Recent senior hirings at prominent history-related museums and sites have raised some intriguing questions in my mind about the very scope and nature of “Public History”, as I plow through the prep for my Summer course on the subject at Hopkins. It’s made me think long and hard about what we, as educators in graduate programs in Museum Studies or Public History, should do to prepare our students to compete for fulfilling, sustainable jobs when top positions are frequently going to people with virtually no — or actually zero — Public History or Museum Studies backgrounds. I have recently met far, far too many young, talented, inspiring, and increasingly disillusioned students and EMPs (Emerging Museum Professionals), with far, far too much to offer the field, to not at least explore those questions, particularly to see whether it’s an emerging trend, standard fare, or something else altogether. So, when I have an intellectual itch to scratch, and a new study all set up for it, I spent this morning doing what I usually do when that happens (especially when a different kind of doctor tells me to stay home and be very still), which is to gather data, crunch numbers, and see what falls out.
My methodology was this: Identify the sites in the field that I think are notable for their size, their promise, or their struggles, and see who has been hired for the key public history areas, as well as at the very top. I picked 34, all listed below. And then I cross-referenced them with LinkedIn (I apologize now for some of the recent connection invites) and Charity Navigator’s analysis to see how those sites financially perform (19, just over half, of my selections are rated). It is, admittedly, a highly selective and subjective process, but I tried to gather large and small sites and attempted a broad geographic scope. I mean, it’s not my fault that most American history sites are located in the east, is it?
Here is what I found. Of the 34 sites that I examined, with 82 executives and relevant senior staff for whom I could find data, very few of them — 13, less than 16% — were held by staff with any graduate training in Public History or Museum Studies, and only one of the executives has a degree at any level in Public History or Museum Studies. Take a look for yourself at this list, which represents a sizable proportion of the heritage tourism market (and which I’ll likely expand and refine and correct as a sort of working document, with your help), ranked by the Charity Navigator financial rating where available (IMHO, transparency ratings artificially inflate the money numbers that really count, so I tend to leave them out):
New Bedford Whaling Museum (93.69) — Amanda D. McMullen, President, B.A. from Syracuse University; Christina Connett, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections, Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Valencia; Michael P. Dyer, Curator of Maritime History, M.A. in American Studies from Pennsylvania State University-Capitol.
Fort Ticonderoga Association (93.45) — Beth L. Hill, President, M.A. in History from American University.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon (92.44) — Douglas Bradburn, President, Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago; Rob Shenk, Senior Vice President for Visitor Engagement, M.A. in National Security Studies from Georgetown University; Roy Young, Vice President for Guest Experience, M.A. in Art and Visual Culture Education from the University of Arizona.
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum (91.57) — Courtney Wilson, Executive Director, M.A. in History (African American) from Morgan State University.
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (91.30) — Kristen Greenaway, President, M.A. in Liberal Studies from Duke University; Pete Lesher, Chief Curator, M.A. in History from Columbia University; Jill Ferris, Director of Education, M.A. in History Museum Studies from SUNY-Oneonta.
The Valentine Richmond History Center (91.15) — William J. Martin, President, M.A. in Public Administration from Virginia Tech; Liz Reilly-Brown, Director of Public Programs, M.A. in Art History and Museum Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University; David Voelkel, Curator of General Collections, M.A. in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester.
Strawbery Banke Museum (91.07) — Lawrence Yerdon, President, M.B.A. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and M.A. in History from Northeastern University; Elizabeth Farish, Chief Curator, M.A. in Historic Preservation from the Savannah College of Art and Design; Amanda Santoriello, Assistant Curator, M.A. in Museum Studies from Tufts University; Bekki Coppola, Director of Education, M.A. in Museum Education from Tufts University. [Thanks, Alix, for the contribution of the information. — TS]
Historic Deerfield (88.95) — Philip Zea, President, M.A. in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware (Winterthur).
The National World War II Museum (86.66) — Stephen Watson, President, M.B.A. from Nicholls State University; Peter Crean, Vice President for Education and Access, M.A. in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College; Owen Glendening, Associate Vice President for Education and Access, M.A. in History from Columbia University.
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (86.15) — Leslie Greene Bowman, President, M.A. in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware (Winterthur); Susan Stein, Chief Curator and Vice President for Museum Programs, M.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago; Gary Sandling, Vice President for Visitor Programs and Service, M.A. in History from Yale University.
