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Public History Blog

Job searching is never a pleasant or an easy experience. My master’s program requires that I complete a twelve-week internship, so my summer job search was geared towards work in a museum, heritage site, archive, etc. Here are some tips while job hunting in the public history sector.

Funding will always be an issue. Many internships in the public history sector are unpaid, or the salary is determined by how much external funding the organization receives. In the public history sector, be prepared to volunteer to gain experience, or be patient while waiting for potential employers to receive grant approvals. This is frustrating for individuals who can’t afford to work for free (myself included). I heard from one small gallery that said they would love to have me, but only on a volunteer basis. I also met with the director of a small museum in downtown London, who had applied for government funding to hire two summer students; unfortunately, he was not going to hear about his funding approval until the beginning of May. I like to secure my options as early as possible, and May was too long for me to wait for a potential opportunity.

A willingness to relocate and access to transportation are advantageous when looking for jobs in the public history sector. Since jobs can be few and far between, the ability to relocate is often crucial, even if the location isn’t entirely desirable. While having to relocate entirely is necessary in some cases, another point to keep in mind is that many heritage sites are located in inconvenient places (for example, London’s Fanshawe Pioneer Village is situated outside London proper and can only be reached by car). Owning a vehicle and being able to commute greatly increases your realm of potential employers.

I had official interviews for two positions this summer, and while they were very different in nature (one being a phone interview with a huge institution, Library and Archives Canada; the other, an interview with the curator and manager of a small museum, the Oil Museum of Canada), they had a common thread. Both the large institution and the small museum asked what skills and interests I would be bringing to the job. Prepare a good response for this question, and keep in mind what you personally will bring to the job and outline your major skills. This is a chance to differentiate yourself from other applicants, and make it clear why you should be hired.

Job hunting is never easy, and public history presents its own unique challenges. I hope this blog post has outlined some of the best approaches to adopt while looking for public history jobs. Thankfully, I have secured a position with the Oil Museum of Canada for the summer. So there is hope in the public history sector! I look forward to writing more blogs about my internship experience.

Posted: 06/05/2010 7:54:04 PM by Dana Johnson | with 0 comments

One of the most challenging experiences as a graduate student is justifying your studies to friends and family. I’m generally met with two reactions when I talk about my M.A. in Public History: disbelief and scepticism (the primary response); and excitement and enthusiasm. Any students entering a Public History program should arm themselves with a solid set of answers to both reactions. Since Public History is intimately connected to the general public, we need to be ready to get people excited about what we learn.

If you’re thinking about applying to a Public History program, or completing your M.A. upon acceptance, be prepared with a mental checklist of the best aspects of a graduate experience. Here are suggestions of the most significant aspects of a Public History education that you should be ready to discuss with anyone who inquires about your studies:

• Have a firm grasp of what Public History means. Public History is not a generally used term, and much of the scepticism that arises from people outside the field is because they have never encountered the phrase before. Make sure you have a solid definition of Public History to jumpstart your discussion. Not only will this help with friends and family, it will also be important when you are interviewing for jobs after you finish your M.A.

• Emphasize the guest speakers you meet. I have heard from an array of individuals who currently work in the Public History sector, and anyone asking about your program wants to hear about where you can work after you graduate.

• Don’t be afraid to discuss your projects. The hands on aspect of Public History has been one of the best experiences of my academic career. You will work on these projects in conjunction with organizations outside the University, and there are amazing opportunities to work in the community. Make sure you emphasize the great, practical projects you will be completing.

• Talk about Digital History. After completing the course, I realized that even if I didn’t completely understand all the material, I am now ahead of many people in terms of digital interactions. Talk about the website you will be creating, the blog you will be writing, as well as the potential of the Internet as an exciting medium for historical interpretation and interaction.

• Mention your peers and their experiences. As one of only ten Public History majors at Western, I have had the privilege of being part of a close-knit group. My peers come from a variety of different backgrounds and all have different goals, but each one has a unique story to tell.

