One of the fun things about studying history is it isn’t restricted solely to historical eras you read in textbooks; you can find history in everything from cars, to McDonalds’ Happy Meal toys, to the Appalachian Trail.
Tim Grove knows the variety of history topics out there. He has held both conventional historical jobs at places such as the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American History, and somewhat unconventional ones, like his current position as the acting chief of education at the National Air and Space Museum. Not only has Tim made a fulfilling career working at three Smithsonian museums (a historian’s dream!), but he has countless stories in the field that exemplify the unpredictability of historical research and the infinite learning opportunities pervasive in the field.
In this interview, Tim shares his experiences working as a historian and educator at Smithsonian museums; explains the challenges of creating permanent museum exhibits; discusses quirky research assignments he never anticipated conducting; and much more!
Q: What exactly do you do here?
A: My exact role is acting chief of education for the National Mall Unit.
Q: What are your responsibilities?
A: The jobs that are under me are responsible for public programs and our docent program. We have an early childhood program, which is relatively new. We have a How Things Fly gallery, the museum’s main interactive gallery, which is ten years old and has its own staff. I do a lot of work with exhibit development.
Q: What are the details on those exhibits?
A: One exhibit is a redo on our Pioneers of Flight gallery, which is bringing it back to the 1920s and 30s, when the original gallery was. Over time, they [the museum staff] put other things in, so it went beyond its intended time period, but now we’re bringing it back to the 20s and 30s and [adding] space history into that too. Normally we do exhibits that are either air or space; this time we’re trying to combine them. The most recent permanent exhibit, which I worked on, was called America by Air: The History of Commercial Flight. That exhibit targeted five-year-olds and above, and this time we’re targeting about three and above [for Pioneers of Flight], which is the biggest challenge yet. That age is really hard, as you can imagine, especially for history because kids don’t have an understanding of past, present, future until around age eight.
The other exhibit is Moving Beyond Earth, which is about the shuttle era and the international space station. There are several challenges: one, how do you convey the scale of the space program/the shuttle program in a 5,000-6,000 square foot black box? The second challenge: it’s barely history. It’s the 1980s, which any good historian is only starting to think of as history, but it goes to today and beyond. NASA is currently trying to figure out exactly what it’s going to do, what the beyond means. The challenge with this topic is often how you keep it current. With air transportation and commercial aviation, who knows what’s going to happen with air travel in the next year. That particular gallery is a permanent exhibition, so it could be there 20 years, which is scary when you’re working on an exhibit to think of how many people will see that.
Q: How did you get involved here at the museum?
A: I’d been at the Smithsonian before. This is my third Smithsonian.
Q: What were the other two?
A: National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American History. I left the National Museum of American History to take a job working on the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition in St. Louis. It was a three-year project, so when that ended I had to look for another job and decided that I really wanted to come back to Washington. I really missed the stimulating environment of the Smithsonian. There weren’t any jobs in American history, but a job opened up here. So here I am.
Q: What’s your educational background?
A: I have a graduate degree in American history from George Mason. I was in the Applied History track, so I had to fulfill a six-credit graduate internship. I spent a summer at Colonial Williamsburg, which was fascinating experience because I’d always wanted to see the behind the scenes there.
My Portrait Gallery job was in education. I didn’t even know museums had education departments! I didn’t really have a goal in mind when I started the graduate program, but a friend recommended I go for an informational interview with the curator of education at the Portrait Gallery. The curator was this very dynamic, energetic guy…. I could see that my personality fits into the education role. I love research, but I don’t think I would be happy if I was doing research behind the scenes all the time. I really like applying the research, interacting with people, and seeing them learn. I’ve ended up as a museum educator, which is not how I like to label myself. It’s a label I seem to have because I’ve sat in the education department in the museums I’ve worked, but I really call myself a historian because my degree’s in history. I do research; I just don’t get to do it all the time. I love to do research—I love to go to the Library of Congress, the National Archives, just like every historian does!
