John Sherrer

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Interviewee: John Sherrer
Interviewer: Will Mundhenke
Date: September 20, 2016
Accession #: PHP 026
Length of Recording: 63:06
Sound Recording
Summary

John Sherrer graduated with an MA in Public History and a certificate in Museum Studies from the University of South Carolina in 1998. His prior education came from Clemson University, where he earned an MA and BA in English from 1987 to 1993. Sherrer is the current Director of Cultural Resources at Historic Columbia. Before coming to UofSC, he worked with the National Air and Space Museum and Old York Historical Society as an Elizabeth Perkins Fellow. Interview includes discussion of Sherrer’s experiences in his graduate assistantship at Historic Columbia, his current position as Director of Cultural Resources, graduate assistants that he has mentored and employed, and the role of his MA in Public History in regards to employment, reputation, training, and value. He also discussed his thesis about the Hampton-Preston Mansion, the role of Historic Columbia and the greater community, and the important role of historic preservation in the Columbia. Sherrer is also a longstanding member with the South Carolina Federation of Museums, which he serves as an Executive Committee Member.

 

Keywords

Assistantships and Internships | Clemson University | Cultural Resource Management | Hampton-Preston Mansion | Historic Preservation | Historic Columbia | Museum Studies | National Air and Space Museum | Old York Historical Society | Public History

 

Transcript

Will Mundhenke: It looks like we’re getting good feedback. Perfect. Alright, so, let’s get started with some more broad questions about the USC Public History Program itself, sort of your time and experience there. What was some of the focus of your graduate study? What areas did you really hone in on?

John Sherrer: Do you want me to give my information first, name, rank, all that?

WM: Please.

JS: Alright, John Sherrer, Director of Cultural Resources of Historic Columbia. Graduated in December 1998 with my Masters in Public History and a Museum Certificate from McKissick Museum.

JS: My focal areas in the Public History Program were really concentrated both in the museum management side of things and also in the historic preservation side of things, and that stemmed from prior experience before coming to USC in which I worked at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Drayton Hall site as well as at Old York Historical Society in York, Maine, and Strawberry Bank Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. So really the one thing I didn’t have was any kind of archival experience. I didn’t have any kind of archives classes or anything like that. While I was there, of course, the strength to the program has been that it is a master’s in history with concentrations in the field of public history, but I felt very, very committed to getting the graduate certificate from McKissick because I felt that was key to balancing out the master’s degree because at that time there weren’t as many museum or material culture studies. And at that time there were also the classes in art history in terms of architecture and so forth were very sporadic because of a transition in the professors.

WM: Right, thank you. It sounds like you had some museum experience and historic preservation prior to coming. You mentioned archival, is that a specific part of the program that actually brought you here? The archival track?

JS: No, not at all. The archival track was something I just kind of learned about after I had already gotten in. My interest was museums that I primarily had been working in, historic sites, and the preservation aspect of it. In terms of the program, was something that went hand in glove with what I had already done as far as the career work is concerned. You know, of course, the Public History Program was one that I thought was very, very strong. At the time, it was incredibly well-balanced and it made a lot of economic sense. It was the best, I felt, investment for your money. One of the things that I was very keen on was to make sure that I had a graduate assistantship that actually was applicable to what I was doing. So that was important, and also to diversify my internships to make up for any type of potential shortfalls the program might offer. The nice thing was, there was good advisement, there were at that time a lot of different things you could do, places you could go, a lot of graduate assistantships, and that quickly turned on a dime by the late ‘90s when a lot of the assistantships that my friends had were withering as institutions were drawing down to tighten their belts. 

WM: Definitely, you mentioned “at this time,” do you think that has changed now? Is the Masters still as valuable as in ’96 and ’98? 

JS: From what I can tell, the students, at least the ones I’ve come in contact with, are really strong. Now, that might have something to do with the fact that at Historic Columbia, we demand a lot out of our graduate assistants. We expect people who are motivated, who are bright, who are all those things that you look for in the interview. Self-starter, clever, resourceful, so forth and so on. I would say that some of the commonalities in all the people that I have had the benefit of working with is good critical thinking skills. I would say grading out at 95% in terms of being able to write well, there are some people who have come through…wow…not as strong as I would like. That is something that is typically far outbalanced by something else they are exceedingly good at. All that being said, I like the fact that they are strong masters students in history. Public history isn’t history light, it is legitimate history, it is I think a way of approaching history that can be very demanding and it can be very critical to really what it’s all about, and that is the people. If you are looking at community history, local history, national history. The point is you want to be able to both understand the masses, so to speak, and have the masses understand you, and that’s not by any stretch of the imagination, it’s not disparaging traditional historians, but my issue has always been that there needn’t be a gap between public historians and traditional historians.