If you assemble a mental checklist of the most exciting aspects of your Public History education, you will always be ready to discuss (and defend!) your graduate experience with friends and family. Best of all, you will be an effective ambassador for an important and growing field.

Posted: 09/03/2010 11:07:40 AM by Dana Johnson | with 0 comments

Ironically, as I began jotting down ideas for a reflective blog about my Digital History course, I regressed to pen and paper. I was on the bus, heading back to London from an afternoon of Christmas baking with my extended family in Toronto. Never having owned a vehicle, I’ve spent hours on the Greyhound throughout my academic career, and always found it valuable time to catch on assignments (aside from the bumpy roads that wreak havoc on my handwriting.) However, for this class (and indeed, my entire MA), my laptop has evolved from a convenience for writing papers to an indispensible tool that moulds the nature of my work. I can no longer stew over my own thoughts in isolation; I need the gateway, the interaction, the cacophony of the Internet.

One of my earliest blogs expressed a wariness and snobbish disregard for hyperlinks (Maybe Hyperlinks Aren’t So Bad). However, stranded on the Greyhound without those hyperlinks and bookmarks, I found myself floundering. I couldn’t hop over to articles I’ve read to refresh my memory, check out blogs or peek at Twitter to see what everyone’s buzzing about. My sense of community was gone, and it has become an integral part of my academic experience. My framework for thinking and writing has changed from being hunched over books in the corner of a library to active engagement with new ideas that are available at my fingertips.

For me, the most striking aspect of Web 2.0 and the digital revolution is two-fold: the extensive community and potential for fresh, innovative thinking as mentioned above; and the willingness and enthusiasm individuals are pouring into creating open source software. In August, I had no concept of open source software and its malleable, accessible nature. It was both inspiring and surprising for me to learn that individuals willingly work together and produce tools which are in turn used and improved by massive networks. GIMP serves all my photo editing needs, and all it cost me was the time it took to download. I’ve had the chance to glance at chapters on Google Books, experience posting information on wikis, and create my own webpage. Not only have I had the pleasure of following the blogs of my classmates, I have also had the opportunity to being this blog, which is an exciting chance to express my thoughts. The really great thing about Web 2.0 is that I can not only check out these new, exciting mediums, but I can also play a role in many of them. It’s empowering and exciting, two adjectives I would not previously have used to describe my academic career.

To conclude, Digital History has perhaps been most influential in encouraging me to probe the Internet for the interesting and exciting opportunities that are arising out of the new age, Web 2.0.

Posted: 09/03/2010 10:53:04 AM by Dana Johnson | with 0 comments

Human beings retain a fascination with the most grisly aspects of the past. Battlefields, cemeteries, and murder sites become a beacon for interpretation and tourist activity. J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley’s Dark Tourism defines the phenomenon as, “... the commodification of anxiety and doubt [about modernity and its consequences] within interpretations offered and the design of the sites as both products and experiences (including merchandising and revenue generation) that introduces 'dark tourism.'"

‘Dark tourism’ has thrived because visitors possess an interest and fascination with unsavoury aspects of the human experience. While visiting Edinburgh last March, I took a "Ghost Tour" which led us through some of the city’s most ghastly areas, including murder sites and the tombs of famous Scots (picture on the right from a cemetery on Calton Hill, the resting place of David Hume's tomb). Visitors arrive at ‘dark tourism’ sites prepared to be shocked and appalled.

For certain historic sites, the darker sections of their history have been ignored in order to celebrate the more positive (and public relations friendly) aspects of heritage. Pier 21, toted as “Canada’s Immigration Museum,” has been accused of representing Canada as a multicultural beacon when in fact our immigration laws were not all-inclusive. The official website asserts, “We aim to be a national centre for celebrating Canada’s rich culture and diversity.” Tamara Vukov’s “Performing the Immigrant Nation at Pier 21: Politics and Counterpolitics in the Memorialization of Canadian Immigration” argues that the museum has systematically “forgotten” the ethnic and racial exclusion that formed a substantial portion of Canada’s immigration policy.

