Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On Tour

Tabitha started her new job this week.

She’s actually been going to training sessions for a while now.  There were some official training sessions last week, and some unofficial ones before that.  And before that?  Well, let’s just say that she’s familiar with the place.

My first full-fledged History Job out of graduate school was not actually in academia but in the far broader field of public history.  Public history is less focused on scholarship and teaching and more on preservation, access, and keeping history alive for people who are not necessarily students.  It is teaching, in a way, but not in the classroom.  It’s museums, historical societies, archives, displays, and the like.

It was an interesting transition to make for someone trained as an academic historian.

For one thing, “public history” involves a great deal of “public” and – given the fact that there are only so many hours in the day – rather less “history.”  We had a handful of buildings, all of which dated from the mid-19th century and all of which needed to be maintained.  We had a number of employees, some seasonal and some permanent, all of whom needed to be paid.  We had a vast and ever-shifting cadre of volunteers who needed tasks and supervision.  Volunteers have to be managed differently than employees, and if you forget that you very quickly end up with no volunteers.  We had relationships with the city government, the local media, nearby schools, and the neighboring historical societies that all had to be maintained and cultivated.  And since public history institutions are non-profits in every conceivable sense, we had a never-ending rotation of fundraising events.  While I was of course not the only one doing all these things, ultimately all of these activities were my responsibility, which meant I never did get to explore the history of the place as much as I would have liked to have done.

Not that I didn’t seize my opportunities when they came, naturally.

For another thing, my main task when I was there was to manage a rather large construction project.  Our main building was – and remains – a National Historic Landmark, a good portion of which had collapsed in 1948 and the remainder of which needed work.  Our project was designed to fix up the old building and put up a new structure on the footprint of the part that was no longer there.  This meant grants (applications, disbursals, compliance reports, etc.), construction management, and a crash course in Byzantine bureaucracy.  Doing a construction project on a National Historic Landmark using federal, state, and local money involves more agencies with mutually exclusive demands and more self-important bureaucrats all powerful in their tiny little fiefdoms than the average human mind can envision, and at least two of those bureaucrats were bound and determined to sabotage the entire project.  One nearly did.  So that was my day, most days.

On the plus side, the people I worked with were great.  My board of directors at the time was very involved and supportive, and my co-workers and volunteers were generally a lot of fun.  And I got to give a lot of tours.  I loved doing the tours.  It was as close as I got to teaching while I was there, and even after I left to go back into academia I continued to give tours for a few years.

The main building was open for tours and we usually ran about five to eight thousand people a year through it when I was there.  School tours were our bread and butter, but during the summer months we hired high school kids as docents and were open for walk-ins.

Tabitha is now one of the summer docents.  Wheels within wheels.

She grew up in that museum in some ways.  She was not quite three when I started there and not quite eight when I left, and she spent much of that time at various functions and events.  She would close up the museum with me some nights.  It’s kind of like coming home for her that way.

I don’t get much involved in the place these days.  The director who came in after me is still there and I always look forward to hanging out with her, but as I told her when she got there, “I’m not in charge anymore.  If I wanted to be the one telling people how to run this place, I’d still be employed here.”  And as my teaching load has gotten heavier over the last couple of years I find I don’t have time to do the tours either.

I’m happy that Tabitha is giving tours now.  She had her first solo tour on Monday, and by all accounts it went well.  There’s a lot to talk about in that place, and every docent gives a slightly different tour.  We talk about it on our drive home, two docents comparing notes.

Sunrise, sunset.

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