Lindsay Flanagan offers a slightly different perspective for our series because she is both working on her PhD in history and holding down a career in the field as a museum program associate for the American Red Cross. She talks passionately about finding a career that has allowed her to exercise and strengthen her love of history but also work with the public, which she finds incredibly rewarding. Working at the Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., you can imagine the high volume of people from around the world who come through there for public tours. The high amount of foot traffic exposes Flanagan to a broad spectrum of people who retell personal stories or family stories that were first told to them by a parent or a grandparent. These sorts of oral histories are a huge treat for history enthusiasts like Flanagan.
In addition to working with the public, Flanagan discusses how she originally became involved in history, what she’s currently studying in her doctoral work, and how current disciples of history, too, can make a fulfilling career from their passion. Flanagan’s infectious love for discipline proves day after day, tour after tour that history is anything but boring.
Q: What do you do?
A: I’m a museum program associate. We had a museum several years ago, and it has since closed. Now we’re trying to recapture [it]. We’re starting all these new history programs, so I’m the person who sort of runs them.
We have the historic tour program that’s here in this building [Red Cross headquarters]. This building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and we have lots of artwork and sculptures and paintings and artifacts and all kinds of stuff. We have a tour program that covers the history of the Red Cross, the services we provide, and the artwork that’s in the building.
Another major project is coordinating—I guess project managing—the creation of a traveling exhibit on the history of the Red Cross. [It opened] March 14th in South Carolina.
Q: With the traveling program, do you all have schools you go to? How does that work?
A: Well, it [opened] at the South Carolina State Museum [and will be there through June 28], so it’s going to be just in museums for three months at a site, so we travel around the country. Since Red Cross has chapters all across the nation, we’re partnering with the chapter in whatever city [the program] is going to be in, so that it’s an opportunity for fundraising, education, and all sorts of things on the local and national level.
Q: This is a really neat building. I’m curious, is there any significance to you guys being in this particular building?
A: Actually, this building was constructed specifically for the American Red Cross. In 1913, Congress decided (and I’m simplifying this, of course!) that we needed an actual national headquarters, so they gave us $400,000, which we had to match.
Q: How did you get this job?
A: Well, I’m a graduate student at American university [AU] working on my PhD in history [more specifically public history], so a professor in one of my classes said that we had the option of writing three papers or we could do a service project somewhere. I thought I’d love to do that with the public and actually get to do some history, so I started volunteering here, leading tours in September of 2007. When the woman who had this position before me transferred service to the Armed Forces with the Red Cross, her position was vacated, so I applied and have been in this position since June 2008, so not very long!
Q: What’s your educational background?
A: Well, I got my undergraduate degree from Eckerd College in history and music. Then I decided that I wanted to be a professor, which meant that I had to go to grad school, so I applied to AU and got my master’s there in August 2007. I went straight into the PhD program and decided Yes, I want to be a professor someday but I want to get some experience first.
Q: What’s your specialization?
A: Well, my specialization when I was at Eckerd was 20th-century European history. My focus now is 20th-century U.S. cultural history, so I focus a lot on sports and music.
Q: How did you get into studying history?
A: It started many, many moons ago! When I was in 2nd grade, I have a very vivid memory of being assigned to do a report on Christopher Columbus. I remember looking up stuff in the encyclopedia about him and being so excited when I found out that his name was Christoffa Corombo because he wasn’t American, so we just Americanized his name. From then on I was hooked. When I started at Eckerd, I wasn’t going to be a history major, but then after one semester I missed it too much.
Q: What do you like the most about this job?
A: I really like the opportunities to be creative. There’s a lot of freedom where I can do different things with the tour program—we can create a donor tour or a special tour for kids because we have families that come in. Right now we tour sort of directly towards adults. So being creative is great.
Just working with the public. I think when audiences see how enthusiastic you are about history, they get excited about it too.
Q: Is there anything here you would like to tweak a bit, especially because you’re new in this position?
A: The American Red Cross is not a history-based organization, so there are many challenges of doing history here, where really our focus is disaster relief, prevention relief. I think that there are lots of opportunities for history to be used to accomplish those goals here and that as we progress, we can come up with new ways of doing that.
For example, the tour program is completely volunteer-run, so I think that could be expanded. The traveling exhibit I think is a really great project, so I think we could do smaller versions of that, something like treasure chests we could send to schools about the Red Cross.
Q: Do you have a favorite era you enjoy studying?
A: With the Red Cross or just in general?
Q: I think both would be fun—what do you personally like and what do you like here at the Red Cross?
A: I like the 20th century. I like the fact that there are people alive who can still remember all of that [20th century history], so that’s the cool part. I love studying the Cold War [and] WWII, and I think that those eras are really exciting to study with the Red Cross history as well. I’d say earlier 20th century is what I like for the Red Cross history because we lost close to 300 nurses in WWI, so just the presence of the American Red Cross was ubiquitous.
Q: What do you think is the most common misperception of history as a discipline?
A: That it’s boring! People think that history is nothing but dry, old, dusty professors, boring textbooks, and it’s not at all. History is vibrant, alive, and it’s relevant. A lot of the time it seems historians are fighting an uphill battle. If you think about it, millions of people go to museums every year, and that’s studying history. I think history has almost become a dirty word. That perception needs to be corrected.
Q: What advice would you give to students with a history degree looking for jobs outside of the university?
A: Apply everywhere. Apply at places that you don’t think would necessarily have history programs. Do as many internships as possible, because that’s how I got this job—I was a volunteer, then I became an intern, and then I got the position.
Q: Where would students begin to look for places that might have a history position that you wouldn’t traditionally think would?
A: Organizations that have been around for a long time—any sort of big business or the federal government. The federal government has tons of history. So organizations that have been around for a long time because they have a history and at some point they’re going to want to decide that Hey, we should share this.
Also, join professional organizations like the AHA, OAH, National Council for Public History, even the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Q: What’s some of the best advice you’ve received that has helped you in your career?
A: To go to grad school! Other good advice I’ve gotten is that history is valuable and that I shouldn’t let anyone tell me different.
Q: So is there anything you think of on a daily basis where you go Ah! That’s true. If only that person who told me that back in the day was here now because I get it! Do you have anything like that?
A: Yeah! That people like history, even if they don’t want to call it history. I see that everyday when we have people on tours that say, Well, you know, my grandfather fought in such and such war and I saw him do this. That gets proved to me over and over again, that Americans do like history.
Q: Is there a fun story that you’ve had here that you can share? It doesn’t even have to be here [at the Red Cross] specifically. Did you have an internship when you were at undergrad or your master’s program when you did something fun, or met someone with fun stories. It doesn’t have to be exclusive to the Red Cross, but sometimes you meet the quirkiest people, and they tend to tie back to something historic.
A: Yes! I have two. We had an appreciation lunch for some of the volunteers. I spend half of my time here at national headquarters and half of my time at the Red Cross Archives. We had an appreciation lunch for some longtime volunteers, and when I say longtime volunteers, I mean they had been volunteering for 60 years or had been employed with the Red Cross. And that was a lot of fun, sitting there and listening to them talk about their experiences. [They would] say, Oh yeah, I remember when I was in a clubmobile in World War II, and we were followed by the 43rd army across France. And I thought, Wow! That’s great! The woman telling me all these stories was Barbara Pathe, and it’s wonderful because we have images of her that are going to be in the exhibit. So sitting and listening to them talk about that was great because I read the books about it, and I read the stuff online, but hearing real, live stories was really neat. That’s why history’s fun, at least that’s why I like this part of history.
Q: Were there any other stories that stand out from that lunch?
A: I remember her [Barbara Pathe] talking about some women of the Red Cross that were in Europe during World War II: they wore pantyhose everyday, they didn’t go anywhere without lipstick, and their hair was always done (always, always, always!) because they were there to be a little piece of home, to be a sister or a friend or even a mother.
I remember one of her stories was the best Christmas present she ever got. She was in one of the Red Cross clubs talking with one of the soldiers for a while. It was either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and he was telling her about his family and his girlfriend. After a little bit she had to get up to leave so she could talk to other soldiers. As she was getting up, he said, Well, are you going to get any Christmas presents? She said, Well, probably not. I mean I’m thousands of miles away. He said, Well I’d hate to think that with all the good work that you do that you won’t get any Christmas presents. So he reaches into his pocket and he says, I wish I had a whole pack, but I only have one piece of gum and I want you to have it. So he gave her his very last piece of gum. It brought tears to her eyes, even now telling it, you know, 65 years later. That was amazing to me.