A few weeks ago I received a survey request from the National Council for Public History wanting to know what I think is lacking in museum studies/public history higher ed programs. I paused for a minute just before I collapsed into paroxysms of uncontrolled laughter. Sadly, the online survey form had character limits, so I couldn’t type a dissertation. Then a friend asked me to guest lecture on historic houses for his public history class on museum studies. So, after some thought, here are 3 things I WISH someone had bothered to mention in grad school.
#1 Being in charge means you do EVERYTHING
This would have been a great lesson to have had in graduate school. As the Director of a historic house you will probably have a very small staff working for you (disclaimer: unless you work at one of the “big name sites”). You will probably also have a very modest annual budget (see previous disclaimer). This means that, depending upon the day, you will not be doing anything remotely “directorial;” instead you will: repair the toilets (done that), give tours (regularly), teach kids the difference between moss and lichen (yep), feed chickens (all the time), clear the gutters during a driving rainstorm (yep), and many other things not listed in the “job description.” If you think that you will have oodles of time to research fascinating facts about the site’s interpretive period and perhaps publish these helpful tidbits, think again, there’s just not time if your site is open year-round. Lesson: Don’t think too much of yourself or these tasks will kick your self-esteem in the teeth. Oh, and take a basic plumbing class.
Curiously enough, museums do not run on the seat-of-the-pants bookkeeping I do at home. Who knew?! This is another lesson I wish they taught in grad school (without having to actually set foot in the business department, that is). In my first month as the head of a historic site I was presented with the task of coming up with the next year’s annual budget request, and then (gasp!) live within it for 12 months. WHO DOES THAT? Wow, apparently everybody. As a department head (in one of the “big name sites”) or as the director in a smaller site you will have to learn to use things like Microsoft Excel, Quickbooks, or other budgeting and spreadsheet software. These will come in handy not just for budgets, but also for gift shop revenue, pay checks, and other essentials of day to day business life. Lesson: Go back and actually pay attention in that basic math class.
For the uninitiated, HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning. If you work in a historic house that is fortunate enough to have climate control, this will become the BANE of your existence. I will take a dead chicken, a barfing 3rd grader, or a root canal over dealing with HVAC. Should your house have more than 1 unit, and it will (I deal with 14 of them), you will have one after another go down on either the hottest or coldest days of the year. It’s never less than $400 to repair one. In the South, we have lovely things called “heat pumps.” Satan’s spawn, I’m certain of it. They are often installed in attic spaces or 2nd floor closets; over time the drain line clogs up, but the repair guys never seem to remember to check it…until you have water pouring through the dining room ceiling. Lesson: Do yourself a favor take a class or two at the local technical school and invest in a wet/dry vac.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the things I wish I’d been warned about before investing tens of thousands of dollars in a social science education. I might have reconsidered that career as an astronaut! Best of luck and keep your powder dry!
— Michelle Zupan, Curator & Director, Hickory Hill, Thomson, GA