From AC 2nd to… Public History and Museum Studies

Over the summer our From AC 2nd to… series of interviews with Bethel History alumni featured a former student now pursuing a doctorate in ancient history. Today we’re highlighting a different kind of historical study at the graduate level: Ashley Wyatt (’09) is a master’s student at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, seeking an M.A. in History, with a concentration in Museum Studies. In this interview, Ashley introduces us to the field of “public history” and shares how her undergraduate studies (both at Bethel itself and during a semester in Oxford, England) prepared her for graduate school.

1. Why did you decide to major in History?

I knew coming into my freshman year at Bethel that history was something I wanted to study. I had been passionate about the past since childhood but didn’t realize until high school that it was something I could really pursue in college. Nevertheless, I never really intended for history to be my “primary” major. I came to Bethel with the idea that I would pursue a career that had more to do with political science, and that a history major would give me an excuse to take some fun, but slightly irrelevant classes. Happily, I can now look back and see that my history classes, while fun, were anything but irrelevant.

2. Did you double-major? How did those programs fit together?

I ended up double majoring in History and Business & Political Science, and both programs fit together extremely well. I often found that history classes provided helpful context to many of the ideas I studied in political science classes. The opposite was also true, as my classes in political science inspired me to search for the historical roots of issues we face today. In some sense my business classes seem to stand on their own slightly apart from my history classes. Yet, I am surprised all the time at the unique insight having a background (however slight) in business gives me when looking at labor or business history. My economics classes have also proven surprisingly helpful.

3. Tell us about your study abroad experience. How did spending a semester at Oxford influence your later studies at Bethel (or perhaps in graduate school)?

Ashley at the Roman Baths museum in Bath
Ashley at the Roman Baths museum in Bath, England

I decided to study abroad in the late fall/early spring of my sophomore year; up until that point I had no idea it was even an option. I had always wanted to travel to Europe so when the opportunity arose I jumped at it. I loved the idea of getting the chance to live on my own in a place that was completely foreign, with people that I had never met; it all seemed like it would be (and was!) a great adventure. Oxford’s academic opportunities were also a big draw. As a student there I had the opportunity to study with tutors, where my classes consisted of me and a professor engaging in a conversation about a given topic, and got to study medieval European history in city that was established in the Middle Ages, which I could not pass up.

Oxford itself was a great experience and had enormous influence on my academic career.  The program was incredibly challenging and fun and I learned not only a lot about European history, but about myself. My semester in the program helped me significantly improve my writing and speed reading abilities, which proved to be great preparation for grad school. The experience was the first time I had considered a graduate degree, and was when I realized that I might be successful in a graduate program. I would highly recommend any history student try to study abroad at some point while at Bethel!

4. If you could give a brief definition: what is public history? At what point did you start to think about studying it in graduate school?

In a very broad sense I see public history as being any interaction with history that takes place outside of the traditional classroom, where the focus is on informal learning. Public historians would ideally desire an approach to historic scholarship that promotes collaboration and places high value on engagement with the public. While public history is first and foremost grounded in sound historical scholarship, I see it as something of a bridge between academic history and the public. Because the focus of a public historian may not be research-based, part of a public historian’s position may be to help disseminate the new scholarship that is being produced in the academy to those in the public who may not have the opportunity to interact with historical scholarship in “traditional” ways.

I had little knowledge of public history while at Bethel and didn’t start thinking about it as a possible career until I began researching museum careers. After spending about a year and a half working for a software company – and realizing that it was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life – I began to consider my options and think about my true passions. Once I landed on the possibility of a museum, I started to research how to get into the field and found out quickly that a graduate degree was almost mandatory. Studying public history specifically, rather than museum studies, gave me the opportunity to continue my training as a historian while simultaneously working on those skills that museum professionals need to have.

5. If you could design your dream job, what would it be? How well do you think Bethel (in particular, your work as a History major) prepared you for that kind of career?

My dream job would be in the education department of a medium-sized museum, working to help create educational programs for kids of all ages, as well as adults, though I am particularly interested engaging with Jr. High and High School students. Ideally, I would also have the opportunity to be a part of the museum’s volunteer programing, helping to recruit and train those who come willing to help and wanting to learn more about history.

The History Department provided a great example for me of how to engage with students and illuminate complex historical concepts. Bethel was also a great place for me to learn how to serve, and how to lead through serving. I think much of what a public historian needs to do in order to work effectively with communities is to gain trust, and as I am finding out now, this is not always an easy task. But in consistently being willing to serve and remaining humble, as I saw demonstrated time and again at Bethel, trust is slowly built, and hopefully the result is scholarship that works to empower all communities, especially those that have historically been underrepresented.

6. What advice do you have for other Bethel students thinking about pursuing graduate studies in History or related fields?

My biggest piece of advice is not to rush into a graduate degree. It is a big decision that requires a big time commitment. I would recommend taking time to volunteer or intern in the field you are thinking of before making a decision. But once you know where your passion is don’t be discouraged! The job market might be tough (for those in museums it is) and grad school might be hard (it is) but if you are doing what you love it’s worth it.

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