It is not a turf war. (Laughter) It’s not a matter of who’s better than who else, better than the next person. When I was there in the Public History Program, it was very interesting. During orientation, I thought there was a very self-defeating orientation welcome. I won’t say who welcomed us, but at any rate, it was essentially, well “You are not in this to make money, or to do this or do that, many of you will be challenged to find jobs…” That individual was really, ironically, speaking to the traditional history track, because at that time there was a tendency for students in the Public History Program to find job placement well before they ever finished their thesis. And in some cases that would drag on and some people wouldn’t finish their thesis for years, or in some cases probably a couple didn’t finish their thesis and graduate. That was I think a misplaced welcome. (Laughter)

As I said before, I’ve seen the public history field grow, obviously since 1998. I’ve seen the programs that offer public history really explode exponentially. Seems like everyone is trying to get into the game. I’ve also seen where doctoral students are taking public history as one of their fields of study, which I think is very validating, and I think it speaks to the fact that you can have the marriage between traditional history, academic history some people call it, and public history. 

WM: Definitely, really good points. You mentioned that there needn’t be this distance disparagement between Masters and PhD. Did you sense any of this tension during your time? 

JS: On occasion, but oddly enough, I think a lot of that distance so to speak was definitely shortened during my time there because some of my closest friends were traditional historians, a couple of whom were in their PhD programs. There was a lot of cross-pollination. There were actually PhD students who ended up marrying (laughs) master’s students in public history. Clearly there were some bridges established. (Laughter) But yeah, I was always kind of, I just remember that being the case. Seeming to be more of an issue, maybe in prior classes.

Some students I came in contact with, I don’t know what the lay of the land is like now, in terms of between traditional and public historians. I think, or I know that the Public History Program at USC is a very different beast than what it was when I was there. I know that not long after they switched to a portfolio platform, and I think that is a good thing. I think there was a lot of positive to that move. I think it was certainly helpful, the idea behind the portfolio and the thesis was to write a monograph that would be potentially one that could be published in a journal was very different from what I did when I wrote my thesis. It was holistic and comprehensive, and probably tedious for some people because it was so long, so it’s the other side of the spectrum. But, yeah. 

WM: What deterred you from going after the PhD? 

JS: I had already been in graduate school before, I had a masters in English, and it was after that masters from English, or actually I should say during it, that rather than wanting to go into teaching English or communications, and the corporate field or whatever. I ended up landing an internship with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I realized all that history that I had loved and nurtured that I didn’t think about pursuing as a career what really important, and I said, hey, this is incredible, I would really like to be in Museums. I was able to finish my masters in English and ended up working at the Smithsonian briefly as an intern, and then working at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was at the National Trust in Charleston that I realized that the economy was really bad. It was 1994 and you needed more than just a couple of jobs in Charleston at that pay grade to sustain yourself.

I ended up moving to New England. Moved to Maine and worked as an Elizabeth Perkins Fellow at the Old York Historical Society, which is now called the Museums of Old York. After that continued working part time in museums, and actually did social work while desperately looking for full time museum employment. Time and time again I would get rejection letters saying it is great that you have experience at the National Trust and the Smithsonian and other institutions and that you balance museums with historic preservation, but you really do need, we fell to be competitive, to secure a masters in History or Public History or Archaeology or rather Anthropology or related field. And I thought, oh my gosh, going back to school if I had planned this better, I probably would be going for a PhD.

The funny thing was, I came back to Columbia, which was my hometown in the Spring of ’95 just to visit family and friends, and at that time, dropped by USC, it was Spring Break, it was a ghost town, there was one person in Gambrell Hall. There was one light on, literally the hallways were dark oddly enough, but there was one light on, and who would that be but Connie Schulz in her office and she invited me and, at the time my girlfriend, Mary who is not a public historian in her own right and my wife. Before we knew it, we had it all planned out. We knew when we were going to apply for the program, and fast-forward to Spring or rather August of 1996, I came back to my hometown, which I would have never fathomed in doing. But it’s been great, I’ve stayed with Historic Columbia since then because of the opportunities that the Public History Program afforded me at the time because of the work that I did at Historic Columbia was of a good enough quality that I was able to parlay that into successively greater jobs here, and expand my projects and my responsibilities. 

