Claire White

Return to Interviews

Interviewee: Claire White
Interviewer: Jillian Hinderliter
Date: September 30, 2016
Accession #: PHP 033
Length of Recording: 67:24
Sound Recording
Summary

Claire White graduated with a MA from the University of South Carolina Public History Program in 2011. White earned her undergraduate degree in history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and she worked as a teacher and a long-term substitute teacher before coming to UofSC. While in the Public History Program, White specialized in the museums track. White held a number of graduate assistantships including positions at the Thomas Cooper Library Digital Collections and the Teaching American History South Carolina program. She also volunteered at the Historic Columbia. White completed an internship with the Nantucket Historical Association. After graduation, White worked as an educational aide at the Nantucket Historical Association and rose to the position of the Sacerdote Chair of Education at that organization. Since August 2015, White has served as the Education Outreach Manager at The Mob Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. Interview includes discussion of White’s experience in a number of museum studies courses and the Charleston Field School, the dynamics between public history students and traditional PhD students, the department’s approach to public history, influential professors, and how her time spent in assistantships shaped White as a public history professional.

 

Keywords

Charleston Field School | Digital Collections | Education Outreach | Historic Columbia | Museum Education | Museum Studies | Nantucket Historical Association | Teaching American History Program | The Mob Museum | Thomas Cooper Library | University of Nevada, Las Vegas

 

Transcript

Jillian Hinderliter: Alright, so this is Jillian Hinderliter. It is September 30, 2016. I am interviewing Claire White for USC’s Public History Program Archive. We are conducting this interview over Skype between Columbia, South Carolina and Las Vegas, Nevada. Okay, so that’s all we had to do for our little intro. 

Claire White: Excellent.

JH: So, the first question we’re asking everybody is what motivated you to volunteer to be interviewed? 

CW: (Laughter) So, first of all, I think that I’m a little self-absorbed. I like talking about myself. But honestly, joking aside, I’ve been on your side of the recorder and I’ve never been on this side of the recorder so I think that was a big thing. I think it makes you a better interviewer to be an interviewee and I thought “That would be so cool,” and I also, I just think everyone has mixed feelings about having been in grad school. It’s an emotionally and mentally tough time. But I was so thankful for my experience at USC and so I, you know, any time that I can give back in small ways, especially not monetarily small ways, I’m happy to do it. (Laughter) 

JH: Well, excellent. We’re happy to have you. I meant to mention, I said it in the email but just to remind you, I’m technically a PhD student at USC but I earned a public history Master’s in Boston. 

CW: Okay. 

JH: At Northeastern University. 

CW: Oh, great. 

JH: So, I have been at both ends, kind of, of the grad school history department experience.

(Laughter) 

CW: Excellent. 

JH: Yeah, so, talking about USC and public history in general, why did you choose this program? 

CW: Well, my biggest motivating factor was the ability to do graduate assistantships in the public history field as opposed to being a teaching assistant. My first semester at USC I actually did wind up being a TA and it certainly was good experience, but I already had classroom experience at high school level. I had been a teacher and a long-term sub and I thought, “You know what, I know that I don’t want to teach. That’s not what I want to do. So it would be great to find a program that allows you opportunities in a field more closely aligned with what my professional goals were.” And I haven’t really kept up with it, I don’t know how many graduate programs today in 2016 offer that, but back in 2009 which wasn’t that long ago, only seven years ago, there were very few programs that could be said for. There are certainly a number of programs, I think, that are equaled in their ability to match you in internships and things like that but I wanted to be doing that kind of stuff the whole time I was in grad school and that was the big motivating factor.

And I wanted to move to the East Coast. Almost all of the schools that I applied to were in, sort of, the Mid-Atlantic to the Southeast region so that was certainly part of it. And from a pragmatic standpoint they gave me a roughly equal amount of funding to other programs that I applied to. But more than anything it was definitely the opportunity to work in assistantships that were outside of just being a TA and I don’t mean to diminish being a TA but… (Laughter)

JH: Well, but you know something about public history is that it’s really geared towards practicality and so that, kind of, inspired one of the goals you had. It seems. 

CW: Exactly, yeah. I definitely, yeah, that’s a good way to put it because I do think of myself as a pretty practical and pragmatic person. I was looking for, in my opinion, what was going to be the easiest path to finding a job that was better than the job that I had before I went to grad school.

(Laughter)

JH: Right. 

CW: By all accounts of students who were current students at the time, of the conversations that I had with professors, of alumni that I’d spoken to, it seemed like USC could do that as well or better than anywhere else that I applied to. 

JH: Great, and so when you were looking at programs you mentioned Mid-Atlantic, the Southeast in general. Why did you choose to enter a public history program versus something like museum ed or an archival program? What kind of moved you in the public history direction? 

CW: So, I think for me what I really was looking for was the intellectual background and I wanted to find…so first of all, I was only looking at graduate programs that were housed within history departments. So nothing in art history, nothing in museology, or fine arts. I had a history background coming in. I had worked at a history museum in college and I thought that that was a comfortable place to be. And I, as I mentioned, I had taught as a teacher and as a long-term sub prior to going to graduate school and so I felt, I wasn’t really sure. “Do I want to go into museum education? Do I wanted to be a curator?” And I thought, “What skills don’t I have?” And I felt that I had a lot of the teaching and pedagogical skills but that I didn’t have the same background in, sort of, what causes people to go to museums and be interested in museums.

