Nathan Stalvey

Return to Interviews

Interviewee: Nathan Stalvey
Interviewer: Moira Church
Date: September 27, 2016
Accession #: PHP 028
Length of Recording: 52:35
Sound Recording
Summary

Nathan Stalvey graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2002 with a BA in History. He then went on to receive his Master’s in Public History in 2005, also from the University of South Carolina. After graduating, he continued to work at the McKissick Museum where he had conducted his graduate assistantship as Curator of Temporary Exhibitions and Design. In 2010, he left the McKissick museum to become the exhibitions director/curator at the Louisville Slugger Museum. He is currently the director of the Clarke County Historical Association. Interview includes discussion of how Stalvey became interested in public history, his assistantship at the McKissick Museum, the interplay between his assistantships and museums coursework, the benefits of receiving a museums management certificate, and the need for better grant-writing and fundraising training. Stalvey also discussed his thesis, the relevancy of the England Field School, regionalism as a strength of UofSC’s Public History Program, and the differences between working at non-profit and for-profit institutions.

 

Keywords

Assistantships and Internships | Curators | England Field School | Grant Writing | Louisville Slugger Museum | McKissick Museum | Museum Studies

 

Transcript

Moira Church: This is Moira Church and it is September 27th, 2016. I am interviewing Nathan Stalvey for USC Public History Program Archive. We are conducting this interview via Skype. To start off how did you end up at USC and what drew you to Public History.

Nathan Stalvey: I hope you don’t mind some long winded answers.

MC: Of course not.

NS: I came to the University of South Carolina to finish my undergraduate degree in history in the year 2000. At the end of 2000, I started thinking that, — Oh my, I’m getting ready to get a degree in history and I don’t want to teach — where does that lead me, what do I do? I was put in touch with the — at the time, she was ahead of the museum studies focus of the public history program. Her name was Dr. Kathyrn Greer. She got me set up with an internship at the University of South Carolina’s McKissick museum, where I worked at the exhibitions department. That was my internship there. Honestly, within one week I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That — I just knew. It was sixteen years ago and it really has not deviated at all from that. I just knew — It was a way to connect history to people. I love talking and I love presenting history in an engaging way. I  really — I’m very passionate about how important history plays in our society and how important it is for people to understand and know their history being the local history, national history, world history.

To be able to do that through exhibitions, through programs and through collections, there is just nothing like it. After, I fell in love with the internship — Dr. Greer convinced me to apply to the public history program. That’s why I then met Dr. Connie Schulz, Dr. Bob Weyeneth, and just fell in love with the program — it was there in South Carolina, I was living there and it was a chance for me to study and learn under Dr. Greer and the other professors, which I enjoyed very much. Never not a day gone by where I’m not thankful that I got that public history degree from the University of South Carolina.

I’ve made a great career out of it — I am now a museum director. I’m making some major, major — making a major difference in this community around here since I’ve become director and making some really amazing programs, doing some much needed upkeep to our store properties, doubling our membership.  It’s just — I’m getting people interested. That’s my goal is to get people interested in history and make sure that they always respect it and appreciate it.

MC: You mentioned your graduate assistantship at the McKissick Museum. How beneficial do you think that that was to your coursework at the time and then to your eventual career?

NS: I can not stress enough how critical that graduate assistantship was to both of that — to the coursework and to my career. I just — that’s something that I’ve imparted to the many, many graduate and undergraduate students I’ve worked with since. Even the ones that I have here at the Clarke County Historical Association. It’s one thing to take the courses — they’re very helpful — the classes they’re very, very helpful — they teach you a lot but that hands on graduate assistantship — you can get that chance to work at a museum, to see what it is like to be around the objects and you’re around the exhibitions — to learn from people who’ve been in the field.  There is no substitute for that. That really helped me more than anything else I think. That really, really helped me because it prepared me. It really prepared me for the job market out there.

Once I sat down and wrote my resume — when I started right towards the end of my — right before I was about to graduate with my master’s — I sat down and wrote my resume and was just ecstatic on how much I was able to do it — how much I’ve learned in such a short period of time. It does go hand and hand with what you’re learning in the classes but those graduate assistantships — I can not stress enough how vital that was in helping me. It set me up…it gave me a solid foundation to build my career off of. As a result, I’ve been very fortunate to have some very, very good museum jobs.