WM: I noticed your thesis was streamlined well into this, so was there something Connie said on that fateful night that really influenced you to go after this public history degree? 

JS: I think some of it of course was her enthusiasm for the program, she clearly believed in it, and still does. She had a vision, and you could tell that she had a good handle on both where I had been, where Mary had been, and how the Public History Program at that time could propel us to the next step. And then honestly, when we started looking at the numbers, it made more sense for us to move back to South Carolina, for me back to South Carolina, and secure a graduate assistantship. The tuition was very affordable; the abatement was very strong. The graduate assistantship paid well enough that it made more sense to go back to graduate school at that time. Looking at some of the other programs in history, or in public history, it would have been cost prohibitive and the return on investment would have taken a great deal of time to pay off student loans and what not. 

WM: Definitely, Connie obviously was very influential.

JS: Yeah. 

WM: Do you have any other influential professors? 

JS: Oh yeah, at that time it was Connie and Bob. They were the two heads of the program, and also as I said, I did receive my graduate certificate for McKissick, at that point Lynn Robertston and George Terry were professors. Of course, Lynn was the executive director of McKissick, and so they offered a really well thought out and balanced curriculum there. There was a spree décor so to speak, I got a lot out of the traditional history classes I was taking. There were a lot of very talented professors. I’ll tell ya, one of the hardest classes I ever took was from Mark Smith, and he is just a few months older than I am. It was like intellectually going into a fifteen round boxing match, but he always knew how to get the most out of the students. I loved that class; it was a great reading seminar.

Ed Beardsley, he was the head of a great writing seminar. There were a number of other professors that I think about time and time again as to how they influenced the way I approached history, the questions I asked, the inclusivity, in thinking about others from their perspective as opposed to others from my perspective, which is cool. Yeah, to say that there was just one person that led us to it, is maybe initially, but it was being involved with a really talented faculty that were motivated, that had I think, a real passion for what they were doing, and believed in the department. And then, having classmates who were, some of whom were really, really gifted. All of whom were gifted, but some were really gifted. You’ll be sitting on and go “I’m not sure if I should be in this class with this person, this person has it really going on, maybe if I say a little bit I will be able to contribute, but ill just listen and get smarter.”

My greatest lament was honestly that I graduated right before Dr. Katherine Grier, Kasey Grier, she kind of became part of the triumvirate so to speak. I did an audit on one of her classes after graduation. I was able to sit in and kind of glean her knowledge and expertise, and I thank that the students coming out of the program during her time, certainly benefitted from that coverage in the field, so you had Bob and Connie and Kasey Grier. Worked with Kasey on a lot of projects including those that involved students in the Public History Program and at McKissick. I think all of the Bob, Connie, and Kasey, and Allison now certainly, see Historic Columbia as a public history laboratory. It is a natural place for people to go for a variety of training, whether it is in historic preservation advocacy, to some degree bricks-and-mortar preservations, museum management, museums collections management, research, museum education, even museum administration, marketing, so forth and so on.

The strength in the University of South Carolina being so close, and Historic Columbia having an unwavering commitment to the program has been I think, mutually beneficial. I know that during my time here I try to give back as much as I can by making myself as available to the students. Getting people here as volunteers or weekend staff or interns, graduate assistants, because I feel like that placement helps tremendously what you are getting out of the textbook, what you are getting out of the classroom experience, and sometimes their consistent and congruent, other times you are like “oh, here is all that theory, here is how it really plays out” when you have having to deal with things that are not necessarily cut and dry and easy like the public. Putting the public in public history can be very interesting to say the least. (Laughter) 

WM: You mentioned Allison, Connie, Bob, Kasey. Four very different leaders throughout the history of South Carolina’s master’s program. Do you see any significant differences in their leadership and where the program has gone today? 

JS: I think each one in their own right, obviously like anybody or any institution has their strengths, has their interests, you’ve got kind of Allison coming on as someone who as far as her career is concerned, where she is, she is more like where I am. As where Connie and Bob, and certainly Kasey were that generation once removed. The continuity lies in the fact that there was a genuine commitment to the students. There was an awareness of trends in the field. Each individual professor remained up to date. They were always looking out for their students; they were always encouraging their students to become involved in various professional organizations. They had and still do have an incredible network of contacts. That is something that pays in dividends as far as being able to say, “Oh, you are interested in this type of history or this type of museum experience, or historic preservation here and there.” And they can literally go, “Oh, this student graduated in such and such and he or she might be able to help you out.”