Are we still connected? You’re completely frozen. 

JH: Yeah. So, you’re flashing a little bit. I can hear you. You’re coming in clear. So hopefully I don’t… 

CW: Oh! You’re not frozen anymore. 

JH: Okay. 

CW: (Laughter) 

JH: Your voice was coming in strong, so. If it does drop, I’ll pause it and we’ll pick up where we left off. 

CW: Okay, perfect. 

JH: But yeah, so. If I was frozen, I apologize. I am here. I’m listening. 

CW: No, no. I just wanted to make sure. You were frozen for a good amount of time before I said anything and I just said, “Oh gosh! Is she still there?” 

(Laughter) 

JH: No, no. I’m here. I’m here. I saw that my light was flashing a little bit and I was like “Hmm,” but your audio was clear. So, right. 

CW: Great. Wonderful. 

JH: (Laughter) 

CW: So, yeah, I thought that I needed a little more of the theory and I wanted a program that I felt, if I did decide to go into museum education that it would be possible, but I had to learn a lot about curatorial skills and…I hate to say exhibition development because I already knew I was more interested in content development than physically spatially coming up with exhibits, so. 

JH: Right. 

CW: Yeah. 

JH: Excellent. Well, I mean, let’s dive right in there. 

CW: (Laughter)

JH: What sort of classes did you take when you were here and you were in the museum track, correct? 

CW: Yes, I was.

JH: So, what’s… 

CW: I was in the museum track and I’m a big dork. I’m such a historian that I forced myself to by memory write out what classes I was in in anticipation of this question. And then I went back through all my old computer files and confirmed that the written record indicated that I was correct in my assessment of what kind of classes I was in.

(Laughter) 

JH: That’s the kind of interviewee we want! Prepared. That’s what I like. 

CW: Right? 

JH: (Laughter) 

CW:  I know, I was thinking like, man. In a way, I would be really annoyed in someone did this when I was doing an oral history. If they were, like, looking at their notes. But on the other hand it’s a good indication that they’ve thought about this. 

JH: I think it’s wonderful. So there’s not going to be any ums and ahs. You will remember. 

CW: I’m trying. Also, I have the benefit of having only left the program five years ago, six years ago. So. That’s a positive, I’m sure, for my memory. But to get on to the question. So, I took primarily in the public history track the museum classes. My first semester was the material culture class, which I took with Allison Marsh and of which, I think, unless she’s made big changes to the class, most people who take it would describe it as the class where you have to write object labels every single week. Just more and more object labels for the objects you brought, other people’s objects. Just pile on the object labels. And then I took, I couldn’t find what the name of this course was from a course catalog perspective but it was definitely the history of museum theory class. I took that in the spring of 2010, so in my second semester.

In the first semester of my second year, so the fall of 2010, my third full semester. I took an exhibit design class, which was one of those joint classes that they do with the McKissick staff. It was taught by Lana Burgess. I think she’s still there at McKissick. Is that correct?

JH: As far as I know. I think someone else mentioned that she’s still offering those sorts of classes. 

CW: Got it. 

JH: I haven’t taken it, you know, because I have the master’s in public history. 

CW: Right. 

JH: But I hear from the other MA students that that’s something that they’re in and I’m pretty sure it is the same professor. 

CW: Got it, got it. And then the last museum focused class that I took was actually a special offering. It was creating an exhibit on factory tours in conjunction with Allison Marsh based on some of her dissertation research but then research that all of us in the class had done as well. So, we did, sort of, the first phases of planning and development and design. And then, I can’t remember, it was definitely after I had already completed my degree but I don’t know if it was the summer or the following fall that they actually created the exhibit with a different course.

So, that’s kind of cool. But it was sort of like, I was already in Massachusetts by the time it was completed so other than pictures and getting to see the exhibit brochure I don’t really know what happened with that. (Laughter) 

JH: Right. It’s funny because sometimes that’s the way it works in real life with different exhibits and projects. 

CW: Yes, yes definitely. Yeah, that’s so funny. Yes. When I left my job in Massachusetts, which was the position that sort of evolved out of what I had done right when I finished graduate school, we were in the very end phases of something we had been working on for three years and the person who had started it with me had been an intern and she was now a full-time employee and she was texting me all these things like, “I can’t believe you left before we finished this!” And I’m like, it’s your project. It’s not really mine. I’m not that concerned. I’m very happy it’s completed. We needed this particular thing, but it’s okay. I’m not going to die not seeing it.

(Laughter) 

JH: So, did you take any other classes that didn’t necessarily fall within that museum track or?

CW: Definitely. The only other public history class that I took was the Charleston Field School, which was so fun. It’s fun because I think it’s one of those classes that most public history MA students want to take regardless of what track they’re in so it’s a really good opportunity for collaboration and seeing things from another perspective as opposed to some of the museum classes where there’s a few PhD students and a few preservation students but it’s pretty much just six or seven museum students and two other people who are like “Woah, what’s up with this monoculture that’s going on here?” So, that was awesome. It was fun every other Friday going down to Charleston.

One thing I remember, no one cared what van we got into in the morning but in the evening when we drove back, if you got into Dr. Weyeneth’s van, he would ask these really pointed questions about what we’d seen. And so, no one wanted to be in his van. (Laughter) Everyone would rush to get into one of the other two vans and I always wondered if it was just, I mean, it couldn’t have been just our year. I’m sure every time he did Charleston Field School that happened. But every time. In the morning we like, “Oh cool, whatever, we like everybody. Who cares what van we’re in?” and then in the afternoon it would be like, “Oh! I am not getting stuck with Dr. Weyeneth again! No.” (Laughter) And it was only because of his questions because he’s always be like, “So what did you really think about that?” And you’re like, “It’s five-thirty. We’re stuck in traffic. I don’t want to think about it.”

(Laughter)

JH: So, you seem to have some really vivid memories about the classes you were in, which is great!

CW: (Laughter) Yeah. 

JH: I remember in mine as well, it was always kind of the same batch of people that seemed to be in a lot of the classes. 

CW: Right. 

JH: That’s kind of the way a lot of public history programs tend to be. So, kind of besides the Charleston Field School, does anything else kind of stand out when you look back at the coursework you did at USC? 

CW: I think the classes that I definitely have… 

(Skype connection cuts out at 14:49) 

JH: Call dropped. Pause. (Pauses recording at 14:51. Returns at 14:52) Okay, I think that we are back on and recording. So, you were talking about your classes, kind of anything that really stuck out to you. 

CW: Yes, so I think intellectually the classes that I’ve sort of called upon the most and look back on the most were the one where we created the exhibit for McKissick. And like I said, we didn’t actually do the mounting of the exhibit but where we did all the exhibit script for it. And then even more so, my history of museum theory – like I said, I can’t remember the name of that class. 

JH: It’s okay. 

CW: But whatever the name of it was, it was definitely about museum theory and the history of it. What I liked about that class, and actually what I liked about Allison Marsh’s classes in general, it forced you to be a little more thoughtful. But that’s a good thing in grad school. (Laughter) She would always have us contribute our suggestions to the reading list. So, in all of the classes we took with her and I don’t know if this is something she still does, but she might have one or two books and that was it. You know, when you were looking at the syllabus at first you were like, “Why are we only reading two books? This is grad school.” And then she’d explain, well every other week we’re going to read books that you suggested. And it 1) forces you to be a little more active in your own education and 2) it sort of starts you off from the very beginning, sort of having a sense of where everyone else is coming from but doing so in what I would consider a pretty non-confrontational way.

I mean, if someone suggests a book that you’re like “That’s super boring, I’m not interested in that.” You may get into a debate about whether that should be read or maybe they suggest an author and you’re like, “Ugh, I don’t like that author. I’ve read their other works and I don’t agree with anything they say.” But essentially, you haven’t even read the book yet, or maybe you have, but you know you’re coming from this position where you can debate and discuss. But you’re doing it sort of safely. I mean, I hate to say no wars have been started over reading lists. But essentially, I’m not aware of any that have been directly attributed to crafting a grad school reading list.

(Laughter) 

JH: Yet. 

CW: I just remember one of the books we read in that class was New Town Square and it was terrible. Every single person in the whole class agreed that just nothing had been said in this book and within reason, if a terrible book is 500 pages I don’t like it very much. But if it’s just 200 to 300-page book and it’s just terrible, that was always my favorite in grad school because you really develop your voice and your ability to dissect an argument when you’re looking at a book that has so many things that you can say is wrong with it.

And I think, as a public historian and as a historian, to me the history of the thing that I do is so interesting. Right now, at my job at the Mob Museum, I do not work with very many public historians. There’s only two people on our whole full-time staff of thirty who have public history degrees and of the other ones, there’s only three or four other people who have worked at any other museum before. Las Vegas is not a big museum place. We’re not Chicago or Boston or San Francisco. So, it’s tough to fill museum positions with tenured museum professionals.

And I’ll tell them, “Oh yeah, such and such is how things used to be done in museums. I was just recently talking about cycloramas and using pictures on the wall,” and everyone’s like “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen that in a museum.” And I was like, “Well, I mean, it’s from like a hundred years ago.” They’re like, “Oh, okay. So, when no one who comes to the museum was alive.” I’m like, “It’s important, very important to know where museums came from!” (Laughter) So, I think that’s what helps me sort of remember that class in particular.

I know I haven’t talked a lot about any of my non-public history classes. But, my reading seminars, there are so many books that I can remember to this day. “Man, that book was so terrible. Why did so and so suggest we read it?” And almost every time it’s because they know it’s terrible and they want you to have that conversation. 

JH: Mmhm. 

CW: We read, I took the colonial period reading seminar with Daniel Littlefield. We read a book Jesus was Female about Moravians. And oh my gosh, the whole book was essentially saying, it says essentially that Moravians believed these extremely outlandish things that were completely unprecedented. What the book says, half of it is just not true because tons of early colonial religions believed these things. And the other half of it is just not true because there’s no proof that the Moravians actually believed the things that he said they believed.

(Laughter) 

I think it’s Aaron Fogleman wrote the book and you’re just like, “Oh my God, what’s happening here?” And that was like the best and that class was funny because Daniel Littlefield is one of those professors who will let you keep talking. Let you say some stuff and then you get to a point and he’s like, “That’s wrong. That’s literally wrong so I’m going to break down to you why it’s wrong. And even though you’re supposed to be leading the discussion, I’ll just talk for the next half an hour because you really let this one go downhill.” And that was fun. 

JH: Right, and so you’ve had these museum classes with sort of a mixed bag of students – MAs, PhDs, people from the library school or something like that – and also you have your more traditional reading seminars. So, did you notice a dynamic between the public history MAs and the larger history program or what was that like in the years that you were here? 

CW: That was one thing when I was thinking about this oral history and preparing for this oral history, I knew that there was going to be that question and I sort of braced myself for how I wanted to answer it. I felt that the public history program on a whole was very well supported during my time at USC between ’09 and 2011. The department chairs at the time and the sort of the professors who were big decision makers at the time had a lot of respect and a lot of support for the Public History Program. And I think that is one real benefit to USC’s credit, that because of the age and the success of the Public History Program in general, that is receives a little more respect than public history programs in some universities do. I certainly want to, ah, I wouldn’t want to downplay that point because as a department I always felt that we were very much included and very much supported.

But the one thing that I always found a little challenging was I felt like individual PhD students and professors were always challenging, “Well, why are you a public history student? Why wouldn’t you want to become a professor? What are you doing? You just want a terminal master’s degree? What a waste. How silly. What are you going to do with that?”

And so, I did my undergraduate at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, which obviously is miles and miles away from South Carolina, but oddly enough the year that I started two other students from UNLV also started, both in the PhD program. Part of that was that one of the professors at UNLV had done his PhD at USC so there was a lot of pro-USC stuff. So, they were attracted to it for the transatlantic studies and the positive reviews that they heard from our professor at UNLV. But both of them were just constantly like, “But I don’t understand. You were so smart and motivated at UNLV. Why do you just want a master’s degree?” And I’m like, “I don’t know what to say to that. It’s a perfectly viable option.”

And especially going into museum education, it’s not that I wouldn’t ever consider getting a PhD. But to get entry level museum education position or even a mid-level, if you have a PhD that can almost be a hindrance. So, you sort of have to find that middle ground. How much experience you have versus how much school do you have. Knowing that I wanted to come, at some point, back to Nevada I just thought, “I don’t know if that’s something that at this point in my career that will benefit me.” I feel honestly like I got that both from professors and other students and I know that I wasn’t the only student who got it. It wasn’t necessarily based on merit or personality, it was just sort of like, “You’re smart enough to get a master’s degree, why don’t you want to defect from public history and get a PhD?” So I felt sometimes that some professors sent a mixed message. 

JH: Mmhm. 

CW: That they would be very proud of the public history department being part of the history department family but then they were always trying to poach. (Laughter) Individual public history students. 

JH: At sometimes there seemed to be a bit of a disconnect right there. 

CW: Yes, yeah. Mmhm.

JH: I see. So, you already mentioned you kind of liked the way Dr. Marsh set up some of her classes with the whole “suggest a book, as a group we’ll do this as a collaborative enterprise.” Were there any other influential or memorable professors that you had in the Public History Program that you kind of think of when you think about how to teach or theorize about public history? 

CW: Dr. Marsh definitely had the biggest impact on me intellectually and when I think back, and which I think like, “What’s the best practice here from a theoretical standpoint?” But the other professor who had a big impact on me was Dr. Tom Brown, who isn’t technically a public history professor. I know he’s done, sort of, colloquium classes here and there but he was my second reader for my thesis. And I had, whatever it’s called, the antebellum period reading seminar with him and he was…what I really liked, he was an amazing professor and a great mentor in general.

But what makes me think back to him a lot also is that he was one of those people who was just really open to any new idea and experimenting with things and I think he’s one of the traditional history professors who I look at and think, “He doesn’t see himself as a public historian but he talks about memory and memorialization in a lot of the academic topics that he studies.” And he just always toed that line. He didn’t go around saying, “I’m a public historian, listen to me!” But he would say little things like, “Oh, have you considered this?” And he was always the person who would come up with the most off the wall suggestions for how to get around problems.

So, my thesis was on James Woodrow, who had been a Presbyterian minister and a professor at the seminary in South Carolina and then later became the president of South Carolina College. Oh God, actually, I guess he was president after it had already become University of South Carolina. I should probably know that because I wrote my thesis on it. 

JH: It’s been a little bit. 

CW: (Laughter) You know, it’s hard when things change names. He was definitely a professor when it was still South Carolina College so I can’t remember if he was president after it has already changed names. I think he was. But he had been, he had taught geology and a couple of other scientific subjects at South Carolina College and I was trying to figure out how to ascertain some of his beliefs from a religious and scientific perspective. Dr. Brown was like “You should go to McKissick and look at some of his specimen collections.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” And he says, “Well, doesn’t he have all those rocks? Like, there’s rocks there. Maybe he’s made some notes about the rocks.” I’ll tell you he didn’t. We never found any notes he made about any of those rocks. But, I mean, it was a wonderful out of the box suggestion and especially for a non-public historian to say, “Go look for geological artifacts and maybe they’ll help you with your thesis.” 

JH: Right. 

CW: I mean, a lot of public historians probably wouldn’t have made that suggestion. So, he was a big one. He was just extremely supportive. He would be the exact opposite of the disconnect that I talked about as far as some professors. I mean, he was just so supportive I think of the Public History Program and students. 

JH: Well, wonderful. I’m so happy to hear that. And so, while we’re kind of talking about Woodrow and your thesis a little bit, how did you come to that thesis topic? 