MC: Just on a more general level, what is your opinion of specialized graduate education in general? How useful do you think that your degree and then the — I saw you got the certificate in museum management — how useful do you think that those have been?

NS: I think there’s a bit also that’s been very helpful. Also, I start with the certificate in museum management first. I debated…to be honest with you. I really debated whether or not I wanted to get that on top of that public history degree. The best way I knew to help me figure out that decision was to talk to people in the field. I talked to a number of people in the field at the time and this was back in 2001…2002. It was sort of a mixed bag…half says, “No, you don’t really need it.” The other half says, “Yes, I got it and it was very helpful.” What was interesting was the half that said, “Yes, I really needed it.” Those were people who were directors, full curators, full collections managers. Most of the people who did not get it were assistant curators, assistant registrars — they were still in the museum field but at a level just slightly lower than what I was hoping for.

That kind of convinced me to get that certificate on top of the public history degree. The public history degree itself — I wouldn’t be able to get a job in the museum field without that. There is just no way. At this day and age in the museum field, if you don’t have that master’s — you’re not — the likelihood of you getting a job are just slim to none. I’ve talked to a number of people who have tried to get museum jobs, even though they’ve had some experience…they’ve tried to get some museum jobs and have lost out to those with the master’s degrees and the experience.

Does that kind of answer your question a little bit…if not, let me know how I can describe a little bit more…

MC: Yeah. Well, I guess getting in more specific than at USC. Were there any courses or professors that you think were really influential or had been really helpful in your career since?

NS: Since I graduated you said?

MC: Yeah. Since you’ve graduated.

NS: I would say…Dr. Kathryn Greer absolutely. She was — she believed in me — she saw how much I enjoyed it. After graduation, she was always somebody I could count on to pick her brain sometimes about maybe a dilemma I had at the museum or just to bounce my ideas off her — that was very helpful. I didn’t have a lot of classes with Dr. Weyeneth and Dr. Schulz because then Dr. Schulz was on the archives track and Dr. Weyeneth was on the preservation track. My track was museum and I didn’t really have a lot of coursework with them. I did have one class with Dr. Schulz and that was my methodology class, which I enjoyed very much. I learned a lot from that.

After graduation, I did stay in touch with them to work with them on getting students interested in the public history program and bringing people in. I would say that my thesis advisor was somebody who was very helpful for me but she was not in the public history program. She was in the history program but she had a deep interest in museums and she was also somebody — her name was Dr. Jessica Kross and she was also somebody who was very influential and sort of helping me find that path on what I wanted in my career after I graduated and Dr. Greer was the same way.

You’re talking just professors…am I correct?

MC: Yeah. Or just if there were any courses where you found the coursework to be specifically helpful.

NS: Oh yes. Without a doubt, the museum classes and the museum studies program were the most influential classes. At the time, I took and it may still be the same but at the time, I had museum management… introduction to museum management…,which was taught by Lynn Robertson — the then director of McKissick Museum. That’s — interestingly enough, while after graduation didn’t help me as much because as a curator later in my career I started falling back on a lot of that that I learned in that class as I got higher and higher in my career. Once I became director — suddenly, I look back on it — like wow that’s, all that was very, very helpful to me and I was very glad to retained all that and to have that coursework cause there were a lot that was taught in that class that is incredibly relevant to what I do now — especially, as a director cause you need to know how to administer a museum, collections, education programs, exhibitions.

The collections management course was also very helpful. At the time, it was taught by Dr. Karen Swager — collections manager at the McKissick Museum. The exhibitions development class, I think, was equally as helpful as the museum administration class because I wanted to go into museum exhibitions — that is what I wanted to focus on. I didn’t want to do collections management so much, even though I ended up doing that later in my career. I wanted to focus on exhibitions. Building something from the ground up, utilizing collections for display for the public, telling a story through artifacts, and that’s where I really wanted to work on. That course really, really was phenomenal because the goal of the course at the time was…okay, the class is broken up into four groups of four people each. Each group has the semester to develop a full exhibition proposal…you need to come up with objects, you need to come up with layout, graphics, texts, design — knowing what your…our target audience is. It was…I learned so very much in that class. By the time it was all done we had these full exhibits proposals. I mean we’re talking really thick exhibit proposals that we put together and presented. I learned a great deal of information…not just from the content but how to work with a group. That taught me really that museums…in the museum field, you really, really need to know how to work with other people.