Since being at Historic Columbia, we have had students both in public history as well as traditional history who have sent us undergraduates and graduates for internships as far away as Iowa. As far away as, actually we have had multiple people from Iowa. Kind of interesting, we have this like pipeline, but really all over the board. The joke is that, if you looked deep enough into the past since 1975 or so, you would be hard pressed not to find someone in the Public History Program or in the museum field who hasn’t done something with Historic Columbia. It’s kind of like seven degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, or whoever that dude, whatever. I am not making the illusion very well. (Laughter)

I think the point is, the same thing can certainly be said with the public history field. I am always impressed with going to professional conferences be is AASLH or NCPH, more often or not there is some type of happy hour or social gathering where alumni can get together, and I will see people I know, but then I’ll see a whole bunch of people that I don’t necessarily know because they graduated after I did, or they had a different concentration or didn’t have experiences with Historic Columbia. It is always amazing to see where they have gone, we are incredibly well placed as far as where the graduates have ended up. I think that speaks volumes not just to their capabilities, but really the passion of the professors and the strength at that time of the program. 

WM: Definitely, each have a different background. Between Kasey, Connie, Bob, and Allison – Museums, preservation, archives, do you think their personal backgrounds shaped how they direct the program? 

JS: Of course, to some degree, Bob was preservation advocacy, Kasey was material culture studies, Connie is archives, and then of course Allison is science and technology among other things. So, there are those interests that each one of the professors have that I think allowed them to be specialized in those disciplines, in those fields of study, but be that as it may, they still have a strong foundation of history in general, and of the public history field. You don’t have a lopsidedness or a one dimensionality by any means, that is important because there will be students who come in and like, “I’m really interested in environmental history or I’m interested in this or military history.” And okay well professor A says, “I’m not a military historian, however there are some very good places here locally in Columbia and elsewhere that we can craft some type of experience for you, I’ll be able to shape the public history expression of it and perhaps we can put you in contact with one of the traditional history professors. Here is your baseline, foundationally you need this type of experience to achieve a respectable knowledge of this era or these people or whatever, and that now that you have this knowledge, let’s see how we can craft that so that it finds expression in perhaps a management document or an exhibit or an educational program or an awareness campaign so forth and so on.” 

WM: Definitely, okay. Going back to your long and really stellar career with Historic Columbia.

JS: We will go with long. (Laughter) 

WM: And the relationship you have built with South Carolina. Being a graduate assistant here and seeing so many graduate assistants come through your doors. Have you seen a difference in training? I know you mentioned earlier that they were well-trained. Were there better, worse? 

JS: Good question, I think what you have now is probably the potential and actuality you have it as well, but there is the potential to have a more diversified experience. When we came into the program GIS was not a foreign language. It was Mary Layman, now Mary Sherrer, and Marta Thacker, now Marta Matthews who worked with Bob to establish GIS as a potential foreign language requirement. Or meeting the foreign language needs. I took Spanish. Spanish has been great for me when I’ve done things outside of the museum field, but it hasn’t done anything for me yet in the museum field. At that time, it was Spanish or German or French, so forth and so on. It was the traditional approach to the history masters. That wasn’t helpful. What would have been a better use of my time would have been GIS, I was finishing up just a tad bit before the others so I didn’t have that opportunity. What would have been helpful would be graphic design, something that was computer base, something that I would use every day. I know it sounds very (unintelligible) even Photoshop. Something like that would have been brilliant, or even for that matter web-design. Give me some HTML, whatever. Nowadays there’s greater latitude in what the students can have as far as the language requirement is concerned. I just totally lost my train of thought, I’m sorry. 

WM: I mentioned that, over the GAs that you’ve seen come through your doors over the years, have you seen through them a change in the program, a change in training, and you discussed GIS. 

JS: One of the biggest things is that I’ve seen on several people’s parts a frustration on the fact that they only get one year of graduate assistantship in their field. Because for at least one year their slated to be grading assistants. I understand the rationale that has been put forward by the University. I understand the economic drivers behind it. But in terms of, does a graduate assistant in a public history field benefit from being a grading assistant? A graduate assistant. A teaching assistant, or would it be more beneficial to have one more year of on-the-job training. I would argue it’s much more important to have on-the-job training.

