As the History Club prepares to take a road trip to Pittsburgh on April 6 to see the Senator John Heinz History Center among other attractions, it’s a good time to catch up with alum Emily Ruby (’02), curator at the Heinz History Center, and ask her some questions. –Dr. LaGrand
Q. What’s your professional life been like since graduating from Messiah and how did you get your position as curator at the Heinz History Center?
A. The summer after I graduated from college I felt pretty lost and was not sure what to do with myself. I was leaning towards some sort of museum/historic site work so I interned at the Frick mansion in Pittsburgh for the summer. I then joined AmeriCorps to give myself a few years to think about graduate school and what I wanted to do in the future. I spent my second year in AmeriCorps interning in a museum in Johnstown working on educational programming. During this time I applied to the Haley graduate program in History at the University of Delaware and I got in, which was very exciting. Hagley is focused in industrial, business and technological history so that was my major and museum studies was my minor. When I got out I moved home and worked random jobs while volunteering at the Heinz History Center. While I was volunteering the job of Assistant Curator opened up so I applied and finally had a job! It’s stiff competition for jobs and there were many applicants for the job at the Heinz, but because I had been there volunteering for 9 months and they knew me and the work that I did I definitely had an advantage over people just sending in their resumes.
Q. What have been some of the most interesting or exciting things you’ve been a part of while at the Heinz History Center?
A. There are a lot of great moments in this job. Many times when I am visiting with people and looking though their collections I can’t believe I get paid to do this, it is always an interesting experience. I get to meet lots of different people and I am given the opportunity to learn about them and their family. It is often a very emotional process for people to let go of their history and you do have to be sensitive to that. I also love the energy in the division during the install of an exhibition, there are always a million things to do and everyone is running around helping in any way they can. From installing artifacts to hanging graphics and vinyl, you definitely just have to jump in and help.
Q. What can students who will be going to Pittsburgh with the History Club on Saturday, April 6, expect to see at the Heinz History Center?
A. You will see some great permanent exhibitions on various aspects of Pittsburgh’s history: sports, slavery, and innovation to name just a few. We also have great touring exhibitions and I think the exhibit “1968: The Year That Rocked America” is wonderful. It’s only here for a limited time so it’s great that students will get to see that. The building itself is amazing and historic, you can learn about it if you look to the right when you are standing in front of the elevators on the first floor. There is a ton to see and something for everyone so feel free to wander around and focus on what your particular interests are.
Q. What do you like best about living in Pittsburgh?
A. I love the character of Pittsburgh. I lived for many years in the neighborhood of Lawrenceville which is going through a crazy transformation, new shops and restaurants are opening all the time and it was great to be a part of that. The city itself is really becoming a vibrant place and Pittsburgh has been named the most livable city for a number of years now. I even like the gritty old neighborhoods and relics from the steel era and the mix of old timers and young urban dwellers. There are a lot of cultural amenities as well as great restaurants and shops.
Q. What do you think the future holds for history museums?
A. That’s a great question and one we ask ourselves frequently here at the Heinz. For us, it is certainly digitizing our collection both archival and objects so that we have a more visible online presence and so that people can access our collection from all over the world. Keeping the next generation engaged through technology and world class exhibitions is definitely a focus for us. Using technology to enhance the museum experience while not losing our focus on content and the care and preservation of our collection is a balance we hope to strike now and in the future.
Q. Do you have any advice for Messiah History students preparing to graduate and enter the world of work?
A. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer!