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From the Teaching column of the February 2005 Perspectives

Developing Collaborative Public History Programs

Ann McCleary and Pam Meister, February 2005

One of the greatest challenges facing every public history program is how to offer students real-life training in the field. Most schools accomplish this goal through internships, but the State University of West Georgia took a different approach by moving entire classes to a public history organization and partnering with its staff to teach the courses. West Georgia's interest in creating a more "hands-on” experience led to the establishment of a collaborative museum studies program involving the university and the Atlanta History Center. The program has flourished and students have even acquired jobs thanks to a curriculum that blends theory and practice. 

The idea for the partnership originated at the State University of West Georgia, even though (or perhaps because) the region's public history graduate programs had paid little attention hitherto to museum studies. Clearly, West Georgia could fill an important niche in the southeastern region. Partnerships were not new to the West Georgia program: students had engaged in museum-related community projects ranging from developing an interpretive plan for a gold-mine park to creating a proposal for a university museum. What West Georgia lacked, however, was a museum on or near the campus where students could participate in the everyday activities of a museum.

Building a successful museum studies program required finding a museum interested in developing a collaborative curriculum. It also meant working with a museum operated by professional staff and accredited by the American Association of Museums. With its blend of indoor exhibits, historic homes, and gardens, the Atlanta History Center (AHC) offered the best possible laboratory for West Georgia students.

Creating a partnership with a museum was only the first step in meeting the university's educational needs. An already busy museum staff had to be enticed to undertake yet another new project. To make it easier for all concerned, it was decided that the program could begin with the two institutions developing a hands-on class in museum studies.

The Atlanta History Center already had a substantial track record in teaching museum studies at the university level. Since 1994, the AHC has sponsored the National Museum Fellows Program, a yearlong program designed to bring outstanding minority undergraduate students into the museum profession. This program consists of two semesters of weekly seminars focusing on various aspects of museum work. The seminars are taught primarily by teams of AHC staff with some guest lecturers and a full-time summer internship. As the Atlanta Museum Fellows program has gained national acclaim, AHC staff members have become enthusiastic advocates of the program as well as polished presenters of seminars in their areas of expertise.

The AHC had also experimented with teaching museum studies in the university classroom. In 2001, AHC staff participated in team-teaching a combination undergraduate- and graduate-level "Introduction to Museum Studies” class at Georgia College and State University (in Milledgeville). Although the class was extremely well received, the format was too time-intensive for long-term involvement by the AHC.

Throughout this period, the AHC continued to sponsor numerous internships by students from universities throughout the country. AHC staff members continued to share their expertise with the next generation of museum professionals by serving as trainers and presenters in various continuing education programs sponsored by state, regional, and national museum associations.

The idea of a series of classes that actively used the museum as a learning laboratory seemed the perfect answer to the AHC's dilemma of using the museum's physical and human resources as efficiently and as effectively as possible. Asked why the AHC decided to become involved with the West Georgia program, the executive director, Rick Beard, commented, "I thought it was a logical extension of the Museum Fellows program. It built on work that we had already done and it utilized the AHC facilities and staff in appropriate ways that were not overly burdensome. Further, since we were the biggest history institution in the region, I felt that there was no one who could do it better. I also think it is important to make sure that the academic community doesn't teach museum studies in a vacuum: the classroom may be fine, but without exposure to a museum, I think students are being shortchanged. It was a combination of pride in the AHC and the desire to establish a proprietary relationship with the program.”

Deeply involved as we both were from the program's inception, we set out to develop a philosophy and structure for the program. (Neither of us had a museum studies degree—Meister had an MFA in arts management and McCleary a PhD in American civilization—but we worked at museums and had learned on the job.) We began by developing four seminars in the key areas of museum work: exhibits, collections management, administration, and education and interpretation. To provide a well-rounded experience, the 15-hour program requires students to complete three of these museum seminars, a material culture course that teaches students how to interpret their collections, and an intensive internship experience.