You can come into the program and theoretically if you had that latitude, you could say, “You know what, I’m coming into this, I’ve got two years, I might be here longer, but I want one full year in historic preservation and one full year in museum management. Or one full year in museum curatorial and one full year in museum education or archives, whatever.” You don’t have that choice, you don’t have the benefit of that, and in some cases, this is what I used to be like, if you were a really good graduate assistant then that institution that hired you as a graduate assistant would more than likely want to keep you on.

For instance, I was a graduate assistant as Historic Columbia for two and a half years, and it wasn’t because they couldn’t get rid of me, it’s because I was doing good work and it allowed me to build upon my experiences for each month. At the end of the two- and half-year experience, I had a job, full time job, and was actually hired before graduation. I had already done the teaching in the classroom thing in my masters in English. I had already done the grading. And while that was interesting and helpful for that program at another university. That was for a different type of job, which was intended to be teaching. Public historians teach, they don’t necessarily teach in the classroom. They are not necessarily going to be grading someone’s papers. Public historians typically get a lot of exposure with the public, and it is a more general public, its not just the privileged public who can actually enjoy the benefit of a university or college classroom experience.

I would argue that, and I’m getting on a soap box, I would argue that one of the strengths of the program back then as they say, back in the day, was that you didn’t have that hurdle to jump. Nowadays I think the graduate assistants are challenged because they have, they have to teach, they have to grade for one year, and then they have one year to do a graduate assistantship in their field. I think that does a disservice to the Public History Program. 

WM: That is absolutely true. 

JS: Sorry if I started to change my tone there. (Laughter) 

WM: But no, that is absolutely correct. That’s what I’m looking for. You mentioned earlier that its not that you turned about face, but the methodological, the more traditional academic history. How does that inform the public history degree? Is it a large strength of the program? Or should it be more applied? 

JS: I think that you’ve got to have a foundation in history. You have to be able to learn, you have to be able to write, you have to be able to read, you have to be able to critically think, you have to be able to assemble different perspectives and know the historiography, know the lay of the land before you can ever talk about it informatively, write about it informatively, do a program, do an exhibit, do a website, do a poster, whatever. You have to be able to hold your own as far as the historian’s concern. Because the public, the public comes to museums, comes to historic sites, and they trust what you are saying, so you better get it right, because if you don’t and you just do something slipshod or you’re just ill informed, the public will know that, and then there’s that trust that is broken.

So, yes, maintain the history foundation, but strengthen, strengthen the public history side of things by allowing the graduate students to have more exposure on the job.

Make sure that the graduate assistantships are competitive and that they pay enough to actually sustain the students so that they are not saddled with mountains of debt for a field that quite honestly, is amazing and will fulfill you, it will sustain you in way intellectually and culturally and you typically you won’t go to work with an ulcer, and while you may not be saving lives, you are highly influencing the way lives can be led and enjoyed. The public history field does not necessarily yield high paying jobs.

Although, I have seen where public historians have done very well, and particularly those who go out and do consulting work in the field of historic preservation and that nature. I am a firm believer that if you ever want to be a museum director, you should have a degree in public history, and you should have a good business savvy as well. I’m not necessarily one who’s convinced that someone who can run a corporation in necessarily the right person for museum jobs, and that has been a trend over the past ten to fifteen years in which you have business people without any history background or public history background who come in and try to run a museum, a non-profit like a for profit institution. Sometimes it works, but for the most part I think a lot is lacking. But to answer your question, I would not change the history foundation for the masters in Public History, I think it is a masters in History.

I think that what you will perhaps see over the course of the next decade or so if that more traditional historians who are teaching students in Public History Programs such as USC will themselves will have greater exposure to public history and so they’ll have, they’ll be able to think outside of the textbook, outside of the classroom and as a consequence, their instruction may be one that allows greater cross-pollination. One professor who I never took a class with, and I wish I had, but I’ve had considerable exposure to, and worked with on a couple of major projects, is Tom Brown. Tom Brown, oh my gosh. I mean, Tom Brown, Jessica Elfenbein, individuals like that have taken the fields of traditional history and they have merged that with the public history experience.