National Constitution Center (85.99) — Jeffrey Rosen, President, J.D. from Yale Law School; Kerry Sautner, Vice President of Visitor Experience and Education, Ph.D. in Education from Drexel University.
James Madison’s Montpelier (81.94) — Kat Imhoff, President, M.S. in Urban and Environmental Planning from the University of Virginia; Elizabeth Chew, Vice President of Museum Programs, Ph.D. in Art History from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Christian Cotz, Director of Education and Visitor Engagement, M.A. in Teaching from James Madison University.
The International Tennis Hall of Fame (81.24) — Douglas Stark, Museum Director, M.A. in History from New York University; Nicole Markham, Curator of Collections, M.M.St. (Masters in Museum Studies) from the University of Toronto.
Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation (Stratford Hall) (79.03) — John S. Bacon, President, J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law; Abigail Newkirk, Director of Interpretation, M.A. in Museum Studies from Newcastle University; Gretchen Pendleton, Curator, M.A. in Museum Studies from George Washington University.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (78.96) — Mitchell Reiss, President, D. Phil. from Oxford University; Ghislain d’Humières, Executive Director and Senior Vice President for Core Operations, DEA (former French equivalent of an M.A.) in History from the University of Paris I (the Sorbonne).
The Mark Twain House and Museum (78.42) — Pieter Roos, Executive Director, M.A. in History Museum Studies from SUNY-Cooperstown; Tracy Brindle, Chief Curator, M.A. in History (Public History) at Northern Illinois University; James Golden, Director of Education, Ph.D. in History from the University of Oxford.
Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest (76.37) — Jeffrey Nichols, President; Wayne Gannaway, Director of Programs, Marketing, and Grants, M.A. in Historic Preservation from Western Kentucky University; Mary Massie, Manager of Programs and Education, M.A. in Museum Studies from the Johns Hopkins University (AAP).
Mystic Seaport (74.55) — Steve White, President, B.A. in English from Hardwick College; Nicholas R. Bell, Senior Vice President for Curatorial Affairs, M.A. in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware (Winterthur); Erik Ingmundson, Director of Interpretation, M.A. in History (Public History) from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Chicago History Museum (69.94) — Gary T. Johnson, President, J.D. from Harvard Law School; Russell Lewis, Executive Vice President and Chief Historian, M.A. in American Culture from the University of Michigan; John Russick, Vice President for Interpretation and Education, M.S. in Architectural Studies from the University of Texas.
James Monroe’s Highland (NR) — Sara Bon-Harper, Executive Director, Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
The Museum of the American Revolution (NR) — Michael Quinn, President, M.A. in Art History from Yale University; Scott Stephenson, Vice President of Collections, Exhibitions, and Programming, Ph.D. in History from the University of Virginia; Philip Mead, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Historian, Ph.D. in History from Harvard University.
The Bostonian Society (NR) — Nathaniel Sheidley, Executive Director, Ph.D. in History from Princeton; Kathleen Mulvaney, Director of Education and Exhibitions, M.A. in History Museum Studies from SUNY-Oneonta; Daud Alzayer, Revolutionary Characters Manager, M.M. in Vocal Performance from the Boston Conservancy.
Historic Bethlehem (NR) — Charlene Donchez Mowers, President, NL; Kristen Walsh, Director of Visitor Experience and Community Outreach, M.A. in Museum Studies from the Johns Hopkins University (AAP).
The National Baseball Hall of Fame (NR) — Jeffrey Idelson, President, B.A. in International Economics from Connecticut College; Erik Strohl, Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections, M.A. in History Museum Studies from SUNY-Oneonta; John Odell, Curator of History and Research, M.A. in Museum Studies from George Washington University.
Tryon Palace (NR) — William J. McRea, Executive Director, M.A. in Architectural History and Historic Preservation from the University of Virginia; Nancy Packer, Chief Curator, M.A. in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware (Winterthur); Amber Satterthwaite, Director of Education, M.A. in Museum Studies from the Johns Hopkins University (AAP).
Historic Hudson Valley (NR) — Waddell Stillman, President, M.B.A. from Harvard Business School; Michael A. Lord, Director of Content Development, B.A. in History from Amherst College.
Historic London Town and Gardens (NR) — Rod Cofield, Executive Director, M.A. in Liberal Arts and Sciences from St. John’s College; Kristen Butler, Director of Public Programs, M.A. in History (Public History) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Historic St. Mary’s City (NR) — Regina Faden, Executive Director, Ph.D. in American Studies from St. Louis University*.
