Note: See the rest of the interviews in this Jobs and Careers series here.
When asked to trace the origin of her passion for history, Priya Chhaya, program associate in the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, laughs and responds, “It all goes back to that high school teacher.” The class that piqued her interest was James A. Percoco’s Applied History, where students spend half of the year investigating public history; for instance, Chhaya remembers “real history versus reel history,” which compares movies on history to documented history, as well as a trip to Gettysburg, where she and her classmates studied personal historic accounts on the actual battlefield. Moving into the second half of the year, students then participated in internships, which for Chhaya was at the Octagon House, now the American Institute of Architects headquarters. It was during this internship Chhaya learned, “You can actually do something with history outside of becoming a professor.”
At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Chhaya manages online content for Forum, the membership level for preservation leaders. Part of that work includes spreading the word about the economic benefits of historic preservation—that saving historic places is good for the economy, and does create jobs—while also providing preservationists on the ground with the latest information and tools to do their jobs. She also works closely with the National Main Street Center which recognizes that “Cities and towns across the nation have come to see that a prosperous, sustainable community is only as healthy as its core.”
Part of what she loves about her job is the people, who are passionate about history and who love what they do, which is promoting preservation. Chhaya admires the sense of camaraderie, where everyone is working towards the same goal of “figuring out the next way to get preservation out to people.” She continues, “Preservation is important. It’s not just about saving the past for saving the past’s sake; it’s about saving places that mean something to people.”
Chhaya adds, “We’re not trying to just be in the way and stop development. There really is a legitimate reason to save our history.” Chhaya believes that one of the misperceptions of history is that it’s a dead field, with little to no current relevance, which she says is a conversation she and her colleagues frequently have. She explains, “Public historians, preservationists, people in preservation trades, we’re constantly fighting the argument, ‘What’s the point of history? It doesn’t really mean anything’. We all know it’s wrong, but how do we get that message across? The only way to fix it is to talk about it.” To do so, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been focusing much of its attention on the web, using this content to make preservation come alive and encourage conversation between members in the preservation community. Chhaya explains, “The Trust uses social media sites, so we have definitely have a presence online, but we’re still figuring out new ways to harness these online tools.”
For aspiring historians, Chhaya recommends interning as much as possible: “I interned everywhere I possibly could. Once I had a weeklong conservation lab over the winter, and I discovered that I’m not a science person at all! I learned that you have to have a strong science background for conservation.” She believes that the only way to know what you want and don’t want in your history career is to get as much experience as you can; internships give you the contacts you’ll want and need during your career search.
Chhaya offers another helpful tip: “Apply for many different jobs so that you’re not stuck in a niche.” She recalls an internship she had at the British Museum one summer where she had the opportunity to make a poster exhibition. This opportunity taught her the importance of how museums brand themselves, which may seem insignificant, but knowing how to market an organization or museum is a big deal. What to do with the logo? Where does it go? Chhaya says, “Internships teach you things you wouldn’t know in classroom.”
Chhaya said that the best advice she received that has helped her career is that of being flexible: “Learn as much as you can in all different fields. Know a little bit about computers, a little bit about how social mediums work, how the web works. Get your hands dirty!” Furthermore, the technology field is huge, reaching public historians, who in turn wear many different hats, so it’s good to have those technological skills. Chhaya also believes that to be a preservationist, you have to be able to look at an object and see history behind it. She learned the value of this skill during her studies at the College of William and Mary and American University. Chhaya remembers one of her freshman seminars that explored the tidewater region of Virginia during the colonial period, “seeing the past by looking at ordinary objects.” It was this seminar that taught Chhaya how history makes people passionate and encourages them to realize their role in the past, which goes hand-in-hand with her career now in preservation.
Another part of Chhaya’s job entails helping to run the Preservation Career Center, which offers resources that provide several different ways to explore preservation, as well as job postings. For instance, there are three 10 ways to… articles that give tips on how to build a career in preservation: Ten Ways to Gain Experience in Preservation, Ten Ways to Find a Job in the Recession, and Ten Questions A Preservationist Should Ask In An Interview. The Career Center has also created profiles of preservationists working in the field, which “are designed to help the preservation community learn more about an individual’s path to preservation and to get a more intimate glimpse into what their day-to-day job is like (with a few questions thrown in about history and their favorite building).” Furthermore, they’ve compiled Professions in Preservation articles for architectural conservators, architectural historians/preservation specialists, and main street managers. Each of these articles details a typical workday; the type of required training and experience useful for each career; and a range of typical projects.
To get started on your search for public history jobs, Chhaya recommends HISTPRES to find unique historic preservation jobs, particularly for novices. She also insists, “Go to conferences! As a student, it’s where you’ll find all of the cutting-edge stuff.” In particular, the National Preservation Conference “is the premier educational and networking event for historic preservation professionals, volunteer leaders, and advocates.” One final site to check out: Idealist.org, which contains thousands of listings of internships and career opportunities around the world.