They have done so in ways that are compelling, they are fulfilling for their students whether they are undergraduate or graduate. They see Historic Columbia as a public history laboratory, whether we are offering opportunities to collaborate on things as large at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home and Museum of Reconstruction initiative, or the Mann-Simons interpretive upgrades most recently, or projects that involve sites outside of the properties under Historic Columbia’s care. Their just on fire. They are just intellectual dynamos and they have come to appreciate what Historic Columbia can do for their students, so I think that is even further strength in Historic Columbia’s relationship with the University. My graduate assistant, or rather by graduate experience at the University of South Carolina was really unparalleled.

That speaks volumes coming from the position of not only having worked in the field of public history beforehand, but also having already been in a master’s program and having a received a masters from that program Don’t get me wrong, love my alma mater, and I appreciated my masters in English from Clemson University, but that having been said, the University of South Carolina’s Public History program was very meaningful and very fulfilling to me and I think it has been for others. 

WM: You emphasized very heavily experience and applied skills that you inferred that the current master’s students don’t necessarily get, they have to work harder because they are forced to grade. What role to you see the internship playing in the Public History program? 

JS: Internship or graduate assistantship? 

WM: Both. 

JS: The good news with the graduate assistantship for the most part is a longer experience, so theoretically the hosting institution will have an established track, an established job description, they will have an understanding of both what it needs as well as what it can offer the public history students. I tell the graduate assistants when they come in, and have for every year since I’ve been out, you are a graduate assistant and while you are not a formal employee of Historic Columbia, you better darn comport yourself like this is a full, well not a full time, but your employment situation.

You come in, be ready to work, don’t be late, don’t lag behind, you will be amazed at what you will get in return if I see that you are motivated, and that you are thoughtful and you see all the craziness going around and you’re able to somehow improve whether it’s a project or working environment, then those are the skills, those are the characteristics that I will pull out and amplify and let potential employees know when you are coming to me asking for a recommendation letter to maybe a PhD program or any type of employment.

We have had graduate student who, honestly, I wish I had this huge slush fund because I would have an army of students, former students from USC, and easily there are twenty of them that right off the bat, I am like, yes, she was the best preservationist in this aspect, this person was absolutely fantastic when it came to collections management. This person would be tremendous in preservation advocacy. This one would be great for exhibits. The fact that the Public History Program does produce really, really strong students is a tribute or a testament rather to the professors and to the spirit of the program of the department. It also speaks to how the are nurtured once they get to their various placements.

Internships that can be hit or miss, sometimes and I’m not speaking for us so much, but if you’re a graduate student, if you know you can come to Historic Columbia and you’ve had ten, fifteen, twenty years of saying, “yeah it’s the best thing, go work with this person, he or she will, really tailor your experience so you get the most out of it.” Then that is one thing, but it might be an entirely different thing is one says, “I am really interested in being geographically interested in this place, and you go to an unknown. Could turn out very well, could turn out not to well, but I think there is still an experience there where you can go,” okay, how was your graduate internship for the summer?” “It was horrible, why was it horrible? “These are all the reason.” Okay well the how as a potential internship coordinator or supervisor one year, how would you do it differently? You would have a laundry list of things that say, okay, well five years down the road you could be hosting someone and remember how bad your experience was or perhaps how good your experience was, and then improve that for that student. 

WM: Various experiences can really, yeah (laughter). Given your background and experience, your master’s in English and the Museum Certificate you got here at South Carolina. A lot of students come here and see either historic preservation or museum studies. Do you think they should be so divided? You very much mixed them. 

JS: I think what would be good is perhaps, when students come to USC to kind of smoke over the program, see what it’s all about before they have committed, they are doing their visits, their various potential graduate programs understand that yes while you can very rigid and parochial tracks, then okay I am just doing historic preservation and it’s going to be compliance work. What does that mean? Well that means that you would be doing this much in a much larger span of historic preservation jobs, or “I really want to do just registration work in museums.” Okay, well how does that effect all the other experiences you could have. I think it’s much more important when you say, alright, more than likely you might end up at an institution that is not unlike Historic Columbia where you are so many things to your community that you have to be a very good generalist.