That class really taught me how to do that. That has been especially helpful ever since I graduated because everywhere I’ve gone the museum staff has been small…we all have to wear many hats. We all have to carry the load. Our curator is nothing but a catch off or everything man or everything woman. A curator really does do a lot of stuff and it’s the same thing now as a director. I’m not just simply a director…I’m the curator….I’m the collections manager….I’m the educator…I’m the marker…I’m the fundraiser and that course really taught me how to work with other people and how to manage staff and how to play at everybody’s strengths and get everybody to work well together.

MC: Then I guess how did the utility of your coursework compare to your experience at McKissick Museum?

NS: I’m sorry, can you repeat that again?

MC: How do you think that the utility of your coursework in classes compared to your time working in the McKissick Museum in your assistantship?

NS: I think it went hand in hand. Especially the exhibitions development class…because my graduate assistantship was putting together a nationally traveling exhibition from scratch — having from the very first day to by the time I graduated the exhibition was ready to go to open at McKissick and then travel across the country. Putting this 2800 square foot exhibit together with objects, finding the objects, the images, designing casework, designing a way out, everything about it and the coursework really taught me that and the collections management too — how to do condition reporting, how to care and handle the artifacts. The museum management — how to market it, how to do contract agreements and contract negotiations. Those were the things that were incredibly helpful as I was doing my assistantship.

The methodology class as well — how do you research, how do you –what material culture, how do you really begin research on something, especially something that may not have a lot of existing research to begin with. The course that…in my opinion…the course that I think I enjoyed but stressed out about the most was my material culture class. It was the hardest class I think I ever taken but it was the class I learned more than anything else. That class was very relevant through my assistantship cause it taught you how to look at objects…not just simply — here’s an object, let me tell you the history of the object. No, material culture taught me how to look at it, how to interpret it, what’s its primary and secondary function or tertiary, how is it utilized, how is it marked, is it gender specific — asking the right questions about an artifact. That class really, really helped me. To be honest, I remember going into that class thinking — this is a cakewalk — I’ve got this — this was taught by Dr. Greer — I love museum exhibits — this is gonna be the easiest A, I’ve ever gotten. That first paper got an A, feeling great — yeah, this is great. Second paper, not so much. Third paper, not so much. The rest of the class it was the same.

What was in there was some really great colleagues and we were all — oh my goodness, this was harder than we thought it was. By the end it really sinks in — all that research, all that understanding on what you’re supposed to do in — it suddenly sinks in and you get it — you understand what material culture is and end up getting an A in the class and I loved it and my colleagues did too. We learned so much about that and we will forever identify with the objects that we had to do the research on. Mine was the transit radio — one guy was the vending machine — another guy was the greeting card.

MC: Now that you have a career in public history…is there anything that you wished that you had learned or anything that you wished that you had been more strongly emphasized while you are at USC?

NS: Grant writing and fundraising absolutely. That is probably the thing that I wished I would’ve learned more of. While I’m very fortunate to be where I’m at, I can always be better. That’s why I’ve  strived that I can always be better and I wished I would’ve learned more of that. I have written some successful grants — some small ones but I really relied on the assistance of other people who had done that before rather than really taking a course on grant writing and how to do research on grants and how to get them, what to look for, how to put them together. Also, fundraising — how do you get people to donate to your museum, how do you get people to — to be honest, that’s sustainability. That’s the best way to sustain the museum is through donations and fundraising.

That was something I wished that I could’ve learned more. Again, you have to remember I graduated eleven years ago, maybe the curriculum has changed since then but at the time, that was not something — grant writing was briefly covered in a small segment in one class. I think a full class on grant writing would be more beneficial I think.

MC: Did you apply for any of the individual research grants when you were here? Or that just wasn’t something that you did when you were here?