Q: What did you do while you were at the American history museum?
A: I worked on exhibit teams [and] managed the popular Hands-On History room, which was made of 35 different activities. Each activity related to an exhibit somewhere in the building—you could gin cotton, ride a high-wheel bicycle, put together a Chippendale chair, look at the carving on an 18th-century-style Chippendale chair, make rope, try your hand at Morse code. It was a really fun learning environment for all ages. It was also an international model, the first of its kind. We had people from all around the world coming from museums to talk about it.
I did several really fun projects at the American History Museum. One was Within These Walls, a house brought down from Massachusetts. The exhibit looks at five families who lived in a house over time.
And then the Star Spangled Banner Project went on for ten or more years, conserving the actual flag. I worked on researching a map-based activity for the Hands-On History room about the Star Spangled Banner; that’s where I really got to do a lot of research. We based it on this map of Baltimore from 1814; it was a military map from the National Archives.
Q: How did you get into studying history?
A: I’ve always loved history. I grew up in Pennsylvania—my parents took me to Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Williamsburg, Gettysburg, Washington. Somehow something sparked an interest in me as a child. I think maybe because I visited the sites I could imagine it as I was learning about it.
Q: Did you have any favorite places you visited as a child that really stand out?
A: Williamsburg, certainly, is a great place because it’s such an immersive environment.
Q: What do you love most about your job here?
A: I like the variety—every day is different. The variety of subject material also keeps it interesting. And the continual learning. The neat thing about what we’re doing here now is taking a hard look at our exhibition program and thinking about how we can make it stronger in the future.
Q: Do you have a favorite historical era you enjoy studying?
A: That’s always a hard question to answer! I like the Revolutionary War. I love the Civil War. I kind of like the decade before the Civil War. The truthful answer is that I can get excited about any time period in history.
Q: With the Revolutionary War, the Civil War—what is it about those eras that fascinate you or hook you?
A: Just the conflict that caused people to make really hard decisions in. Lewis and Clark was a great project too. I was sick of Lewis and Clark by the end! When I look back on that project, it really was fun because it expanded my knowledge of Native American history and opened up cultural landscapes that I never had experience with before.
Q: Is there anything you miss here at the National Air and Space Museum? Activities? Responsibilities? Subject matter?
A: I miss the cultural history. I really like social history and cultural history. We are making much more of an effort in recent exhibits to include social history. For example, for America by Air, we talk about who flew because different types of people were flying in different periods. During the 1930s, the Hollywood stars had a clause in their contract that said they weren’t allowed to fly, so that tells you that the studios thought it was dangerous because the studios owned them, basically. Around 1935, we found an article in the LA Times that said Studios are allowing stars to fly now because stars wanted to fly; they almost couldn’t stop them. We added that part about stars flying because people like celebrities, so we have all of those great shots of stars leaving the airplane and how it was promotion for the airlines. [These photographs] also made the interpretive point we wanted to make: by this time period, there’s a general perception that flying is safer.
One more example—we were talking about African Americans and flying. The topic of segregation came up, and everyone said, Well you think of trains and buses; you don’t think of planes. Was there segregation with flying? We did some research and found that not a lot of research has been done on that, so we added a whole panel that talks about segregation and flying.
Q: And was there [segregation]?
A: The answer is that the airports were segregated, so the lounges, the restroom facilities, and the restaurants in southern airports, even National Airport. The flights weren’t segregated, probably because they couldn’t figure out a way to do that. If you’re flying from the north and halfway through you cross into southern air, you can’t all change seats. There was a big campaign to integrate the airports because a lot of federal money was supporting the airports, so it was a big deal; you just don’t hear about it. That’s an example of how we want our visitors to see themselves in the exhibits, hear their stories.
Visit AHA Today again soon for part two of this interview, where Tim Grove will talk about misconceptions in the history profession, give advice to those with history degrees, and provide his thoughts on digital history.