CW: I came to USC knowing that from a, sort of, intellectual-topical perspective that the intersection between American religious history and intellectual thought was what I wanted to study. My undergraduate thesis had been about the role of Baptist church discipline in community control in frontier communities. And it’s always been, I’ve always liked looking at religious history from a more cultural perspective and as more sociological perspective. So, I stuck with that. I knew that it had to be something that in some way encompassed that world. Looking at a religious topic but completely throwing out all of the frameworks religious historians usually use and using more of a cultural and intellectual lens.

And I, this sound so silly, but, when you’re applying for grad school, there’s only so much that you can look into. I mean, you have to figure out where you’re going to get the best funding and who’s the best professors to work with and where you’re going to want to live and not have to shovel snow and things like that and just so many things. For some reason, one of the things that I didn’t even consider was how robust or not the religious landscape of South Carolina was. It’s the South! So, it must have always been really religious, right? No. Wrong, especially by what we would describe by southern standards and nineteenth century standards of religiosity. South Carolina was very far down on the list for many years. So, I came in and was like, “Oh, so there’s literally no Baptists that I can get a good enough topic on, so I’m going to have to ignore them. Can’t go back to them.” And I sort of went through all the evangelical, American-bred religions and the Presbyterian community has always been a strong one in South Carolina. Relatively strong, I should say.

And Dr. Brown actually, as I was sort of working through all this, was like, “Well, what about James Woodrow? I mean, he was the President here so we have his papers. He was a Presbyterian minister. He fits all these categories.” And so, I thought, okay. Well, that’s one place to start. Are you going to end up going deeper into the topic that someone suggests to you or are you going to find an ancillary topic? In the case of Woodrow, I discovered pretty early on that he had this relatively big instance of teaching evolution to students at the seminary. You know, within like eight months of Charles Darwin printing the Origin of Species. That’s pretty remarkable. I mean, even in more scientific communities, he was very much ahead of the curve. And I thought, “Well, this is perfect! It’s intellectual. It’s right here, excuse me, right here in South Carolina. We have his papers. The rest of his papers are just one state away in Georgia. Perfect.”

I stuck with it and forced it upon…(Laughter). I forced it into a topic that was thesis appropriate. (Laughter) 

JH: So, would you say that those resources here in South Carolina really helped you complete that project? 

CW: Definitely. It goes back to me being a pretty pragmatic person. It’s always that fine line. Do you want to do something that all the sources are there for you and it’s just sort of easy but maybe it’s not the most 100% compelling, you love it topic? Or do you want the perfect topic and then have to travel eight hours and call archivists in seven different libraries, over the course of a year? And I thought, “It’s not worth it. This is the location that I picked and I should find a topic here in this location. I should be able to make the local history work. If I’m a public historian and I can’t find a local history topic that I’m interested in, then maybe I’m not a very good public historian.”

(Laughter) 

JH: Well, it’s… 

CW: So, the fact that South Carolina has the Caroliniana library and the fact that they have pretty robust digital collections. So, that’s pretty helpful. Even if you’re going to wind up going into the archives anyway, if you can sit there safely in your bedroom and look through stuff before making the trek into campus, that’s always a plus. So, for sure, that was positive and definitely a deciding factor that there were all his presidential papers and some of his personal papers at the University.

JH: Well, it seems that you certainly made it work for the situation you were in. 

CW: (Laughter) 

JH: So, let’s talk a little about you outside-of-the-classroom and academe experience. Where did you complete your internships or your assistantships? 

CW: So, my first year I had a split assistantship. So, I was a grading-only TA as well as working at the Digital Collections Department, which I think was called Digital Activities? But I worked at three different university digital collections so I couldn’t tell. And when I looked at my resume yesterday it just said “digital collections” and I think I put digital collections for everywhere I worked. So, that was fun. It wasn’t what I expected when I applied for the program but I TA-ed for, oh gosh, I can’t even remember his name. That’s terrible. (Laughter) Um, Dr. Kinzley! Dean Kinzley. I TA-ed for Dean Kinzley as a grader only for his East Asia classes which was interesting because I had, as a teacher, been, “You’re only three chapters ahead of your students” thing. But it had only been as a long-term sub that I had been thrown into for a biology class and I hate to say that I didn’t really care all that much, but I didn’t really care all that much.
Whereas for this I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know anything about East Asian history.” I remember someone saying, “Well, part of the reason you were assigned to that is because you used to be a world history teacher.” And I was like, “Yeah, but we didn’t talk about East Asia at all. We talked about China for one chapter in my whole world history book that I taught.” (Laughter) So the expectation of what I knew about literal world history as opposed to what was actually me teaching Western Civ. was a little interesting. And as I said, I worked in digital collections mostly just scanning and documenting metadata, a little bit of creating metadata. But mostly just documenting metadata that had been given to me by librarians.

My second year of my assistantship was with Teaching American History, South Carolina, when they still had the grant at South Carolina Archives and history. And I think that was the last year that that federal grant was there at the archives. 

JH: Oh, excellent. How beneficial were these assistantships to either your coursework or your eventual career? Or both? 

CW: So, honestly, my first-year assistantships of working as a TA and in digital collections was not particularly useful. I’d worked in digital collections before doing the same if not more high-level things prior. And being a TA was fine, but grading papers on East Asian history was not the most useful in my museum career. (Laughter) My second assistantship at Teaching American History, which I really wanted. There were only two positions available for the grant and when I had started, both of them were filled by current students so I really lobbied hard to be the student who replaced one of the outgoing students when she finished her program. And that was definitely beneficial.

