June 10, 2009
By Jessica Pritchard
In part two of this interview with Tim Grove, acting chief of education at the National Air and Space Museum, learn about misconceptions in the history profession, advice for those with history degrees, and his thoughts on digital history.
In part one of this interview, which appeared on the blog yesterday, Grove spoke about the responsibilities of his current job, his background, and how he got into history.
Q: It seems history can be a tough thing to sell sometimes. There are a lot of misperceptions around it. What misperceptions do you see within the discipline?
A: It’s boring! Everyone thinks it’s boring because they were forced to memorize dates and names. The other challenge is that history museums traditionally have been places where you can’t touch anything and have to read labels. If you know how people learn, there are various types of learners that want to touch and don’t like to read, so those people right away don’t want to step foot inside a history museum. The neat thing is that history museums are changing; I think we’ve found a way to have hands-on and still maintain conservation and preservation. That’s really my job and my goal—to make history accessible to everyone.
Q: What advice would you give to students coming out with a history degree, especially if they don’t want to stay in the academy?
A: There are many places to find public history jobs. Certainly archives, libraries, historic preservation, cultural heritage, and museums. Persistence is the absolute key. You have to want the job very badly. I went through a period where I was working part-time jobs for several years after graduate school. I worked at the Portrait Gallery for about three years part-time, so persistence. Internships are extremely valuable and informational interviews. Go talk to someone—people love to talk about what they do! Have lunch with them and ask them questions. This is a field where networking is pretty valuable.
Q: What is some of the best advice you’ve gotten that has carried with you in your career?
A: I guess persistence, again. You have to want the job. My thinking was always in looking around [for jobs], if someone has a job that I want, they got the job somehow, so why can’t I? If there are people doing the jobs I want to do, then they’re out there. I think along the way people have told me that networking is important and keeping in touch with your contacts because you never know when someone will start a project that you might want to be part of. They’ll think of you, and it’ll be a great partnership. Also, always look for opportunities to gain experience in a variety of formats.
Q: You’ve been to a lot of places; I’m sure you’ve met some colorful people. Do you have one story (or two or three!) that really stands out? A fun story that sort reminds you why you love what you do?
A: One is actually written up on our web site. During the America by Air research phase, we decided that we wanted to do an interactive [exhibit] about “contact flying” and what that is. Basically, it’s navigating using landmarks. We found this great map from the National Archives of part of the Transcontinental Mail Route over the mountains of Pennsylvania, near State College. It was hand drawn by an airmail pilot in his 20s in about 1921 or so. The way we developed the interactive was that visitors would follow along the map, and we would have photographs of the various landmarks that they would have to put … in correct order, as if they were flying along. I was combing archives in Pennsylvania trying to see if there were any aerial photographs of these landmarks, and I could not find any. We resorted to going up in a helicopter, bringing a Smithsonian photographer, and following the Transcontinental airmail route, just like the airmail pilot did. [We] used his map, our primary source, and looked for the landmarks that were on the map; quite a few were still around today because most were natural landmarks. [It] was a wonderful, fascinating experience, which was a unique opportunity to, in some ways, replicate history—have the experience that the person that made the primary source [had].
Another fun story—for Lewis and Clark, the grizzly bear obviously plays a role in the story. One of my tasks, for some reason, was to find a good grizzly bear that we could use in the exhibit. We had a tactile component where visitors could feel different fur swatches from the five animals that Lewis and Clark identified first for science. Grizzly was one of them, and so we had a quote about the grizzly and a bear print that they could feel how huge the print was. But finding the fur was very hard because they’re endangered, and so one of our researchers finally tracked down this fur from the state government in Alaska. They said they would send us one, so we didn’t know exactly what was coming. One day, this big box comes addressed to me. We’re all excited because we know it’s the bear, so we open it up and fall back in this stench that emanated from the box. We thought they would send us a tanned hide, but it was pretty fresh; it had not been to a taxidermist, it was not tanned, and it stunk to high heaven! I had to find a taxidermist in St. Louis, and you can imagine the fun that was because they don’t see grizzlies that often since they’re endangered.
There are many fun moments in this job where you think, I can’t believe I’m doing this. Such as the America by Air exhibit—there’s a section that looks at the different ways that air travel affects everyone, even if you don’t fly. One of the areas is the food we eat. We wanted to show that someone in Kansas could eat fresh lobster because it’s flown in, so I was calling lobster companies in Maine finding out how they shipped their lobsters live. I never thought I’d be doing that! We also talked about how transplanted organs are shipped out. We contacted a company that ships kidneys, and they showed us exactly how they packaged the organs. We had to recreate an organ, obviously, but I had to research that. I never know what I’m going to research!
[On Digital History]
I was fortunate to be in American History Museum when the web was brand new, so we were all trying to figure out this new medium and what it would mean for learning and for museums. We recognized that it was a big change, but everyone was in the same boat, trying to figure out what it meant. Because I was manager of the Hands-On History Room, we decided to experiment to see if we could adapt hands-on to the web format, which was a really fun learning process. That’s kind of what got me into the web world. That and I worked the Within these Walls exhibit, [where] we did an online exhibit for that, which was also a great learning experience.
I have feet in different worlds. I’m on the web team here [at the National Air and Space museum], and we’re experimenting with social media. Smithsonian itself is really trying to figure out what Web 2.0 is—how we address that and meet the needs of people that want to engage with our collections in a way that we might not anticipate. The other aspect of the web is that when you work on an exhibit now, it’s no longer the physical exhibit only; it has the extension to the web, so you have the virtual exhibit. Ideally the same people work on both. It’s really understanding that media, which is very different. It’s not the same as a physical exhibit, and getting historians to think that way is hard. Many historical organizations are moving to digitization projects, which is good! They should be, but the next step, I think, is working with educators and the people that will translate that raw content. Researchers know how to use it, but other people don’t. You really need to help them understand how to analyze historical sources or provide a context for them to do that. I think that’s a really important role for museum educators, or historians who are educators.