Should you get a Ph.D to work in a history museum? – Part 2: Is it useful for the job?

Most curatorial jobs do not require a Ph.D., but is it useful? Does it make one a better curator?

The doctoral degree is not designed to train curators. Ph.D. programs in the humanities are, for the most part, designed to train professors at research universities. This may have made sense at one time, but it doesn’t anymore; only roughly one-third of history Ph.Ds. who go on to teach in tenure-track history programs, the sort that demands research output. There’s an enormous amount of writing on the crisis of the Ph.D. now, and I won’t try to summarize it here.  Let me just quote Tim Egan’s New York Times essay about the “circular firing squad of academics” and refer you to Ed Mill’s response to it.

History Ph.Ds. are trained to be academic historians. That’s a specialized trade. They learn to see the field as an insider, to know what other historians see as interesting problems. You learn historiography, the ways that a generation or two of historians have considered problems, and do your best to become part of that tradition. You learn to write like academics, speak to academics, and argue to convince academics. You focus ever more narrowly on an area of research. Research methodology plays a surprisingly small role in training – you pick that up as you go along. Material culture training is rare. Working with or for the public is almost nonexistent. Learning to work in cooperative groups, or with people in other disciplines, is not part of the training.

The history Ph.D., I believe, is poor training for curators. More than that: it often leads students away from the attitudes that make for good curators. It teaches bad habits. It revels in detail, in finding a particular slant, not in the big picture. It looks in, not out. It is interested in theory, often, in seeing how a era or a topic fits with some general ideas about historical change, or social, racial, or ethnic category.  It is solitary, not social. It does not consider audience. It teaches students to care about what others like them want, not what those without their training care about.

There are some advantages to Ph.D. training for curators. By the time a student completes a dissertation, he or she know how to do research, how to organize and write an extended narrative. He or she has made contacts in the field, and knows who to email when they need help. Ph.D. students know the big picture of the field – they have to, for prelims, and for TA-ing the big survey courses – and that can be a useful background for big exhibitions.

And, of course, there is so much in the curator’s job that doesn’t overlap with the historian’s.

On the museum side: There was a trend, a few decades back, to argue that history curators should really be doing academic work, just in a museum setting, on the model of natural history curators. Whether that still makes sense, or ever made sense, is a topic for another essay. But very few museums have the funds or staff to pay curators to do their own research, independent of the work the museum needs.

And on the historian’s side: Very, very few historians use material culture – so much so that, as Sheila Brennan points out, the recent Ithaka S+R paper on the changing research practices of historians did not even consider artifacts as resources. Few historians need to worry about dealing with donors, or writing and carrying out collections plans. They don’t write descriptions of objects. They are specialists, not generalists. The work is simply different.

In sum: the things that make the Ph.D good training for being a tenured history professor at a research university tend to make it bad training for being a history curator.

That’s not to say that there’s not much that’s valuable about Ph.D. training. Part 3 discusses how it might be made valuable for work in a museum.

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3 Comments

  1. Dan Spock

    Great series, Steve. I think you’ve certainly identified some of the pitfalls of academic training for curatorial roles. I think important distinctions exist between historiography in an academic context and the practice of public history, which is inherently inflected by a concern for a broader audience, certainly the design of products for a non-academic audience, but also an emphasis on a dialogical relationship with non-academic communities. These community relationships require a certain receptivity to unfamiliar perspectives, a commitment to letting the relationships change the product, and by implication, the starting assumptions of the curator. The teaching of this kind of intellectual flexibility, the negotiation skills required, the emphasis on an extroverted sensibility, too often are neglected in post-graduate programs. Those programs which do stress material culture studies generally focus on an antiquarian approach at odds with these requirements.

  2. I, too, appreciate your bringing up this topic for discussion, Steven. It occurs to me that there may be a difference between art museums and history museums. It is my sense that it is difficult to get a curatorial job in an art museum without a PhD. That said, I agree with much of your criticism. One of the most telling aspects of doctoral study is that it rewards isolation (as you say) and for the most part punishes collaboration, a skill that is much needed in museum work. There is much more to say, but too much other work to do tonight. Thank you again for telling me about your blog.

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  1. Should you get a Ph.D to work in a history museum? – Part 1 « On public humanities

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