Making a Public Historian: False Promises, the Gig Economy, and a Humble Proposal

Now that final grades have been submitted and the 2015-2016 academic year is turning into a happy memory — one full of intelligent students, engaging presenters, a terrific new digital public history initiative (our CNA Project), a “heritage survival” study, rich interactions with dozens of history museums, and a maddening effort to restart an equestrian program — the summer beckons with questions for many Public History and Museum Studies graduates about what’s next for them. Several major themes have emerged in my experience over the last year and far too few of them are discussed in public humanities forums, which tend to focus on subjective questions of interpretative trends and priorities, rather than the more prosaic, yet critical, questions of practice and the business of public-serving heritage organizations. Leaving aside the continuing and bewildering confusion among many academics that attempts to make oneself into a public intellectual do not also make one a public historian, chief among the themes I’ve discovered this term is that Public History and Museum Studies programs, like academic History departments, are preparing students for professional life in a world that no longer exists.

Of course, there is nothing new about handwringing over the fact that there are too many PhDs on the market for the fewer and fewer available academic jobs that candidates covet, and those are not just the comfortable, closely guarded, tenure-track positions at R1 schools, but even contract positions at community colleges (in short, anything that comes with a paycheck and a title that makes all the sturm und drang of graduate school appear to have been worth it). The same is true for Museum Studies and Public History, as students graduating from ostensibly top programs scramble for anything that will give them a crack at a permanent position somewhere near their actual area of interest. As someone trying to build such a program, I firmly believe that the fault for that situation lies largely with the programs themselves: the vast majority of graduate Public History and Museum Studies programs in America are not giving students what they need to actually do the jobs that our space now demands. Instead, courses on theory are almost everywhere privileged over practice — and don’t kid yourself that some sort of externship or internship fits that bill. As an institutional department head, once upon a time, and member of many search committees now, I’ve done a lot of hiring for historic sites over the last seven years, and only once hired the graduate of a Public History or Museum Studies program (SUNY Oneonta’s) for a permanent position in that person’s field. In fact, of the most interesting thought-leaders in our particular space — directors and staff in progressive places like Plimoth Plantation, the Newport Historical Society, the Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, the Bostonian Society, the Center for Reconciliation, and Monticello, and at least one consultant (well, just the one, actually) — only one is the product of such a program (Brown’s in Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage). What they all share, however, is experience in the practice of public history, from interpretative programming to guest services to donor cultivation to marketing to tech developments, which gives them an understanding of how such elements can and must work together to forward a mission despite budget challenges.

Not only are these programs failing the vast majority of students in not providing sufficient preparation for the limited job market, they increasingly insist — entirely against the evidence shown in placement rates or in the backgrounds of current hires at effective institutions — that PhDs are needed to fill those roles, perhaps by bestowing upon someone a sort of magical status that ultimately elevates them into a rarified rank of legitimacy. Donors like the academic window-dressing but otherwise the impact is largely imaginary. Recently, close friends of mine, all of whom hold or held senior positions at major heritage institutions, had encounters with precisely that sort of ignorance. One submitted an NEH grant proposal that was turned down because the readers had a problem with the fact that my friend had the temerity to refer to his uncredentialed interpreters as “public historians” and, moreover, no one at his institution currently holds a PhD in History or a related field. One of the readers expressly pointed out that she possessed such qualifications, as an academic public historian, and, although she had never held a front-line job at a heritage institution, knew that the PhD was necessary to my friend’s effort (piffle, as my grandmother would say — my word for it would be considerably less polite). The other was told, point blank, by a colleague at a partner institution, that she was unqualified for her current position because she doesn’t possess a PhD. On the other hand, another close acquaintance was hired for a major public history job just because he held a PhD in History from a prestigious program, even though he had zero experience in the field. It took him more than a year before he was able to truly add value in his position and develop as a proper public historian, but only because he applied himself to earning enough practical experience to enable him to use his substantive knowledge in a productive way. But, for the institution, that was something of a lost year. In all these cases, the PhD for public history efforts was and is strikingly miscalculated, revealing more ignorance than expertise on the part of the evaluator, such as that august NEH proposal reader. Don’t get me wrong, I clearly appreciate the skills that come with a trained PhD, but I also know better than most people that it goes way beyond what’s necessary for most museum and public history jobs, for which an MA is perfectly sufficient as a terminal degree, as experience counts for more than any piece of paper. Yet colleges and universities continue to recruit candidates for such programs, with empty, or maybe just hopeful, placement promises, and those of us who are part of them continue to hear the rhapsodic call of our administrators: “enrollment and evals…enrollment and evals…enrollment and evals…”.

