Reflections on a semester of Public History

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The last day of public history classes is almost over, and with it, the first semester of the 2013-2014 M.A. in Public History (except for assignments, which are due next week). It’s time to take a moment to reflect on the first third of this degree, while everything is still fresh in my mind.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed the program so far. I really appreciate the opportunity to explore my options as a historian outside of academia with other like-minded people. The 12 of us in the program get along really well, and I’m sure that some lasting friendships have been made here.

The Public History: History, Theory, and Practice course has been a good anchor for the program, and a reminder that being a public/digital historian isn’t just about playing with cool toys all the time. We have spent considerable time talking about museums, but we’ve also learned about venues for historians that I previously knew next to nothing about (historical consulting for heritage conservation and archaeological firms, historical research for the entertainment industry, and historical writing for popular newspapers and magazines). Frequent blogging has been a new experience, but the constant writing practice is extremely useful. Through the heritage designation project and oral history projects, I’ve kept my researching skills sharp. Maybe the best thing about this course is the fact that our projects actually engage with members of the community and contribute something back to it. Sadly, that’s something that many of our best-written academic papers can’t claim.

Digital history is another field that I was strongly interested in, but hadn’t explored in depth until enrolling in Western’s program. Bill Turkel’s Digital Research Methods course was top-notch, and gave me concrete examples of how a little knowledge of computer programming could save any historian loads of time. I appreciated the risk-free space our Digital History course provided for us to try our hand with various technologies. I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t given in-depth instruction in all of the tools we tried (we had only a handful of workshops). Some of them I could never picture myself using, but others seem like they could be useful. I had to teach myself the techniques I was most interested in, which meant I spent a disproportionate time on the technical side of some projects, as opposed to the research. Sometimes it was difficult to remember which aspect of the project was more important! I know that once you figure out how to do something the first time, it becomes easier to do it again. I just hope that I find an opportunity to go back and try the other technologies out before I forget that they ever existed. My South Street Hospital project made me wish that I remembered more of the HTML I learned back in high school; I could see myself in the same boat a few years from now, thinking back to both Digital History and Digital Research Methods and wishing I was still familiar with bash script or ArcGIS.

My thoughts about digital history, post-Fall-2013: 1) Every new technology requires its own literacy (don’t assume that anyone is familiar with a technology just because it’s out there); and 2) Just because you use cutting-edge technology in your project, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically a ground-breaking work of history (don’t be fooled by the bells and whistles!). I really enjoyed Scott Weingart’s article on that subject.

The opportunity to pursue a research assistantship has also been rewarding. It’s helped me to see that museums could be a viable career path for me. Working at a museum that is also part of a charity has helped me to contribute to the community in more ways than one. Who knew you could pursue a love of history and raise awareness for diabetes prevention all in one go?

If I’m anxious about anything, it’s that my time in London is passing by so quickly. The program is structured to cover a lot of different topics related to public history, which is great when, like me, you need to learn what your options actually are. But I feel like the degree will be over before I’ve actually learned about some of these topics in depth. I suppose that’s what my free hours will be for once I’m out in the working world. I’m planning on creating some binders of my notes and readings so I can turn back to all the things I just didn’t have time to read. But let’s be honest: who knows if I’ll ever get around to that!

I’ll be leaving London for the holidays on a positive note. This program has shown me that there really are ways for historians to find fulfilling work outside of universities. It’s confirmed that I’m not the only one who questions the traditional career, who wants to find new ways of narrating history, who wants to impact the public directly, or who admires Renaissance men (for those of you who’ve had this conversation with me, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Also, Turkel spoke the words right out of my head the other day). One semester down, two to go. Next up: Winter 2013, with the Public History Group Project, Introduction to Museology, and Interactive Exhibit Design.

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