NS: I applied for some — I applied for two…let me start back. I applied for two major NEH grants — National Endowment Humanity grants. I was a part of the team that did that…it was for that big traveling exhibit I mentioned earlier, the one I did as a graduate assistant. We didn’t get either one…not for lack of trying. I thought the grants were great and even looking back at it years later, I look at those grants and I still think they’re great. It just was not deemed at the time worthy of funding by the NEH. We tried a planning grant, we tried an implementation grant — we didn’t get either. I’m trying to remember if it was after graduation or before but I remember writing my first successful grant…it was a small South County Humanities grant that I did…oh no, there was one I did write. I did write when I did an internship at the Elloree Heritage Museum. That was one of my — that was my first summer in grad school.

I did an internship down there at Elloree, South Carolina. I wrote a small South County Humanities grant to acquire collection archival material. That was the first successful grant I’ve ever wrote. Actually, it was the first grant I’ve ever wrote myself and put together myself.  We were able to secure the funds for that. I was very happy for that. I did do that one while I was there. There were a couple of others I was a part of right before I graduated or right after when I was still at McKissick Museum. Again, small grants to help with exhibitions. That we were small exhibitions that we were doing at the University of South Carolina.

MC: You said that you did learn a little bit about grant writing in one of your classes…I guess could you talk a little bit more about what they did teach you about grant writing and then how that has been insufficient I guess in your sense?

NS: Yes. It was again — it was in a methodology class. There was just — in a methodology class, it’s supposed to be your intro, your basics — here’s all the things to learn, your learning material culture, you learning a little bit about collections and a little bit about preservation, a little bit about archives and how to do research — back then it was a little bit of everything. The one segment that was on grant writing, it was a very — it was just one class discussion. It was here are places you can go to look for grants. To be honest I have to think about what it was, it was so brief. It didn’t teach you how to write grants. It just taught you that grant writing is what you museums need to get a lot of programs, exhibitions, and things like that together. There are organizations — big ones and small ones but how to write a grant. What’s the difference between in-kind…what is an in-kind cost share? That was something that wasn’t covered. What do you have to match…how are funds supposed to be used? What do you do if you do get a grant…what kind of paper do you have to submit into show you’re using the funds correctly?

A lot of that wasn’t covered. It was just very, very basic grant writing, good for museums — here are some names of organizations — go to their websites and find out more of…here’s this organization… website that you can list a lot of organizations that do grant writing.  Here’s a copy of some successful grants…that was really about it. I remember there was one girl in my class who was…who had worked at a grant writing organization…a grant funding organization and she was a little upset that so much was not discussed. She said — there’s so much more to this that we really can’t discuss in my class — it really needs to be a whole semester. I think — like I said it was just one small segment — it was grossly insufficient. Given that museums don’t compete against each other for funds as much as they compete against everything else. Museums aren’t competing against one or the other to get people in the door — they’re competing against other modes of entertainments.

Other charities. How do you convince people that their time and money is worthy of coming to your museum — donations, fundraising, grant writing, things like that…how can you convenience grant funding organizations that your museums needs these funds more than say this other non-profit organization, it was a struggle to get some grants written and just to sometimes identify them. Yes, it was definitely insufficient. They just had one section of one class devoted to grant writing. It’s just so important I think.

MC: To change the subject a little bit…could you talk a little bit about your thesis…

NS: Sure.

MC: …and then how you came to your thesis topic and I guess how you think that your thesis or writing — the process of writing the thesis has been useful or how it hasn’t been useful?

NS: My master’s thesis had nothing to do with museums. [Laughs] It was something that was interesting to me. I had always been a kind of person that — I’ve always wanted to understand how different people believe — how do they — in different religions, what do they believe, why do they believe it and why do people — what matters to them — every religion and I just…I just find it fascinating. I don’t think one religion is right or wrong. I just love to see how people believe and that’s it began when I was younger. I was thirteen and I was raised in Pentecostal Holiness Church. I just thought that’s how all churches work.