That part of the professional problem in the field is not as intransigent as it might seem. A broader discussion in career diversity is percolating within institutions, at professional conferences, during #DrinkingAboutMuseums sessions, and online, with folks like Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife) helping to lead the way. But there is an even bigger issue that is entirely reshaping the practice of public history. Fortunately, it also happens to come with a fairly simple, if not comprehensive, solution.

I’m terrible with metaphors so I’ll skip the neon sign reference and just state clearly that the biggest issue facing the business of museums and public history is not dropping visitation numbers, but a crisis of capacity. Of the organizations with which I’ve worked over the past year, every single one has mentioned it. Most often, they are small institutions that have too few, if any, staff and many don’t know how to get the help they need to accomplish their goals (I get asked most often about training). But the absolute worst of them — annual deficits, abysmal fundraising efficiency, poor mission projection — have one thing in common: too much staff, and of the wrong kind. They’re bloated and top-heavy, which not only leads to the obvious negative budget impact, which can’t be dismissed, but they also tend to be cloistered when it comes to strategic approaches and unresponsive, even listless, on the tactical front. Changes to the status quo, or at least adaptation and accommodation to trends in the field, usually identified by too-few trained and experienced front-line staff, are held hostage to bureaucracies that appear more inclined to rely on high-priced consultants, who often seem to disguise catchy fads as informed innovation, rather than their existing internal expertise. Others have stifling layers of curators, researchers, education directors, marketers, and administrative staff that just aren’t justified by the return on mission or the monthly P&L. More to the point, they also tend to be mind-numbingly boring when it comes to guest engagement. All of that feeds unproductive institutional cultures, even if that institution consists only of a Board of Trustees, two paid employees, and a dozen dedicated volunteers. It’s easy to spot these organizations: behind almost every poor TripAdvisor review or eye-wateringly sad 990 is an institution with an internal culture problem that resorts to schemes for advancement, rather than developing an effective culture through targeted strategies and realistic tactics.

That begs the question about the best organizations that I’ve seen and what they clearly have in common, especially as it relates to the question of capacity. They are those, even among institutions of national reach, that are lean on senior staff, almost to the breaking point. The few folks at the top, with reasonable salaries, supported by healthy, engaged boards, are knowledgeable, secure, and experienced enough to know what they don’t know, and hire and cultivate a core group of young, empowered, wicked smart staff members who can learn all aspects of our trade, especially the critical importance of mission, then, together with front-line providers (whether interpreters or marketers or whatever), implement strategic plans with consistency. Such organizations tend to be exceptionally nimble and willing to take risks, understanding that some tactics won’t work, but the lessons learned from failure are often much more valuable than those gained by success. That’s because the informed connection between leadership and staff often creates a mission-oriented, team-based culture that stretches available resources, boosts donor confidence, and increases program quality, which all lead to positive visibility. Moreover, such organizations generate a sort of frisson that connects with guests — who often like being where history is on the edge.

