I served as the chief executive officer of three successfully large institutions, the last twenty at the Virginia Historical Society. It was an incredibly rewarding career, yet ironically one in which I received no formal training. It was a career that I had not planned on pursuing; I more or less fell into because I had run out of options. You see, I was formally trained as a “P.O.H.;” that is “plain old historian.” I had loved history since I was a child, and by my sophomore year in college, I was so passionate about it that I decided to become a professional historian. I eventually earned a Ph.D. in the discipline with ambitions of becoming a college professor and scholar.
When I completed my doctorate in 1978; however, the college teaching job market was bleak, and after three years of fruitlessly searching, I “settled” for a history job outside of academe. I now thank my lucky stars that my career path evolved the way it did. I found my true calling in running increasingly complex organizations. Was I formally trained for the career I eventually pursued? Not at all. My formal training had prepared me to be a scholar. But on a day‐to‐day basis, rather than practicing the craft of history, I practiced the crafts of fundraising, board development, budget management, strategic planning, lobbying, public relations, and personnel supervision. I ran organizations that required skills for which nothing in my graduate training prepared me.
How did I learn them? Many of them came by full immersion in the daily functions of my jobs, sometimes learning the hard way through my mistakes. But I also devoted a lot of time during my career to self‐education. Early on, I turned to AASLH, AAM, and other professional organizations for instruction. I read every issue of History News and Museum News that I could get my hands on. I began attending annual meetings where I networked with other professionals, especially senior professionals whose sage advice provided me with invaluable lessons. I also attended numerous training seminars on administration, management, and fundraising that served me well.
Did I abandon my educational roots in history? Absolutely not. I always believed that my solid scholarly grounding in history was key to any successes I may have had during my career. My historian’s perspective was vital to the decision making process, especially in strategic planning. It also enabled me to interact more effectively with historians and yes, the general public. In my role as the head of a state historical society, I was expected to speak with a degree of authority on historical issues, even though my day‐to‐day work was mostly removed from scholarship. During my career, I attended social functions numbering in the thousands. Never once was I asked about our long‐range plan or our personnel policy, but I cannot tell you how many times I was queried about the latest history books on the best seller list or about someone’s ancestry.
Can people who are not formally trained in history succeed as directors? Of course they can, but they must understand the nature of scholarship and the nuances of interpreting the past. People without formal training in history should gain a solid understanding of the nature of historical inquiry. They should make a concerted effort to be as well read and informed about areas of history relating to their institutions. That charge is not different from those of us who came from traditional academic training with no formal instruction in management and who look advantage of the programs and publications available to us through AASLH and other organizations. There is no shortage of ways to learn how to do our jobs, either formally or not.