Then I was invited to a Catholic mass at Christmas, which couldn’t have been night and day different…anymore night and day different and that was the door that first, — oh wow, I had no idea…I want to learn more. Once, I got into grad school and started learning more — I loved Colonial American history. I absolutely love Colonial American history, specifically in everyday life. What did people do, where did they go, what did they eat, what did they have in their house — everyday life by just the common person. Part of that was what did they believe and where did they go to church? I was curious about the first great awakening and there’s tons and tons  and tons written on the first great awakening — late 1730s to 1740s.

Everything is written and nothing was mentioned about what was going on in South Carolina…or the Carolinas… in general. I wanted to delve into that — why not. There was definitely an area near Charleston that was right before to take off to this great religious awakening to really take off but it didn’t…why? There’s nothing written on that. That allowed me to go through a lot of primarily documents — old SPG letters from the 1720s and 30s. To me it was fascinating — it was something that I really learned and I felt like I was contributing to something that hadn’t been done before.

I didn’t do my master’s thesis because I felt it wasn’t going to help me in my museum career at all. I mean there’s not exactly a lot of colonial religious museums around the country…there are some but not many. I did it — that was my master’s thesis focused on that. Two years of it.  I mean that I definitely worked on it two years. I enjoyed it. I really, really enjoyed the research. There were times like I felt like I was gonna hit a wall but I got through it. Suddenly, I would find another document or I would find another source that would point me into another direction.

So, yeah. That was my master’s thesis. Did it help me in my museum field…not at all. It did help me get my master’s degree, which that helped me get into the museum field but aside from that it didn’t really help me in my museum career.

MC: I guess…first, why then — why did you decide to do your master’s thesis on something different and then not something on museums? Then, second…what do you think the utility is or the usefulness for you has been of writing the thesis…was this kind of satiate a curiosity, or…

NS: To answer the latter question, I think a lot of it was to satiate a curiosity. As I delved into more, the more fascinating it became. There was some really interesting stories that I came across that were wow — who knew that people did this in the 1740s. It was — well, at the time, I basically — I know most graduate students, a lot of them don’t know what they’re gonna do their thesis on until at least a year done. I figured it out within the first couple of weeks. That’s what I wanted to do. I took the — I took a colonial history…it was History 701 — it was colonial history reading seminar.

Within the first couple of articles that I read…I was like, — oh yeah, this is what I wanted to do — I’m really curious about that. When I found that nothing had really been done to address what I wanted to do, Dr. Cross was like, — that would definitely be something that would be beneficial because it’s not out there — you would be contributing to something that hasn’t been done before. The actual material culture class, I did give a lot of thought to (Unintelligible 28:30) material culture. I gave it a lot of thought because I said, — well, a colonial religion paper would help me satisfy my requirement. I already done a great deal of research on it.

It’s not gonna be helpful to me…my museum field. I’m not going to be — I’m gonna be managing  exhibitions. I wanna be — put exhibitions together for the public and there’s just not a lot of call for somebody who…that’s crying religion in South Carolina. Maybe, if I do material culture paper, which is object centered. That might help me get into some doors and some job interviews when I graduate. I sat and I talked to Dr. Cross and I talked to Dr. Greer. Dr. Greer was even saying,  — why are your papers very, very good? — your master’s thesis is further along. She was concerned that I really wouldn’t be able to turn that into the thesis I needed…that I expected.

Or that she expected in just a year. Or less than a year at that point. That’s why I stuck with the (Unintelligible 29:40) religious thesis but a lot of it was satiating a curiosity but it was also contributing something that haven’t been done before in the field of history. Now, that was where I really — that — to tie that into the certificate museum management. That’s probably what really helped me because by getting that certificate in museum management, it gave me more experience. I had to do that six hour fellowship near the end of my…after my second year…after my first year…no, after my second year.

I had to do my museum fellowship, which gave me more experience. Therefore, more on my resume to get these job interviews because like well, — for my thesis can’t cover it then I’ll get the experience and so, here I am using management certificate…taking museum courses, getting that certificate and the additional fellowship on top of the graduate assistantship and the internship. That really set me up for a really nice resume and I did get a few interviews right before I graduated.

MC: While you’re at USC…then, how did you think of the public history program within the larger history program?

