March 24, 2009
By Jessica Pritchard
Emily Weisner, a National Park Service Ranger at the Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, is proving to all of the skeptics out there that public history is anything but history light.
Weisner caught the history bug as a young girl, her interest sparked by the historical sites she visited on family trips. She continued this passion during her undergraduate years at the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a degree in American studies and anthropology. Following graduation, she decided to take her studies a step further with a master’s degree from American University in history, but more specifically public history.
After coming to Washington, D. C., Weisner began volunteering at the Arlington House and found that this was the perfect outlet for her to exercise her love of American history. This career in public history has allowed Weisner to reach out to the public and transport them to the past.
Almost everyone has that historical era—that story—to which they connect. It simply takes a little exploring with a passionate tour guide like Weisner leading the way.
Q: What exactly do you do?
A: I am a National Park Service Ranger at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial. I am involved in many aspects of the site, which is one of the advantages of working at a smaller park. Though I do give tours of the site and participate in the planning of our special programs, I am also responsible for producing all of our park publications—waysides, brochures, handouts, and some exhibits. I also supervise the internship program, which consists of high school, college and graduate students. Each of these groups of students contributes to the site by working in the House, conducting research, and developing programs.
However, I am currently finishing up a four-month temporary job detail as the National Park Service Inaugural Assistant. During the past few months, I have assisted with the planning and implementation of the Inaugural activities that were held in National Parks in Washington D.C., including the events on the National Mall. This has truly been a fantastic opportunity, though I am also looking forward to my return to Arlington House in March.
Q: How did you get this job?
A: I began my career with the National Park Service as a volunteer. I moved to Washington D.C. in the summer of 2005 to obtain a master’s degree in history from American University. At this point, I had never even considered working for the National Park Service. Although I had been accepted into a public history program [at American University], I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to work. My interests ran from education to research to management, and what I needed was some hands-on experience. In a fortunate turn of events, Arlington House was looking for volunteer interpreters, and I signed up.
After volunteering for several months, I found that I really loved working at a historic home. In 2006, Arlington House offered me a part-time job, and I moved into a full-time position when I graduated in May 2007.
Q: How did you get into studying history?
A: As cliché as it sounds, I have always loved history. It’s a passion I can trace back to my childhood. I remember stopping by historic homes and battlefields on our family trips to the beach, and I was always fascinated by the personal stories of those who lived in the past. I love learning about people—even the daily, mundane details of their lives. It is amazing to me that the human experience allows us to relate to people who lived hundreds of years ago. And so my love of people and history led me to study American studies and anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Both fields captivated me, but when it came down to continuing my education, I decided I wanted to focus on history, which was actually a common thread in both these areas of study. My undergraduate advisor suggested I look into the field of public history, which would allow me to focus on history, while also learning how to communicate this love to the public. It was a really great fit.
Q: What do you like most about your job? Is there anything you would change?
A: I love the diversity of my job. Working at Arlington House has allowed me to delve into the many areas of work that make up the management of a historic site. Each day brings something different. Some days, I work on planning special events such as the celebration of a historic wedding. Other days, I focus my attention on designing a new site brochure or working with our interns to develop a wayside exhibit. And sometimes, I simply work in the house, providing interpretation to the many visitors that flock to Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery.
Q: Do you have a favorite era you enjoying studying?
A: I really enjoy studying early American history. The colonial period and the Civil War have always been areas of interest for me. This works out well since I currently work at a site that allows me to focus a lot of my time on the 19th century.
I am actually just beginning a research project that will further delve into the lives of a slave family at Arlington House who were granted their freedom and then sent to Liberia to settle. As part of this research, I will travel with a team of colleagues to Monrovia, Liberia and see if we can determine the fate of this family. Hopefully, our research will shed more light on the relationship between the Lee family and their slaves, as well as provide further insight into the lives of the slaves at Arlington House.
Q: What do you think is the most common misperception of the history field?
A: I don’t think many people realize that there is a career in history outside of the classroom. Though I am not a teacher, my work is to educate the public about a certain time period in our history. I find great satisfaction in transporting visitors to the past, hoping that they can find a piece of a story to which they can relate. Once a person feels a connection to a story – to their history – the possibilities are endless. I think it is really important for those looking to study history to realize that there are opportunities for work outside the academic world.
Q: What advice would you to those with history degrees who are looking for jobs outside of academia?
A: I would advise those looking to obtain jobs outside of academia that they be willing to get out there and try different things. You may have a perfect job in mind, but it may take a while to reach your goal. Be flexible and be willing to work in several different places. Building a network is critical to obtaining a job at a historic site or museum.
Q: Where are good places to look for public history jobs?
A: While there are certainly great online resources available to those searching for jobs, I’d recommend that job hunters use their social networks. If you don’t have one, start to build one. Volunteer work and internships are a great way to get your foot in the door. Attend professional conferences or trainings. Anything that you can do to make professional connections is a really great way to find a job.
Q: What is some of the best advice you’ve received that has helped you in your career?
A: Get out there and get some experience. You may find that you’ll end up in a job or profession that you had never really considered until you tried it out. By the same token, you may find that the job you thought you wanted isn’t for you. I had never considered working for the National Park Service before I started my volunteer work. This experience will help you decide where to focus your attention, as well as begin building a network of professional contacts.
Q: Share a story about something interesting you’ve been a part of through your work.
A: This recent detail with the National Park Service Inaugural Office has been an amazing experience. I was able to participate in the planning of a huge event from the very beginning and see it through to completion. I worked with a great team of colleagues from the Park Service, and other agencies such as the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee and the Presidential Inaugural Team. And in the end, I was able to meet President Obama, which was truly an honor.