You can certainly have specific and intentional training in various museum administration tasks and fields, as well as historic preservation, but you’re also going to have to speak informatively about maybe section 106 compliance, but also tax credits, or where to turn when someone says, “You know, I’ve got these marble pieces on my house that need to be cleaned, how do you do it or who do you turn to?” Or someone says,” I just inherited my great-great grandmothers whatever, and it needs to be taken care of, I have photographs, textiles, fine art.” All of those things are stuff that you’ll be asked. Realistically the field of public history, the program is one that I think would benefit from potential students saying, “Okay, I get it, depending on how I position myself within the program and within the local community, I could have a very narrow window of training, or I could have a very broad window of training.”

You can kind of weigh the options there, but I have seen that the Public History Program at USC, and probably others elsewhere is, while tis very strong, it can be made so much stronger by the motivation on the part of the student. If he or she wants certain things, yeah you can travel abroad and study, or you can travel abroad and have an internship, you can co-author a book, you can be a co-curator, you can write your own grants and pay your way to go out of region to do your internships. You can work it so that your public history internship and your museum management certificate internship, while they are not the same, can dovetail so that you have a full summer experience and just cranked out nine credit hours. You’ve got to be motivated enough to catch people’s eye, and while your professors may know you, its also very advisable to have those practitioners of public history locally or regionally or whatever get to know you as well. 

WM: When you were a graduate student, did you have the ability to gain more hands on training? What that emphasized greater? 

JS: I certainly had more hand-on training because of the amount of time I spent at my graduate assistantship, but I also knew that as a continuing education student, having already had a master’s, having already been in the field, that I was going to demand to get the most out of the program as I could. If there was an opportunity to do something, I was doing it. That is not always the case with someone who is coming right out of an undergraduate program. In some cases, there are individuals who I have had conversations with and they are like, “Yep, I was a freshman in college and I knew I wanted to be in history and the field of public history.” And I just look at them and I’m like, “That’s awesome, that’s great.” Because when I was a sophomore in college, I didn’t have a clue. I started out as biological sciences as a freshman. Then I almost double majored in English and History, and then a master’s in English, it wasn’t until I was a master’s in English that I really determined what my passion was. I had a career track kind of plan but there was no passion or very little behind it.

So for those individuals who were gifted enough as students, and are I think know themselves well enough, then sometime they can come out of an undergraduate situation and jump into the Public History program and just light it up. There are others than come in and are still trying to find themselves. You know, there are people who have received the master’s in Public History and they’ve not necessarily chosen to be employed in the field of public history. I guess that’s okay too, but for me I think, I’d rather have someone who is, I’d rather people who are in the program understand it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to have graduate studies, and to make the most of your time, and not necessarily, it’s not a place holder. Now, that being said there are some individuals who come through the program, they have worked through the field of public history and worked through other things, maybe they’ve gone through the business world. They may well make some of the best supporters of museums, of preservation entities, organizations, because maybe they’ll serve on a board one day, maybe they’ll be a funder, and they’ll be an informed funder. 

WM: I noticed that you wrote your thesis, it was a comprehensive history of Hampton-Preston Mansion, as you said it was very different than what might be written today? What was the greatest influence on writing your thesis? 

JS: The thing that the, can we pause that for a moment. (Break in interview) 

WM: I apologize for that interruption. 

JS: The rationale behind my choosing the Hampton-Preston as a subject, the Hampton-Preston property as my thesis was kind of separate fold. One, it allowed me to do in-depth research on one of the historic properties, the oldest historic property that Historic Columbia has under its stewardship, notwithstanding the Seibels House, there was a lot of information about the site, there was some misinformation about the site, but there were entire chapters in its history that had gone unwritten really. It allowed me to do research on the historic property, historic structure, but it also allowed me to do a history of how Historic Columbia as an institution evolved over time, came to be involved with the Hampton-Preston Mansion, and how it managed that site for several decades. All those things led up to a point in time analysis, where, okay, “Here we are in October ’98, what should happen in the future?”

So I was able to write essentially a management plan for, in the future, here are the areas, in which Historic Columbia needs to maximize the cultural impact to insure that historic preservation of this historic structure, programming, areas that of the site needed to be explored further, and with that you have a plan, you have a document, you have a strategic plan where you can look at somebody across the table and say, “Of all of these properties under our care, I have a prospectus for the management of this site, and its one that can be used as an example, and as a template for the management of other properties.