So, we created curriculum related to archival materials. And then we also served as mentors to teachers around South Carolina in counties all over the state, who weren’t necessarily the strongest social studies teachers who were trying to not only to become stronger social studies teachers but also to incorporate primary sources. And at both of my positions since leaving the program, I have worked with teachers in different but certainly similar capacities where you’re helping them use primary sources and use artifacts and objects more thoughtfully with their students. So, that was extremely helpful.  

JH: Excellent. So, I think that’s a great transition to talking a little bit more about what you’ve been doing since you left USC. How did your career develop after you left the program?

CW: So, my internship was at the Nantucket Historical Association and when March or April of my second year had come around and I had finished my thesis and was starting to apply for jobs, I was having zero luck. And at the NCPH conference that year, the person who had been my internship supervisor at the Historical Association was there and we went out of a drink or lunch or something. He asked how the job hunt as going and I said, “Not well. I’ve only been offered one interview out of however many applications I sent out.” And it was for the Antique Boat Museum on the California side of Lake Tahoe, which it wasn’t for me anyway. (Laughter) They didn’t want me but I was just grasping at straws at that point.

And he said, “Well, we don’t have out full seasonal staff yet so why don’t you come on for the season. We can keep you on Nantucket until Columbus Day and you can help manage the youth/family space in the museum and do some other things for the department. That’ll be it, but by then you’ll have found a job. You’re very competent.”

Well, I went to Nantucket and applied for some jobs throughout the summer and did receive a few interviews and October came and went and I had not been offered a permanent position yet. And they still had enough money in the budget to continue paying me the small amount of money they had been paying me. So, no one said anything, so I just stayed. At that point in time I had started dating someone on-island, so it was like I didn’t want to really leave. I continued to apply for jobs off-island and I was offered a position with the State of Arizona, which I would’ve taken but it was in Phoenix and living a city of four million people would just me a lot for me. Not that Las Vegas is small, but this is the biggest place I’ve ever lived and I don’t need to be anywhere twice the size.

So, I told the Nantucket Historical Association that, “I got the job, but I’d rather be here and unless you hire me on permanently full-time, I’m going to have to take this job in Arizona in two weeks.” So, they offered me a position. My permanent position began at the end of December of 2011, so I guess that’s what? Seven months after I finished I had a real job? Which is exciting, not too bad. I wasn’t the first in my cohort by any means, but I wasn’t the least. So, there’s that! (Laughter) And I stayed there through two promotions.

I was there for about four years. I served as our manager of education for the majority of the time that I was there, which for the Nantucket Historical Association meant all of our youth, family, and school programming as well as any kind of “special group” group tour as opposed to a family reunion or anything like that. And I also coordinated our summer internship program, which was fun because I had also been an intern. Then I had the opportunity to move back to Las Vegas in July, June…July of last year. 

JH: Oh?

CW: So, 2015. I moved back here before I actually had a job at the Mob Museum, which is where I work now. But I moved back for family reasons and I was pretty certain that I was going to be offered a position at the Mob Museum. They had applied for a grant to create a new school outreach program and I had been the only person that they interviewed for it. It was like, “I’m pretty sure they’re going to get this grant.” The City of Las Vegas was the grant agency and they had been very instrumental in creating the Mob Museum. It was like, 98% sure they were going to get this grant.

So, I’m the Education Outreach Manager at the Mob Museum and I primarily started there just to create this school outreach program. But now I create most of our interpretative and educational content and help with a little bit of exhibit development. Not a whole lot, but a little bit.

We don’t have a full-time curator who focuses on creating exhibits. We have a curatorial staff who handles all of our objects and caring for our objects, but when the Mob Museum opened – it’s only five years old – all of the exhibits were created by an outside exhibition development team. So, they were like, “Oh, we don’t need a curator a content. Meh. We just need a curator to handle the accessions and stuff and work with the collections manager. That’s all we need.” So, now they’re realizing. “Huh, okay, so that means other people need to do this whenever we make content changes to any of our exhibit scripts or updating our exhibits in any way.” Mostly our Director of Content, my supervisor, does that. 

JH: Mmhm. 

CW: But I do a little bit.

JH: And you mentioned earlier that, I mean, you don’t work with many professionally trained public historians or even experientially trained public historians. It seems to be a relatively young museum. What is it like, again, working with such a large number of non-public history folks? What other challenges do you run into? 

CW: It definitely… 

JH: Or pleasant surprises! 

CW: Yeah, it’s definitely good and bad. I am a firm believer that varied experience makes you better at anything you’re doing. I think, certainly, not to the extent that the Mob Museum staff embodies this, but I know that one thing Allison Marsh was always clear about was, “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a PhD or a Master’s or nothing at all, you can work in a museum. You just need to get with it.” You got to learn the lingo. You got to learn the experiential skills. I think it’s true.

My supervisor, our Director of Content, had never worked in a museum before but he is an extremely knowledgeable person on local history. He’s written a number of books on local history, including one that I read in college about Las Vegas which is always fun. He’d worked as a newspaper editor and it’s like, who can write succinct information better than a newspaper editor? He totally knows how to write an object label without it winding up being seventy words long and I love it.