As important, the leadership at these organizations recognize what is already going on in the broader business world: the “Gig Economy” has arrived and it’s probably here to stay. With 40 percent of the American workforce set to be freelance within the next four years, public history might already be well ahead of that curve, which poses as much promise as peril. The successful organizations that I’ve seen have already embraced that trend, seeing its potential. The best example is a historical society with a tremendous collection and exceptional vision that employs no full-time curator, historian, or education director. The most important long-term bases are covered (registrar, membership coordinator, etc.), but it otherwise reaches out to experts as needed. Need to catalogue a collection of 19th-century landscapes? Hire a guest curator whose expertise is 19th-century landscapes, rather than forcing a full-time curator, whose background might be in 17th-century stoneware, into a role for which he or she is not prepared. Want to put together living history programs to connect with guests about local events during the American Revolution? Bring in an experienced producer of such programs to establish the interpretative ground rules and set up a usable operations template. Want to be rescued from the wretched Past Perfect?  Tap someone with experience in our sector to handle your migration to, oh, Neon and teach you how to use it. Could use a biographical backgrounder on a historical figure for an exhibit? Connect with a historian, even a grad student, who knows the period and sources. And, given platforms like Slack (my current favorite) and Skype, episodic staff does not need to be on-site for many projects or, at least, for most of a project’s term. The result is a leaner, more flexible, and more accountable budget and, more to the mission-oriented point, fresher and more active programming in which the occasional staff can introduce perspectives gleaned from related experience elsewhere. The core full-time staff provide consistency and vision, while freelance experts inject cost-effective knowledge, skills, and insight. Another exceptionally effective organization follows a similar route, bringing in special program providers as needed, rather than increasing the level of FTEs for positions that might not be sustainable. Again, the proof of such an approach is in the clear health of those institutions.

The Gig Economy does have clear drawbacks. People need health insurance, personal and financial stability, and at least a shot at a comfortable retirement. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going away, especially in our space. Many museums and heritage organizations, large and small, are already engaging in it, even though in more limited and less conscious ways. As more of them work smarter to understand it as a long-term trend, and smaller ones that are already understaffed recognize its benefits, the demand will grow. What’s needed is a way to foster the interaction. Groups such as the AAM and NCPH have Job Opportunity listings for varying types of work, from full-time to project-based, but I believe that a dedicated database of experts — think a museum and public history version of Fiverr — would go a long way toward improving gainful employment chances for our students and colleagues. Such a collection would include the nature and scope of one’s expertise, experience, and qualifications, and clearly note rates (even if negotiable) for targeted work. With an organized effort, health and retirement plans can be negotiated. And we all have plenty of stories of just how targeted projects, done well, often lead to full-time, or even just regular, employment.

This concept isn’t new — genealogists have been especially active on this front for decades. A larger and more detailed scope, however, to comprehend the entire field, and a clear commitment to facilitating the connections between curators, historians, preservationists, exhibit developers, etc., and those organizations who need their help, is somewhat novel and, I think, essential for actually giving our students the opportunities we have already promised them for years.

What Colonial Williamsburg’s Charity Navigator Downgrade to 2 Stars Does–and Doesn’t–Mean

Non-profit evaluators such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar provide a terrific service to donors and public historians alike.  Using various metrics, they cut through the weeds of the annual tonnage of reporting documents for places such as historic sites–mainly the all-important IRS Form 990–and evaluate them, using stars or other ratings, in ways that certainly seem clear and unambiguous.  And those evaluations should also be instructive to the leaders of such sites and the people they regularly ask to invest in them.  It’s one-stop shopping for anyone interested in checking out the health of an organization, particularly the ones that meet the income threshold of $1 million, and provides a critical public window into the inner working of a site. So consider Charity Navigator, my evaluator of choice, as a sort of CNBC or Wall Street Journal of the business of public history — they read the numbers so that you don’t have to.

This comes to mind because Charity Navigator just downgraded Colonial Williamsburg (CW), the largest public history site in the world, and the media’s favorite punching bag for anything related to those who make their living from dressing in historical clothing, from three stars to two (out of four).  It makes for a somewhat easy story to tell because it fits into the broadly accepted narrative that CW is in a kind of free fall into an unknown future, just as somewhat similar places seem to have tripped off a financial cliff into the abyss of wedding rentals and ghost tours.  But what has always set CW apart from other apparent cognates has been its substantial endowment, its commitment to its mission, and its willingness to embrace its role as the leader in the public history and museum studies fields, with all the slings and arrows, and tremendous opportunities, that attend it.  Its early and longstanding partnership with the College of William & Mary to create what’s now the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, which publishes the journal of record for the field of early American history, kept CW on the vanguard of academic history, just as its keen attention to material culture and architecture made it and its talented staff the beacon of expertise for museums and curators everywhere.  Like it or not, what CW did, and how it did it, mattered, especially as a bellwether of historical studies and heritage tourism, which, in my opinion, holds the single largest untapped economic potential in the entire tourism sector.