Acknowledging our country’s refusal to allow certain nationalities into Canada is not an aspect of Canadian history that fills visitors with pride. The question becomes how to communicate the darker aspects of Canada’s past to a public that wants Pier 21 to reaffirm their stereotypes about living in a flawless country. A visitor takes the Edinburgh Ghost Tour ready to confront the nastiest side of human nature.

Visitors expect to be confronted with dark stories at a certain kind of historic site. It is imperative that sites with mixed histories address the darker aspects of the past. The public deserve a fair interpretation of the history. It has been demonstrated by the public’s voracity for ‘dark tourism’ that they are comfortable confronting the worst that humanity has to offer.

Visitors should leave Pier 21 understanding the complexity of immigration in Canada, retaining their patriotic fervour while acknowledging the mistakes that have been made in the past. Heritage site planners who ignore those aspects of the past are being unfair not only to the individuals who have suffered throughout history but also to their target audience, which is misled by the interpretation. These sites need to strive to present a balanced view of the past, and they need to realize that the public is sophisticated and ready to hear the bad along with the good.

Posted: 01/02/2010 5:57:42 PM by Dana Johnson | with 0 comments

The potential power of collective intelligence to solve problems in the humanities is at the forefront of many reflections these days, including Henry Jenkins in his blog, Collective Intelligence vs The Wisdom of Crowds.

The potential of collective intelligence has been demonstrated by the website I Love Bees. It was both an experiment and a massive promotional campaign for 2004’s Halo 2. Jane McGonigal’s “Why I Love Bees: A Case Study In Collective Intelligence Gaming” provides a great overview of the nature of the website and how participants worked together to solve problems that no one individual could tackle on their own. I Love Bees captivated the attention of over 600,000 players.

Why were these individuals willing to work together to solve these puzzles? I have to look no further than my boyfriend and his friends to get an idea about the profile of some Halo players. The majority of them are Computer Programmer Analyst grads. They spend much of their free time playing computer games (as I write this blog on a Saturday afternoon, I have five guys with laptops playing DotA – Defence of the Ancients - in my living room).

Halo’s audience encompasses more than just players who fit the profile described above, but it has enough of these kinds of people to make an experiment like I Love Bees a runaway success. Gamers are already primed and connected to the online world. They are precisely the types of individuals who are willing to spend the time and go to the effort of solving the puzzles because they value their online community and feel connected.

Suggestions about using collective intelligence to solve problems in the humanities will not achieve a fraction of that success. Humanities courses at the university level are not concerned with the power of the group or technological innovation. When comparing computer programming (to teach you how to interact with machines) and humanities (to teach us about humans and human nature), computer programming does the best job of teaching you how to work with other people.

The use of collective intelligence to solve questions in the humanities has a long, hard road to plod before people will take it seriously and actively engage with the concept. Until the nature of how humanities are taught is re-examined, students will continue to cloister themselves in libraries and refuse to engage each other’s ideas.

It needs to be changed! Activities like writing papers are obviously a key component of a humanities education, but the degree should go beyond those basics. Massive potential for group projects that is largely untapped. If we changed the nature of a humanities education, then we could see the development of collective intelligence in our field. Until then, our historians will continue to read books and generate ideas largely in isolation of each other, and Halo players will show us up with their willingness to collaborate and harness the power of collective intelligence.

Posted: 14/11/2009 9:59:47 AM by Dana Johnson | with 0 comments

Dana Johnson

Growing up in Alberta, I finished my B.A. in History at the UofA in 2007. I decided to take a few months off after my B.A., which somehow turned into a two-year bartending stint. Thankfully, I have returned to school and am currently completing my M.A. at Western.

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