But, there’s definitely things that I feel like I sort of take for granted then I realize I have to remind people about. We have a pretty sizable teaching collection. We have a total of, and a lot of these are postcards and stuff, but we have a total of 350 objects in our teaching collection. And the idea that just because it’s a collection means that some random volunteer can be let into the content closet, can just walk up with a seventy-year-old bullet proof vest, just holding on to it with their bare hands, is something that I have to remind people. Every week me and our Curator of Collections has to tell someone, “Nope, you can’t use that unless you have a trained educator or one of us. Nope, I don’t care that a news crew is coming. You can use it, but again you have to have one of the trained educators or one of us.” And even with my boss, sometimes he’ll say “Oh, we can take that out of the Mylar sleeve. Tell them to take it out. Whatever they want!” and I’m like, “Nope. Only me. Only I’m taking it out of the Mylar sleeve. If I’m out with a group of guests and I make the educated decision to take it out of the Mylar sleeve then I will, but…” (Laughter) Not everyone can make that decision.

And a lot of times…I don’t feel like museums are a field that have an obnoxious amount of jargon. But sometimes I’ll say something on occasion that people are just like, “That was meaningless to me. What is historiography? What are you talking about? Is that a thing? Are you mispronouncing “history”? Are you mispronouncing “hagiography?” What are you doing?” So it can be a challenge.

I have only worked in museums that have a heavy tourist visitation. Even at the Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket is a tourist destination. Even though it sounds like we were just a boring local history organization, our flagship property – the Whaling Museum – 95% of all the visitors who ever went through there who weren’t school groups were tourists. So to me, it’s kind of like when you’re in an institution liked that, you need public historians. You need at least a few. But you also need people who are like, “Hey, but tourists expect this and this and that.”

Speaking of what tourists expect, though, the biggest shock to me when I started at the Mob Museum, from a difference when you’re not working with a lot of museum people, guests can eat and drink anywhere in our exhibits. Including alcohol. Including red wine. Literally none of our objects are not in some sort of class or plexiglass case. So, it’s not like we have a rope and they can accidentally spill chips on the other side of it.

(Laughter) 

So it’s not as terrible as it sounds from a museum perspective, but it’s pretty shocking. 

JH: Yeah, it’s still surprising. 

CW: Yeah. Our Curator of Collections said the same thing when I first started. The very first time someone pointed out, “Oh yeah, we serve beer and all this stuff.” And I’m all, “So where do they drink the beer?” and they’re like “In the exhibit space!” And the Curator of Collections is standing there and she’s like “I know. Just, shhh. Don’t tell them how weird and horrible it is. I’ve already told them.” 

JH: Oh, goodness. 

CW: (Laughter) 

JH: So, what do you think is the most unexpected way you found your time at USC helped you professionally? 

CW: (sighs) Oh, my God. That’s a good question but also one I didn’t prepare for. 

(Laughter)

You know, I think more than anything it’s just the ability to have that sounding board especially being in a place where there aren’t tons of museum professions. Both in my physical museum and the state that I live in. (Laughter) I know that whenever I have a question there’s literally forty people that I can immediately either tag on Facebook or email or text. Some of them are professors that I had, some of them are students that were there at the same time as me, some of them are alumni who I knew when I was a student. That’s just so cool.

When I started at the Mob Museum, the idea for the outreach program was that it would become these history trunks and we would repurpose some of the objects in the teaching collection that they already started and take them out as trucks. I had tons of experience in museum education. I shouldn’t say tons. I had a couple of years in museum education but I had not worked with any kind of trunks or teaching collections but I know it was a well-established thing. Museum collections literally have been doing it for thirty or forty years. So, the first thing I did was send an email out to six different friends I knew from USC who had similar programs at their museums or historical societies. I posted something on Facebook and tagged another ten people or so who I had gone to grad school with you I had thought, “Well, maybe their institution has it and I just don’t know about it.” I guess that shouldn’t be so surprising, but it is.

I don’t think, at least for me, I didn’t necessarily think about the idea of networking from grad school being so immediate and I just feel like USC has the resources that whenever I have a question, it gets answered. I don’t know if other alumni and as well as current students feel this way, but whenever I get an email from Bob or Allison or Connie or any of the other professors, who are like “Hey, here’s this student and they need this thing and we think that you can help them.” I’m always like, “Oh my God! I’m so happy to help them!” And I think that’s the aspect of it that was surprising to me.

Obviously, you’re going to go to grad school and you’re going to build this networking community and you’re going to meet all these people. But I just feel like, to me it’s so rewarding and it’s rewarding from both ends. I get to say, “Oh! I got this idea from my USC connections, so, here you go!” (Laughter) 

JH: Well, it seems to be a very productive and supportive community and I’m getting that kind of feedback from a lot of different alums that I’ve spoken to. So, I’m so glad that I asked the unexpected because I had a great response from you.

(Laughter) 

So, I have just a couple of closing questions. We have a few more minutes here but you’re doing great. I’m loving what we’ve got here. 

CW: (Laughter) 

JH: So, if you could make a suggestion to the Public History Program at USC or public history programs in general, what would you say? Just about anything. 

CW: I think that the major thing that I would say is “Whatever you can do to continue to give students in the field training is going to be the most beneficial.” I learned so many things from my classes and I liked being in grad classes. I’m not going to say I loved it because it’s still emotionally and intellectually taxing, but I enjoyed it and I liked it and I learned a lot. But ultimately, in the public history field, unless you’re doing those practical, experiential, hands-on things, most of the time what you learn in school is a backbone but it’s not what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

I mean, USC is not known for its museum education focus so certainly I have less opportunity to apply what I learned than, say, a curator or a collections manager. But even for my alumni friends who are curators or collection managers, I feel like everyone agrees the school’s important but having those connections…being able to say “Yes, you can do your internships at the Relic Room or McKissick and the archives and wherever else,” is the most important thing USC can do. We’re living in a, a different time now from a grant perspective or a funding perspective from ten years ago or maybe seven years ago. But that would be the one thing that I…not change, but don’t let that change.  