We decided that the program would be offered at the graduate level and that it would be available to West Georgia students and to others in the Atlanta region who desired more training in museum work. A key requirement was that all participants have graduate-level expertise in a field in which she or he can curate, whether history at West Georgia or another discipline applicable to museum work. Since the museum studies program is housed in the history department, current students at West Georgia can complete a field in history, a graduate seminar in historiography, and a thesis or thesis project and their museum studies coursework to earn an MA in history as well as the museum studies certificate.

Applicants who already hold a graduate degree can also apply to West Georgia to complete the museum studies certificate. One of our most recent graduates had an MA in women's studies, while another held a PhD in animal psychology. In addition, several museum professionals in the region have taken just one class in the "special student” status to hone particular skills for their job. Often, over half of the students in our classes have already worked in museums, making for exciting and quite sophisticated discussions.

Both of us worked together to develop the curriculum for each class, create the syllabus and class schedules, and to evaluate the students and their work, but divided up other responsibilities. Academic issues, recruiting students, maintaining a program web site, scheduling classes, finalizing the syllabi, and other administrative matters were tasks managed by the university's public history coordinator (McCleary) while the AHC coordinator (Meister) took charge of all matters relating to the museum experience, from engaging staff to teach the courses to coordinating student projects at the AHC.

To accommodate the work schedules of the AHC staff, the courses are offered during the day, while the museum is open, rather than at night (even though the evening classes might be more convenient to some of our working graduate students). To ease potential scheduling problems, classes meet only once a week, so that working students need only take one morning or one afternoon off per week. The courses are offered on a two-year rotation, including the summer semesters.

Initially, recruiting AHC staff to help teach the courses meant spending time with potential instructors explaining the goals of the program, and in particular, the desire to give students unvarnished, real-world experience from working museum professionals. Even in a large museum such as the Atlanta History Center, professional staff members have many and varied demands on their time. Convincing our colleagues to commit to one more project meant that we needed to make a persuasive case for how participation in the program could enhance AHC's reputation through formal affiliation with a university-based museum-studies program and could help in their individual work through the creation of a steady stream of already-trained interns. Additionally, AHC staff could enhance their personal careers by providing a teaching credential, while also ultimately benefiting the field by training a new generation of museum professionals.

The museum courses stress our philosophical commitment to practical experience and discussion of contemporary ideas and challenges in the museum field, using the AHC as our learning laboratory. Students learn how to do undertake a task, like process a museum collection, and then go into the collections management work area and do it. We develop assignments that students would actually undertake in the "real world” of museums. For example, the fall 2003 Museum Administration class researched and wrote a foundation proposal for an upcoming AHC program and developed a marketing plan and staffing plan for a new museum under development.

Throughout the class, AHC staff members share their particular expertise. As a result, the AHC staff essentially become part of the public history faculty: they mentor and advise students on their careers and become contacts for students as they apply for and accept jobs in the field. With the Atlanta History Center staff and additional guest speakers we bring to class, students become part of a wide network of museum professionals, including fellow students, with whom they can consult for advice or support.

At the end of each class, students create a portfolio that includes their assignments and demonstrates what they have learned and the skills that they have. The portfolio has become a valuable tool for students to obtain jobs. One employer commented to us that he selected one of our students because of her portfolio. The portfolio demonstrated to the employer that the student actually had the museum experience she needed for the job.

Although our program is still young, it has been very successful. Our students, both working professionals and full-time graduate students, find that they are well prepared when they enter their first jobs. Employers are impressed by what students know.
For the State University of West Georgia, this new collaborative program has become an exciting opportunity to prepare students for a museum career, and it has helped us to attract more students to the program. For the AHC, it has been a way for staff to increase knowledge and hone existing skills by teaching others. It has created a steady supply of knowledgeable, well-trained interns and potential employees (to date, three graduates of the program have been hired as AHC staff members). The museum studies program continues to create a new generation of museum professionals who have already formed a powerful network that will continue to grow as the program evolves.

—Ann McCleary is associate professor of history and coordinator of public history at the University of West Georgia.

— Pam Meister was director of education and interpretation at the Atlanta History Center and is now the executive director of the Charlotte Museum of History. The successful continuation of the program under the direction of the AHC's chief operating officer Andy Ambrose and his staff after Meister's move in spring 2004 is, the authors note, a "measure of the program's success.”