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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Musings on Public History Management

The majority of Public History Institutions are open and running in the summer. In fact in Canada very few of them have any winter program at all. This means that the majority of the work force is summer students. For most public history managers the trick is to try and create a programming where you can have consistency from year to year even when you are training mostly new people for each summer. This means laying out in detail what is expected of every position, including when you would take lunch, what equipment you will need to complete your task, what information you will need to know and what your curatorial duties could be. In many ways this is the very professional way to run a public history institution, and that professionalism comes through in the programming and interpretation.

And yet, since those that have been hired are often extremely talented, capable people (often they have gone through school to study this subject, and have taken the time to make themselves bilingual) there is a reaction against any micro-management, or criticisms of downtime when they produce such quality work when they are called upon. This is particularly true of places where the same staff are hired every year, or where, in the odd case, the majority of the historical interpretation takes place throughout the education year as opposed to during the summer.

True of all offices, long term people do not like to be micro-managed. But the struggle for Public History management is how to maintain that balance between letting the employees do what they do, and to be flexible to maintain better customer service, and to put in place that well structured programming necessary for places with huge staffing change over from year to year.

There is no answer, it depends on the location and the individuals, which is the trick for public history managers. Often those institutions that offer more all year programming or have the same employees year after year want less structure in their historical interpretation positions because they know how to read a group and offer each individual group the best possible history experience. Likewise, institutions with larger change over benefit more from the structure. But this is not an absolute, because it depends on the individuals. Sometimes long term people want more structure in their jobs because it increases the professionalism of the experience they offer and perhaps as a group they will be taken more seriously the more consistent the program is. But for the profession, particularly for those people who interact with the public on a daily basis, flexibility is key to offering a great experience and to effectively communicating history to the public.

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