Consequently, the downgrade to two stars has generated not a little mumbling within the field that CW has finally begun an inexorable march towards its nadir–and is getting a sort of deserved comeuppance after decades of, to some observers, arrogant expansion into hospitality and investment in non-traditional innovative programming, such as the “Actor Interpreter”-driven immersive experience Revolutionary City.  That was part of a subtle but important shift in its mission “That the Future May Learn From the Past” and the core of its interpretation, from a vague colonial period, forever on the verge of the American Revolution, to “A Center for History and Citizenship” that jumped right into the founding era and a focus on the American Revolution itself and, most importantly, the ideas it continues to represent.  Out went the virtually unknown Robert Carter Nicholas and in came 25-year-old James Madison.  And now, as the members of the team that ushered in those changes have either departed willingly or more recently been ushered out, and with relatively new, untested leadership, with little to no experience in the field, in place, the downgrade is reflecting perception: CW is finally on its way out.  Charity Navigator says so.

Here’s the problem: That’s not what the downgrade actually means.  First, keep in mind that it’s an evaluation of a latest available year’s reporting documents, which aren’t usually filed until well into the following year, so it reflects a sort of financial vapor trail of 2013, rather than a snapshot of what’s going on in 2015.  Second, CW has been in this position before.  Lots of times.  Although it hasn’t had a four-star rating since 2003, CW has wavered between two and three stars ever since, earning a two-star rating seven times in the last 12 years.  So the lower rating itself isn’t news.

But here’s the bigger problem: What the numbers actually reveal.  You know, I’ve pounded the importance of deeply reading 990s, like Ted Kennedy trying to move a decent health care bill through the Senate, into every Board of Trustees, public history class, and museum director that I’ve ever been asked to counsel.  And that means reading between the lines of existing filings, comparing them to similarly situated institutions (which one should define as strictly as possible — CW is not Busch Gardens), and looking at them in historical context with past reports.  That’s where a southern friend of mine would say that things at CW get “hinky.”  In the past, CW’s ratings have been dragged down by steadily decreasing financial numbers.  That doesn’t exactly mean pure revenue, because those numbers can be fudged, if one looks closely enough.  Many institutions try to mask a high burn rate (the ratio of actual spending to budgeted amounts over the course of a fiscal year, usually reviewed monthly by an organization’s Finance Committee), and I’ve seen more than a few give it a shot, by drawing down on the principal of an endowment or, more positively, simply benefiting from an improved market, which shows up on a different 990 line (one site that I counseled even kept several million dollars in phantom collections assets on the books until I, um, strenuously explained the error).  Either way, CW’s financial rating is the lowest in its history, at 73.22 (its previous low was 76.33 in 2006). Looking at the raw data that drives the ratings makes matters worse, as Program Revenues at CW were, for 2013, at an all-time low of $38,180,000, the overall number of which was boosted by a slight tick in donations and a substantial boost from investment income.  So the rating actually could have been much, much worse.