Preservation Society of Newport County (NR) — Trudy Coxe, Executive Director, NL; Lise Dube-Scherr, Director of Museum Affairs, M.A. in Art Education from Concordia College; John Rodman, Director of the Museum Experience, M.P.A. from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Conner Prairie (NR) — Norman Burns, President, M.A. in History from Middle Tennessee State University; Catherine Hughes, Director of Interpretation, Ph.D. in Theatre Education from The Ohio State University.
Old Salem (NR) — Franklin Vagnone, President, M.A. in Architecture from Columbia University.
Gunston Hall (NR) — Scott Stroh, Executive Director, M.A. in History from Middle Tennessee State University; Rebecca Martin, Director of Education and Guest Experiences, M.A. in History (Museum Studies) from the University of Delaware; Samantha Dorsey, Curator of Collections, M.A. in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware (Winterthur).
Plimoth Plantation (NR) — Ellie Donovan, Executive Director, NL; Richard Pickering, Deputy Executive Director, M.A. in American Studies at the College of William & Mary; Jessica Rudden-Dube, Deputy Director for Public Engagement, M.A. in Education from Mercy College.
Old Sturbridge Village (NR) — James Donahue, President, NL in Economics from Colby College; Deb Friedman, Vice President of Public Programs, NL; Rhys Simmons, Director of Interpretation, NL.
What does all this mean? The demographics reveal some items of interest, not the least of which is the almost total absence of racial diversity. And it does confirm the views of many that, while women dominate the curatorial and education positions, most executive jobs still go to white men. And you can judge for yourself any correlation between the high performing sites and the struggling ones.
In any case, the overall impression is striking, begging more than a few questions, chief among which might be this: If, in a sense, anyone can be a Public Historian, and profess to lead the field’s practice at the most senior levels, what exactly is the graduate education of Public History today for? And why aren’t Public History Ph.D.’s being given any real value outside of the academy? I am deeply invested in helping to shape a field for my students that can fulfill its massive economic promise for people on both sides of its economy, as producers and consumers, so I tend to make sure my students are ready for the reality of practice, as a pre-professional program more like my law school experience than my doctoral years. Why, for example, don’t we set up public history clinics to give our students more hands-on experience with low-resource sites that need it?
I have no answers to these questions. And I’m sure there are more and greater implications that I haven’t considered. Moreover, I have written elsewhere that I think experience in Public History practice matters more than graduate education beyond the M.A. level. But I do think this is the foundation for a conversation that’s long overdue.
*Dr. Faden also holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, making her the sole executive of any site on this list with an advanced degree in the field.
NL = Not listed
NR = Not rated on Charity Navigator
4 thoughts on “Whither Public History? It’s Lonely At The Top”
I work at Strawbery Banke and wanted to add that our Assistant Curator and our Director of Education both have Master’s Degrees from the Tufts Museum Studies Program.
(FWIW, I have a PhD in Historical Archaeology from William and Mary, which while not a Museum Studies degree, is relevant to my job as the Archaeologist. I’d be curious to do a similar study on all the museums that have Archaeologists — I suspect more of us have higher degrees than we did, say, 20 years ago.)
This is the kind of thing that is important to flesh out and then delve into. I think, though, that you’ve hit upon something (and I’ll add them to this list, if you don’t mind), which is the distinction between a degree related to public history/museum studies and a degree in either of those fields. Related degrees seem to have the edge, until experience kicks in. The other interesting point is that Strawbery Bank is functioning at a comparatively high level compared to many of these sites, which might mean a stronger board. I love your thoughts.
The numbers break down, right now, like this: Among executives (19 men, 10 women) 13 have their highest degree as an MA, 5 PhDs, 4 BAs, 3 JDs, 2 MBAs, and 1 MS, with 2 in Museums Studies or Public History. Among relevant staff, 32 possess MAs as their highest earned degree, 7 have PhDs, with 1 each with MS, MM, MPA, and BA. And there are several not listed. 10 of those staff MAs are in Museum Studies of Public History, with 3 each from GW and Hopkins. But the Winterthur program, unsurprising, leads the way with 5 MAs, whom all hold curatorial positions.
How many degree programs in public history employ faculty (adjunct or otherwise) with extensive practical experience in the trenches? Its hard to imagine how someone who studies museums, assuming they do that, can be as effective as those who’ve had success functioning inside museums. Seems to me this is a pedagogy almost begging to be taught by pracitioners