I realized the other day that this year marks 20 years since I ended high school and began college. 20 years?! Um, ick. And where the hell did the all that time go? [Sigh.] Because nostalgia is a bitch (that I surely love), of course my college beginnings have filtered back into my mind. Ahhhh….those days. Those days when was I cast into the “real world” and treated like an “adult.” Those days where I had the freedom to screw up and around in ways I never imagined. Those years of having to make decisions without really thinking of the consequences. Those years where guidance about college majors and jobs was never really guided, but rather was mostly left up to my own devices and sometimes poor choices. I certainly didn’t follow a yellow brick road to my current job, and I definitely didn’t think that acing a few high school history classes would ever lead to something bigger.
I went into college as a secondary education major with an emphasis in social studies. As I said, I did well enough in my high school history classes that becoming a social studies teacher seemed like a reasonable path to employment. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that an education degree was not for me. I was bored out of my mind when it came to educational theory. So I talked to my advisor and she recommended that I switch over to a general field of study. I went with American studies because, hey, I liked American history and stuff and things. Life moved along fine until my sophomore year when the history department announced the discontinuation of the American studies major. Those of us who decided to stay with the department would be ushered into the general history program. That was fine with me, but then I really wondered, what in the world was I going to do with a plain ol’ history degree?? My new advisor presented few options. Teach? (Eww.) Write? (Maybe.) PhD? (Hmm, okay, probably…or not…) Since I was undecided and appeared a little worried, he suggested I choose a minor to expand my studies. I picked two, political science (officially) and theatre arts (unofficially), thinking that some sort of related employment was bound to come my way eventually.
Though I connected well enough with my history studies, I gradually found myself much more attracted to theatre work; and it’s where I found gainful employment after school. Life was good, until, one day, it wasn’t. Or rather, it wasn’t good enough. Because no matter how nice a time I thought I was having, that question, “whatcha gonna do with that history degree?” was a constant nag. And I thought about it, a lot.
It was during a trip to the Smithsonian museums in Washington D. C. that my career epiphany occurred. On display at the National Museum of American History was the Star-Spangled Banner, the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry outside of Baltimore, Maryland, on September 14, 1814, signaling America’s victory over the British in the War of 1812. It was also the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem. But the flag wasn’t really on display. It was shown from a special (and very large) room where it was undergoing conservation work. Museum specialists in textile and artifact restoration were hard at work repairing the decayed flag so that it could be safely displayed.
As I stared at the flag and the people hovering over it so carefully, so dedicated to their tasks at hand, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to become a museum conservator…and I wanted to work at the Smithsonian. Because of course.
But how? Working at the Smithsonian aside, I had the history background, sure, but I knew nothing about artifact conservation. And the more I read about it, the more science I learned was involved. Like actual chemistry and math and blah. Hmmm. That didn’t bode well for this “only managed a ‘C’ in calculus” student, but I still considered the process. First I had to obtain the qualifications to simply work in a museum. This led me to examine graduate programs in history and museums studies. The first option because I thought if I really became a historian then maybe I could received a museum curatorship and continue on to conservation work that way. The second option because, well, the entryway was right there in the program’s name. (Note: I wish to god that my history advisor had mentioned the existence of museum- and library-related degrees. I had no idea until years later. Could have changed my life.)
It took me a couple years to find the right school. After several failed applications and one rejection in particular that led to couple months of depression (which I summarily fought with the help of Banjo-Kazooie), I was finally accepted into a museum studies graduate program. Considering that I had zero museum experience, I can’t say that I went through my studies with ease. Compounded by a cross-county move, it was a difficult couple years to say the least. But it was through that work that I found out about special collections libraries and archives. My thesis on institutional archives in museums (i.e. museums’ collections of their own day-to-day work records) helped me get my current job as an archivist. No, it’s not at the Smithsonian, and it has nothing to do with restoring flags, but I do get to preserve history and help make it more accessible to novice and seasoned historians. I’m not a professional historian, and I never intended to become an archivist, yet understanding and having a love of history are key elements in my work. I use that history degree everyday in ways large and small.
The path I took is hardly the most glamorous route to go with a history degree and things turned out fine (eventually), but they turned out in ways I could have never predicted. And though I still enjoy learning about and utilizing history, what I like most right now is that history rests at the heart of what I do, but it’s not what I “do.”