That was a pretty empowering thing, writing that thesis allowed me to work with historic photographs, maps, oral history, archives, so really everything that the Public History program is about in terms of its various disciplines, I was able to apply to a document that actually, oddly enough, become very popular in particular among people who were volunteers at Historic Columbia, who gave tours of the property, my thesis was printed out ad nauseam, and they received copies of it here. It also allowed me to use that document as a basis for further study and presentations. It’s not without its flaws, I look back and kind of go, “Oh gosh, okay, fine at that point that’s the way I saw it.” Now, twenty years later, eighteen years later, I’ve got a lot more research that’s been done, and we have done a lot of programming and I probably need to go back and write all of the stuff that we did, so that after my time here is gone, that someone can look back and go, “Oh, okay, this is the history of the site, this is the prospectus for what could happen, and this is what did happen during this staff person’s tenure.” Just have to find time to write it. (Laughter) 

WM: Given your twenty year stay here at Historic Columbia, you have this great intimate connection with South Carolina’s program where do you see their future going, the Public History program in South Carolina? 

JS: I think kind of like many others who have come through the program, are just kind of waiting to see exactly how the program will weather some of the challenges that the department, that the school of arts and sciences at the University has before it. I think we are all intensely proud of the professors that we have worked with, I think we believe in the product, I think there have been times where perhaps some of the people who saw it, years before some of the changes, are a little befuddled as to why some of the changes were made. Not that the grass is greener, way back when, “The way we used to do it,” but there was definitely been some positive changes, the new staff that have come on, the new faculty rather, and the expansion of opportunities.

There have been some incredible trips, that I can’t even imagine. I would have loved to have been able to stay in Guantanamo Bay project, that’s great, that’s amazing, and that is just one among so many. I think the Public History Program certainly, its relevancy is intact, and I think its legacy is one to be respected, to be revered. People know USC through its students, through its professors, and through the professional affiliations that have, particularly in giving papers at conferences and things of that nature. Going back to where do I see it going, I’d love to be able to predict, I’d love to be able to influence it, I’d love to be able to say, “Look at the long term as opposed to the short term.” Connie Schulz always liked to use the phrase that she picked up throughout her extensive travels in England, “don’t be pennywise and pound foolish.” The USC Public History Program has historically been a very good investment. It’s been a good investment for the students, the professors, and the communities it serves, and I hope the University of South Carolina, on the large scale, realizes what the program has done for the larger community. It would be wise to support it in lasting in substantial ways. 

WM: Absolutely, so would you say the master’s in Public History has only increased in value over time? Would you say its diminished with changing outside influences? 

JS: At least for me, from my perspective, and the student that I’ve come in contact with, it’s been increasing in its value. I think that if there were certain changes that had not been made, for instance such as the graduate assistantship change so that you have to be in the classroom grading papers, I think that it could have blossomed even further. That being said, I think there are a lot of talented students coming through the program, their numbers have waned over the past couple of years for a variety of reasons, and that is somewhat of a concern, but I think it’s also a reflection of the smaller number, the fewer graduate assistantships out there. There needs to be greater financial carrots for students, to be competitive, USC has to be smart in how it recruits its students. There is a lot more competition, we are not the only, and we are not the biggest fish and we are not the only fish anymore. There are lots of different programs that other students could take. 

WM: You mentioned community, what role do you think the Public History program plays in representing the University to the broader community? 

JS: I was always very aware of the fact that as a graduate assistant, I was representing both the program as well as the University. I would hope that most graduate assistants come in with that kind of professional attitude. That they are, their actions, while they are their own actions, nonetheless reflect who they associate with, be they their fellow students or professors who are teaching them, of course the department. I think that the University, you’re talking about the local community, I think there is a great value in what the program does.

I look at a lot of the historic preservation work, the development on Main Street, the impact that students, former students, from the Public History Program had, had particularly at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and the State Historic Preservation Office on the local level, Columbia City Planning, historic preservation planning services, I see individuals who are involved in cultural resource management and the private sector, and then of course throughout the museum field at historic sites, traditional museums, you name it. There is a huge impact. The community whether its Columbia or another locality or the state or the region, arguably, throughout the nation, when they see someone with a degree from Carolina, I think they are fully aware that this is a quality program. It’s incumbent upon the department, incumbent upon the College of Arts & Science to make sure that the legacy remains intact and that this is not a program that is just an ancillary expression of the History Department. 

WM: It is already 10:09, I want to thank you for your time. 

JS: Hey, you’re welcome. 

WM: I appreciate your contribution to our project. 

JS: Thank you. 

WM: Thank you! 

JS: Thanks Will, I appreciate it.

End of Interview