William Bomar, the director of the University of Alabama’s Moundville Archaeological Park, provides some advice for public history students based on his survey of 38 public history practitioners.
Bomar’s concludes that entry-level museum and heritage site professionals prefer administration skills over collection management skills. He adds: “the two highest rated competencies were interpersonal relationships and professionalism.”
To summarize, our nation’s museum leaders feel that we need public history and museum professionals with leadership ability who can utilize technology, work well in groups, communicate effectively, and engage the community. I am not at all suggesting that you should not develop skills related to collections. Every single competency rated by museum leaders in this study, including the collections management items, had a score indicating at least a basic level of knowledge or ability is expected. The point is that even if you plan to go into collections work, you should gain experience and training that develop your skills in these other areas, especially communications and leadership.
We have all heard discouraging stories of entry-level positions in museums and heritage organizations that have several hundred qualified applications. Rather than being overly discouraged by stories of the difficulty of landing a job in public history, students should recognize the challenge and respond by strategically developing their skills. Work on real-world projects, either through coursework, internships, and student employment that not only serve to develop these skills, but result in a tangible product that can become part of your portfolio. For team projects, volunteer to take on a leadership role. Most states have humanities councils with fairly simple grant programs. Consider working with a heritage site to write a small grant proposal for your project. Employers will be especially impressed if you found funding and developed and managed a budget. Imagine going into an interview and taking out a smartphone to show an app that you developed for a historic house museum, a teacher’s field trip guide that you developed, or photos of an exhibit that you organized. Be prepared to give examples of how you led others on these projects and explain how your project impacted the community.