Trial By Fire With the National Park Service


The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Starting My Career as a Public Historian

My first week of work with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site is in the books and I think everything went pretty well. Staffing at ULSG is pretty limited right now, so I was quite surprised when I arrived on Sunday, June 1 to find out that I was already scheduled to be on the tour rotation for that day and that I would be working the cash register at various points as well. Since I worked for ULSG as an intern four years ago and again as a seasonal two years ago I was able to pick up on everything pretty quickly, but I definitely need a little more time to get adjusted to life as a full-time Park Guide.

The most important task I perform on a daily basis is giving interpretive tours of the historic home White Haven, a large plantation-style home that was completed in 1816 and owned before and during the American Civil War by “Colonel” Frederick Dent, Ulysses S. Grant’s father-in-law. Dent’s son–also named Frederick Dent–was a roommate of Grant’s during his time at West Point, and it was Fred Jr. who invited Grant to White Haven after Grant was deployed to nearby Jefferson Barracks upon graduation in 1843. Grant met his future wife Julia Dent at White Haven and would later live in St. Louis (most of the time at White Haven, but not always) with his growing family from 1854 to 1859. Depending on how busy we are and how many guides are on staff I give between two and five tours of White Haven a day.

Public history excites me because I am challenged to work within small spaces and limited time frames. A historian who writes a book has ample space to add fine details, nuance, and context to their historical study, often needing 200 to 400 pages to get out everything they want to say (and sometimes they need even more space). University history professors and middle/high school social studies teachers have sixteen weeks of class periods that last between 50 minutes and three hours to make their points and impart historical knowledge upon their students. Public historians are not afforded these kinds of luxurious time frames and are often forced to work within word limits, character counts, and timed presentations. They’ve got to get to the point and spark the minds of their audiences quickly.

At White Haven I get ten minutes at the beginning of each tour to make my interpretive argument and explain to my audiences why it’s important to think about the history of this site and why it’s important for the National Park Service to be here preserving this area. I need to discuss the Grants’ and Dents’ family life at White Haven before the Civil War, but I’ve also got to talk about the conversations, tensions, and uncertainties that were expressed at the dinner table between Colonel Dent, Julia, and Ulysses about the status of the United States and the possibility of war in the future. And I’ve got to remind my audiences that there were upwards of thirty slaves owned by Colonel Dent whose perspectives were never acknowledged by the Dents but who nevertheless played an integral role in the shaping of the Grants’ and Dents’ family culture at White Haven. I get ten minutes to talk about all of these intricacies!

I have the knowledge and the facts in my head to report the history at White Haven to my audiences during their tours, but I’m still working my way through the creation of a cohesive interpretation that captures the big ideas and themes I want to convey to my audiences. I gradually got more and more comfortable as my first week moved along, and I have no doubt my tours will be even better as I get more experience working with my audiences.

Personal and Professional Adjustments

As I settled into my new job it dawned on me that there two major adjustments to my personal and professional life that I need to work through.

One of the downsides of working outside the academy is that I lose my access to paywalled scholarly journals in repositories such as JSTOR and EBSCOhost. Although my membership with the National Council on Public History allows me access to The Public Historian and a host of other history journal collections up to roughly 2009, there is undoubtedly a lot of scholarly resources that are now gone because I am no longer a student. Several professors told me while I was at IUPUI that too many public history and museum professionals stop reading the newest scholarship when they get full-time positions in the field; I will not be one of these people, but it’s going to be difficult given the problems of access that accompany life as a professional. The problem of time for reading scholarship is also particularly acute to me right now because my current (but temporary) living arrangement in Missouri has me traveling eighty miles round trip to and from work, taking away two hours of time each day that could be spent in other ways. When I get home from work, I’m tired.

Another challenge relates to Twitter. There’s a popular perception in the minds of many users and non-users that Twitter is merely a place for sharing trivial pictures and tweeting about the coffee you had in the morning. For me, however, Twitter is about building connections with other historians and humanists and sharing thought-provoking ideas, articles, and scholarship. As a graduate student I often spent 30 to 60 minutes each morning browsing Twitter as a way to keep up with the news and latest discussions, but now I’m away from the computer for most of my working day. I think that’s a great thing and I love being outside with visitors talking about history, but I hope to maintain a strong presence on social media and a solid connection with fellow scholars and practitioners on Twitter going forward.



5 thoughts on “Trial By Fire With the National Park Service

  1. Hadn’t thought about your point about the gap in time and method public historians have vs. those in the classroom or writing books. Great point. You have talent to be able to do so much in 10 min!! 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andrew! It’s a fun challenge trying to work with audiences in a limited time frame and crafting an interpretation that fits the knowledge levels and interests of each audience I work with. Many academic history programs teach students to be good researchers and writers who can communicate their findings in a long form journal or book, but being able to communicate that research into tiny bite-sized increments is equally difficult and not simply a process of “dumbing down” historical content.

      1. If you ever feel like it, I would enjoy reading about how you go about taking “academic” knowledge such that it is accessible to the public in a brief amount of time. I’m always interested in how public cites communicate history.

        1. I will definitely be writing about case studies and interpretive challenges I’ve faced as a public historian on this blog in the near future. Stay tuned!

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