NS: I like most public historians thought it was incredibly relevant — that it was history. That you are taking what’s written and turning it into something more. You’re turning it into programs and your exhibits and institutions where they can come in and learn it. It’s one thing to read about it…it’s one thing to hear about it but to see it…to handle it…to smell it…to incorporate all the senses in history that’s…there’s nothing like it. That gets people interested in history. I think it’s a vital, vital, vital part to the history program in general.

I know there were — there was always the dichotomy between the traditional historians and the public historians. The traditional historians would — not all of them, there were some that didn’t think that public history is real history. They are entitled to their own opinion. The traditional historians were more concerned about getting the books out, getting publications, getting articles, teaching…which is great, it’s very, very relevant. There’s more to history than that. If you really want to engage a lot of people, especially a broader audience…that’s what public history comes in.

Chances are the average person that’s gonna come into a history exhibit or a museum is not gonna be the same person that’s gonna go out and buy out a 700 page book on the…on some aspect…on some scholarly aspect of history. While both contributed a lot to history, I think they both need to be together. I think you have to…you can not have one without the other…I really don’t. I think both are very vital to the history field in general.

MC: Were there any big themes that you saw in your graduate study or in the public history program more broadly while you were at USC?

NS: What do you mean by themes?

MC: For example, I interviewed Connie Schulz the other day and she talked a lot about this idea of collaboration between the different departments and between the scholars in the field as well as the graduate students you mentioned…then she talked a lot about kind of this idea of internationality of the public history program with the England field school. I don’t know if there’s anything that you noticed that you thought was kind of another big theme of the program or…

NS: I see what you’re saying. I know that the internationality definitely gives the public history program credit. It gives it some — it definitely helps it stand apart to some other public history programs in the field. It’s an attractive part of it. You’re definitely learning something that you  wouldn’t learn in most other places. Does it help somebody prepare for their career…learning about museum archival techniques in another country…if you’re planning to go there to a foreign country…sure. I haven’t seen that its been that — I haven’t seen too many people do that. Oh, I learned this at the England field school — that’s not to say that it’s not relevant.

I think it’s definitely a good marketing tool and you do really learn a great deal of new information applicable to getting a museum job in say Northern Virginia…probably not. Themes, I would say…give me a second to think…there was the internationality that you mentioned and that was even true when I was there. I don’t know if I would say themes that’s a…I would say definitely Southeastern history. That was the big part that there was so many students that came to the public history program because they were interested in Southeastern history.

It could be the Civil War, it could be the Revolution, it could be the (Unintelligible 35:38). I really think that was part of it. I think that was the…public history did. At the time, they were really trying to collaborate more with the departments, with the Southern studies program, especially with other professors. I know that’s a big, big thing in museums is now is collaboration with academic departments, scholars, and things like that. Collaboration was starting to take off at the time, I think when I was there…when I… after I graduated…the McKissick Museum even brought in a faculty curator to do just that. To be that curator who interacted with…she was the head of the museum studies program and she was the one that would connect with all the other faculty to bring in programs and exhibitions to do that collaboration…to set up that collaboration between McKissick and other faculty members. Yeah, I would say collaboration was definitely starting to take off when I was there. The focus on Southeastern history in general that was…I think at the time that was the big draw. The field school was definitely a big draw but it was more like icing on the cake rather than the primary reasons students wanted to come…getting into the University of South Carolina.

MC: You thought that the regionality was the big draw…so, I guess my question would be then are there a lot of students at the time you were there doing their thesis on specifically South Carolinian history or was it just more broadly Southern history in general or…

NS: It was mostly South Carolina. There was some that kind of delved into the Southeast in general but a lot of it was South Carolina central…centric…I’m sorry. It was (Unintelligible 37:40)…some had to do with Civil War. One had to do with cooking. One had to do with Southeastern folk lining like folk music. A lot of it…it was a little bit of both…I mean it was definitely a lot of South Carolina…Southeastern in general but it was very heavily centered in South Carolina because there was a great deal of resources that are there. You got South Caroliniana library. The resources materials in the southern studies program. Thomas Cooper and then, the Archives and History. South Carolina Archives and History in the state library.

