06 November 2006

Proudly, a Patahistorian

Perhaps it was wrong, as Rob MacDougall alludes, for me to admit that I often think about how I will be remunerated as a public historian. But I doubt it. I recognize that Prof. MacDougall’s concern for the fact that I wrote about making money was not him deriding me for talking about how I will make money as a public historian; it was a warning shot across my bow to let me know that I will probably not make much money in this field. In a world in which I would not have to worry about providing for myself – let alone my family – monetary concerns would, of course, be nonsense. But public history is popular history, about the people; those historical endeavours that do not, necessarily, occur inside the ivory tower. I think we would be amiss to simply not talk about how to make money.

As Jonathan Vance pointed out to our public history class, historians too often do not talk about money. Yet, history – especially public history – is a business, whether we like it or not. Take for example the federal government’s recent attempt to make cuts to museum funding across Canada. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty attempted to cut the Museums Assistance Program in half earlier this fall, thereby reducing the budgets of many museums and galleries nationwide. Had the cuts passed in the House of Commons, small museums across the country would have had to operate under tighter controls. They would thereby have been forced to either reduce their staffs, carry less exhibits, or any other number of like measures to accommodate this move.

Regardless of the fact that the cuts did not go through, public history has always been a business, especially museums. For historians operating in the university setting, the need for a business approach is simply not as severe as for those who practice history outside the academy.

It just may be possible that the lack of business acumen amongst historians is a large reason why over the past fifty years history has failed to garner the attention it deserves. Only in the past decade – or perhaps even five years – has there been a rise in interest in history (in Canada, at least).

It seems to me to be somewhat elitist to declare that wondering how I am going to make money has no place in history. On the contrary, I think more historians must consider this question, and not just when they are finished – or nearly finished – with their education.

While history ought to be an objective endeavour, free from the ills of monetary considerations, historians, myself included, are only human.


Ken said...


Don't apologize for thinking about how you'll actually make a living as a public historian. The truth is that if you can't afford to pay the bills, you won't be able to continue practicing your craft (except for very, very part time while you're doing something else). Jonathan Vance is right, historians don't talk about money. They should.

When I graduated from university with my PhD I applied, like so many others, for teaching positions across North America. Nothing came of them, in hindsight a great development for me as it has allowed me to pursue my public history ambitions and leave academia for good. That said, I wanted and needed to remain an historian, so I worked as a contract historian for seven years (I still do some minor contracts) before becoming a civil servant in 2003. Businesses, government departments, non-governmental organizations are all looking for historical professionals for various projects. It takes a lot of searching and a lot of networking, but the work - and good money - is out there. If historians don't go after it, someone else will. Do we want that history to be written by journalists (nothing against them, but they're not historians) or untrained amateurs (by which I mean those without education or practical experience)?


Ken Reynolds, PhD
blog: www.cannonsmouth.ca
blog: 38thbattalion.blogspot.com

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