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Programs in public history

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Hey guys,

I realize there's an older question along these lines, and apparently an even older thread that covers the topic, but the link to that even older thread does not work. So at the risk of being redundant, I'd like to ask again:

Does anyone out there have a particular recommendation towards public history programs, especially MA's? I've been looking into schools listed through the Public History Resource Center, but I'd love to get a better sense of how programs are regarded in the field.

As for myself, I have a BA in History, spent the last two years working at a children's museum as their Arts and Education Specialist (not directly related, I know, but I did get to help design exhibits), and just volunteered over the summer with a two-month archaeological field school. I have also considered getting an MA in Historical Archaeology, but I really think I see myself more on the historical research side of things (though being outdoors all day digging was pretty excellent).

I do feel a bit that I am getting a late start in the game for Fall 2012, but I've already taken the GRE, and while I haven't talked with profs yet about recommendations, I feel like I've still got enough of a head start to catch up.

Any advice would be very much appreciated.


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  • 2 weeks later...

What do you mean by in the "field"? Do you mean in the realm of academia, or in, say, the museum world?

As someone with ten years of experience in the public history realm -- mostly museum work -- I admit that I'm pretty burned out and frustrated with the reality that I don't get to spend nearly enough time doing research as I'd like. Think long and hard about your future career goals before you plunk money down for another degree. My MA program was excellent, but was also completely funded -- something I consider to be very important, as many public history positions come with low salaries. The last thing you want is to be burdened with large amounts of student loan debt.

All that said, the best programs are going to depend on exactly what you hope to get out of it, and where your primary interests lie. Beware of programs that promise too much; public history programs seem to be exploding these days, and seem to be all-too-often depicting themselves as being the golden ticket to a public history career. There are some great programs and professors out there, but I think in many cases it makes more sense to go with a straight History degree, supplemented with internships. My school offered a certificate in Museum Studies

There are some excellent professors at UC Riverside, but again, depends on your ultimate career goals.

If you interested in "stuff," aka are a real hands-on material culture kind of person, then make sure you take a look at the University of Delaware's Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.

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thank you, for a reply, and for a recommendation of the Winterthur Program. I am incredibly interested in material culture, so this is right up my alley.

As far as "in the field" I meant specifically the world of museum work, not academia. I thought I'd made that clear from my previous post, but yeah, I'd love to join an archive or museum in a research/curatorial/etc position. I have two years of museum work under my belt, including grant writing, brainstorming exhibits and programming, writing copy for monthly calendar and newsletter, working with donors, etc. But I genuinely feel I'm lacking a great deal of the information I'd like to have, and that I won't be able to move forward into a genuinely research based historian position without more schooling.

I completely agree with you about the worth of funding. I have no interest in being saddled with loans I cannot afford, and I do believe a good solid educational foundation is what matters, not the Ivy associations, whatever, what-have-you of an institution. I know that programs are not golden tickets, and that I'll need internships, networking, good work, and luck to get forward.

That's why standing within context matters to me. I feel like I'm better situated to succeed if I'm better situated to get meaningful internships and meet great people, and the program I attend will affect those things.

As to my specific interests, I'm afraid that I'm very interested in just about everything relating to preservation of materials, which is a terrible answer, but I am very interested in the sociological/cultural relationship between people and created environments/objects and the cyclical nature of these relationships. I'm sorry if I'm not expressing that entirely clearly, I hope that sounds reasonable.

Honestly, I think I need to do a lot more reading, and apply next year, because I don't feel I have my research goals fully articulated. A short sharp answer would be, "I want to get in as a means of wedging a little stepping stool under the next rung on the ladder" but honestly, two years time commitment should be worth more than that, so I think this is going to be a year of fact-finding and refining.

I had been veering away from History programs with museum studies concentrations as I've been worried that professors and resources wouldn't be committed enough supporting a public history angle, but I'd love to hear more of your argument that a regular history program with some internships may be the way to go.

On a side note, I became interested in researching Public History programs rather than Museum Studies partly because I'm much more interested in the historic record than in art history and partly because what I did turn up seemed to echo many of your complaints regarding public history programs. It does seem there is a lot of saturation in this area of interest

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I know funding has been slashed everywhere, but for what it's worth, I believe Winterthur is still fully funded -- as in full tuition, living stipend, course-related field trips, and a book stipend. The museum networking is great, and the name, while not recognized much outside of the field, can certainly help you open doors in the right places. You can supplement the degree with a Museum Studies certificate from the University of Delaware (the actual Winterthur degree also comes through Delaware). And while Winterthur is definitely the way to go if you want full-out material culture, many of the other related departments at Delaware are also very material-culture friendly.

I know many other museum people who have come through the Cooperstown program. In the DC area, George Washington seems to be a major player. It's been awhile since I've looked at programs, but it would also be amazing to study at William and Mary. Many of my more material culture friends and acquaintances have done PhD programs at places like Yale and UW-Madison.

I'll come back to this when I have more time; it's an interesting topic. My main problem with public history programs is that I feel too many of them are not adequately prepared to fulfill their promises to their students; too many professors lack the in-the-field experience, and while they spend a lot of time discussing public history theory (which is admittedly very interesting) don't have personal expertise with putting it into practice. And while the theory is useful, ultimately it's the actual history that matters most. I think public history programs (vastly generalizing here) are perhaps best for those going into the non-curatorial areas of public history work; oral history, perhaps, or education. Ultimately, I think you need to think carefully about your own personal goals, as well as try to get a feeling for the philosophy of the various programs. I think one of the big questions will be where you stand on the role of material culture (especially if going the curatorial route) -- i.e. do you see the "stuff" as material sources in their own right, or do you approach it primarily as illustration to the written documents that make up more traditional "history"?

You did make it clear that you wanted to work in the museum field; I think I simply read your post too fast, as well as was thinking of several public history students I knew who entered the field hoping to become professors of public history.

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Thank you for such a considered response and so many recommendations. I will certainly be researching all of the programs you've mentioned; Cooperstown was already a program I'd been looking into if I went in more of a museum studies route, and the rest look excellent.

As for my standing with material culture, I am interested in "stuff" as material sources within their own right, but more than illustrating the written documents, I like the idea of the "stuff" supplementing the written documents, filling in our knowledge gaps for the people and the aspects of life that don't make it into the written record. I'd like to curate collections that give a fuller sense of history than written documents would alone, or that help draw out aspects of written records.

I also worked for two years as an archival assistant in my college's Archives, so I've gotten a good taste for linking private personal things like receipts and diaries into a bigger historical framework, and using the private and the personal as a means of supplementing our larger concept of historical events.

Thank you again for your help, I really appreciate it!

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