JH: Right, right. Keep doing this important thing. 

CW: Exactly. 

JH: Do you have a vision for the future of public history as a field? Where do you think we’re headed? 

CW: Well, I think the one challenge that we really have is that we’ve gotten to the point of near saturation as far as the number of people who are completing bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD’s in public history and our ability as an industry to then give then jobs. I mean, essentially the public history field was created to give all these intellectuals in the ‘70s and ‘80s who couldn’t find tenured positions jobs. And they’re like, “Hey! Don’t you realize you can go work in a museum or a SHPO office doing the same kind of stuff you love? It won’t be tenured, but it will be almost as good!” And now we’ve essentially done that with public history. I kind of feel like anyone who goes to USC gets the opportunity to say that. I mean, we’ve been around for so long as a program, I can tell these other schools like, “Ugh, you’ve only been a public history program for ten years. You’re ruining this for the rest of us.” (Laughter) Which is terrible and a lot of recent programs are great. The University of Louisville’s public history program, I think, is only, like, ten years old. I would never say, “Don’t have that program! I’m mad at you.” It’s a wonderful program but what worries me is that we’ve created all of these historians who have practical, applicable, real-world skills but we still don’t have practical, applicable, real-world jobs for them.

And so I think, I hate to sit in my ivory, employed tower and say, “We got to really rethink who we’re admitting and what we’re doing.” But I think the public history field in general has to be very selective about those people who are being admitted to the program and what they want out of the program. I know just in my cohort there were – and this is not a negative attack on the people I went to school with –  there were definitely a few people who were like, “Well, I like history and this seems like, you know, it’ll be easier to find a job in my home town than if I try to become a professor.” That’s a real problem. It’s not that they shouldn’t, or couldn’t, or don’t deserve to be public historians. But I think that we’ve gotten to a point where we have to say, “What are the goals of this applicant? Of this student? Of this public historian?” and be a little more selective.

I also think that it’s important to advocate for the ability for public history students to use their skills in other fields and not let that be a disappointment. I mean, I was a history major in undergrad and I remember all the posters in the liberal arts college saying “You can become a lawyer! Or an anthropologist or these other things that are only sort of like the major that you’re studying!” I think that’s sort of true of public historians. You don’t have to be a museum or an archivist or a preservation officer. You can be a writer. You can be a PR person. You can be all these things. (Laughter) 

I don’t know. It’s tough because no one wants to be only thirty years old and be so curmudgeonly about up-and-comers. I love up-and-comers! I love mentoring people and knowing that there’s new public history people entering the world. Entering the cohort of public historians. But it’s not the guaranteed job that it was when USC created the applied history program forty years ago. 

JH: Right. So, any parting thoughts? Things that we haven’t mentioned that you would love to have on the record? Or anything like that? 

CW: You know, I was thinking about whether there was going to be a way for me to bring this up but I think this is very important because if Bob Weyeneth one day listens to my oral history and doesn’t hear me talk about this, I think he’ll be very upset.

So, when I came to USC I had a number of professional experiences that I think definitely contributed to my ability to become a public historian. As a teacher, I worked in digital collections. But the only museum experience I had was at the Liberace Museum. Liberace the big, gay piano player from the mid-century. 

JH: (Laughter) 

CW: It doesn’t exist anymore. The museum closed in 2010. That’s right, one year after I started my graduate program. Liberace himself had founded the museum. The whole time I was at USC, every time Bob Weyeneth introduced me to any person, he introduced me and said, “We only admitted Claire because she’d worked at the Liberace Museum.” To this day, whenever I’m talking to one of my friends from my cohort, they’re always like, “Oh! It’s you. You were only admitted because of the Liberace Museum!” or they’re like “Oh man, remember when Bob used to tell complete strangers that the only reason you were admitted was because you worked at the Liberace Museum?”

And I have to say that I think that if it wasn’t for Bob, as the years went by I would of, sort of, sloughed off my identity as having started my museum career at the Liberace Museum. But, no. Because of him it’s really confirmed by resolve that I am proud and unembarrassed about my Liberace Museum experience. So, that is totally…well, it’s not totally, it involves Dr. Weyeneth, so it’s not totally unrelated to the program. But it’s a little unrelated but I think that’s important. If someone’s listening to this oral history twenty years from now and they’re looking for a real money shot quote, me telling that story about Dr. Weyeneth and Liberace, I hope will be that for some graduate student in twenty years. 

JH: (Laughter) Well, I think we all have our roots, right? 

CW: Yes! (Laughter) 

JH: The things that we did for three months or a little here, there that come up on our resumes if you get to a certain number of pages. 

CW: (Laughter) Yes, definitely. 

JH: Thank you so much, Claire. We really appreciate that you would take the time to do this and leave this record for all the graduate students this year and twenty years from now. 

CW: (Laughter) 

JH: Anyone that wants to pull it. 

CW: Yes. 

JH: So, I’m going to go ahead and shut this recording off and talk to you a little bit about the release. 

CW: Great. 

JH: Thank you so much. 

CW: Thank you.

End of Interview