But what does all that mean for CW today and, more importantly, for the health of heritage tourism and the livelihoods that depend on them?  One good friend of mine, who has 30-plus years of experience with CW, the Omohundro Institute, and academic history in Virginia and New England (he lives near me in Boston now), thinks that CW’s decline is representative of a broader shift, that the era of such historic sites everywhere, especially places like CW, Old Sturbridge Village, and Historic Deerfield, with such high overheads, is, frankly, over.  Post-World War II tourism has changed and segmented; heritage tourists aren’t interested in what are increasingly seen, especially when programming departs from missions, as precisely what they have long been criticized and ridiculed, incorrectly in the past, for being: Historical theme parks, with a costumed historical figure bearing no functional difference to a sweltering intern dressed up as a cartoon character, and the cringe-worthy “Try to Nail the British Soldier Cut-Out with a Rubber ‘Tommyhawk'” more or less the same as a game of “Whack-a-Mole.”  To my friend, such sites will only survive if they base their futures on their own pasts, as places that represent a more recent, nostalgic history.  After all, what one sees at CW–as it stands now–never actually looked like it does at any point in its pre-restoration history.  Its buildings, landscape, and collections represent a conglomeration of different times and tastes from across the Chesapeake, a trend that has continued with the influence of particular major donors.  The “year in history” approach in the era of colonial interpretation, in which CW took a calendar year and portrayed it for guests in real time (which I thought was pretty nifty, and kept the visitor experience fresh), and then the Revolutionary City master narrative, attempted to connect the disparate elements into a coherent guest experience, with varying degrees of success.  For example, in 1775, almost every house was painted white, the main thoroughfare was an often muddy, dirt road, and what’s been recreated as “Palace Green” was actually a wide (and, yes, muddy) boulevard.  But hardly anyone would pay for that sort of authentic experience.

Those are not criticisms but facts, so, as my friend suggests, CW and other sites might have a future by embracing that character, and the power of the memories of the people who positively experienced it in their own pasts, rather than attempting to compete for a kind of tourist–one purely out for recreation, rather than heritage–that evidence strongly suggests it will never sufficiently draw.  Smaller, and therefore potentially more nimble, historic sites that can collaborate with other sites and experiment with audiences and programming might actually be better situated to take advantage of the modern possibilities presented by heritage tourism.

I confess a great deal of sympathy for that perspective, even if I don’t yet wholly embrace it (except for the point about smaller sites, with which I’m totally on board).  CW’s current leadership is, I strongly suspect, incisive enough to recognize that its program revenue decline is precipitous and might well be permanent.  Without a drastic reorganization, that includes the shedding of almost all the hotels and restaurants (the Inn and Lodge are both splendid, and an evening in one of the Colonial Houses can be almost magical), which are a major drag on the CW budget given the tight connection between the for-profit and non-profit sides of what we collectively think of as CW, that ship cannot even begin to be righted.  But the CW brand remains strong, with quality interpreters, and the potential for generating revenue while shaping the historical understanding of a new generation of Americans in a mission-appropriate way has not yet been sacrificed (the Historic Trades, for example, remains a shining gem in CW’s interpretive crown, so to speak).  However, recent efforts to increase visitation while cutting costs on the non-profit side are not just worrying, they’re alarming, so distinctly do they smack of the sort of short-term, monthly profit-loss report decision-making that comes from, it must be said, inexperience in the field, and that will doom a public history site of any size.  A proper historical foundation for its programming, for example, appears to have gone straight out the window.  A new gecko-type “mascot” for CW–a type of dog that George Washington did not own until well after the Revolution and was never, in fact, in Williamsburg (Washington was no Charles Lee with his foxhounds, endlessly trailing after him through the Governor’s Palace in 1776)–is nothing when compared with the flabbergasting message sent to the academic community by the July 1, 2015, announcement that CW has ended its partnership with the College of William & Mary and its support for the Omohundro Institute.  Just as the creation of the Institute firmly established CW’s commitment to historical integrity, its severance declared that era to be over.  And once historical integrity is lost by an institution ostensibly based on it, then all else might be lost as well.

I don’t mean to offer this post as a eulogy to a place and group of people for whom I maintain considerable fondness.  But recent programming and other decisions are not suggestive of a sustainable, mission-oriented future on which donors can rely in terms of a sound return on their investment in public history and civic education.  Consequently, the Charity Navigator downgrade of CW does not, as Thomas Jefferson might say, signal the death knell of a storied and cherished institution, but the numbers behind it are certainly a fire bell in the night.