You’re surrounded by a wealth of resources to help you do that research. Now, if you wanted to come to the University of South Carolina’s public history program and do a master’s thesis on say…tribes of Southeastern Alaska during the 1700s…it’s probably gonna be a little more difficult for you. Yeah, definitely South Carolina…the Southeastern in general. I mean my master’s thesis focused on South Carolina and I know a lot of my colleagues also did work on South Carolina.

MC: I guess moving forward…you now have a career in public history…has that changed your perception of public history any or has it changed the way that you think about it?

NS: Has my career changed my perception of public history?

MC: Yeah…

NS: Why has it changed my perception of the public (Unintelligible 39:25) ?

MC: Has working in public history for years now…has it changed your idea of public history?

NS: It’s…that’s a really good question. I would say that it’s…it has somewhat but not to any detrimental effects. I would say that it’s…it makes me appreciate what I learned. When I went into graduate school to do public history and then even right after I graduated when I first started — of course, you have the romantic images — I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that in my career, and I can’t wait to do this and then you get into the career and you realized the reality is that it’s very similar to what everything that you’ve learned. It’s also, there can definitely be…there’s always challenges and I don’t think it’s really changed my perception much. I think it’s…I would say it strengthened it. I would definitely say my career has strengthened it.

I can always spot like I mentioned before I worked with so many interns, who are interested in wanting to go into a field like public history and after so long I’ve been able to kind of spot the ones that…they get it…they’re gonna be good at this and the ones that are like they’re all gonna flame out within year. You have to have that love and you have to have that appreciation. I think that’s probably one of the biggest changes is understanding how deep that love for public history goes about how badly you want to do it. Being in the field for so long, there have been some very, very tough moments…you can take all the coursework, you can take all the graduate assistantships in the world…there are just things that come up that you can never prepare for.

One example I can cite is when I went to work at the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. It was a for-profit museum. It was a very different (Unintelligible 41:39)…and when you’re working with people who don’t care about history…they care only about the bottom line. It can be very challenging and but you fall back on the love for what you do to get you through that. I hope I’m not rambling and going all over the place but the…I would say my perception has changed for the better. Not that it was bad before…I loved it. I had this rosy red picture of what life in the museum field would be like.

It’s just gotten rosier…I think. I’ve been very fortunate to do what I do and it’s…I will tell you this…one of the things that I’ve…when I first started the museum field that I’ve never quite understood were…even when I was in grad school…were the people who worked in the museum field and they worked so hard and they did so much and their spare time, they would still do it. They would go to other museums or help out other museums or do something that was related to what they had studied in grad school or do something that was related to their museums. For example, I was at McKissick.

There are these staff members who in their free time after working a…maybe a fifty…sixty hour week putting an exhibit together and their spare time, they go to another museum and they see something that’s similar to what they may see at McKissick or their watch something special on T.V. on sweetgrass baskets. I’ve always wondered…Well God, where does the museum stuff end and your personal begin. Now, that I’ve been in the field for so long, I realized it’s part of who you are. It becomes a part of who you are. In my spare time, I’ve been helping a museum down about half an hour from here get started. It was a guy who wanted to put together a museum. Read his perspectives. Thought he had a lot of promise and in my spare time, I’ve been helping him design panels and doing research. I just love it and I think that and I get it. I get why people…it helps you strengthen why people are in the public history field. They’re some of the most nicest, most helpful, knowledgeable people you’ll ever meet. That’s not to say that I don’t have any life outside of museums. I do enjoy going out and I love movies and I love craft beer and love traveling and I get to do all that. I also, do carve out some of that time to enjoy doing other museum stuff.

MC: Was that jarring at all…I guess when you started working at the Slugger Museum…the for-profit museum?

NS: It was. It was…at first, I was very surprised at the similarities. Their collections area was a disaster. Much like the collections area at the Elliott Heritage Museum when I did that internship was a disaster. It would…there were a lot of people who didn’t know what they were doing. I was the only museum…I was the only person on staff that had A. worked on a non-profit and B. had a degree in museums and C. had actually worked at a non-profit museum before. One of the reasons they brought me in is because the company itself wasn’t doing well and they needed somebody to know how to do collections and exhibitions that wouldn’t break the bank…who knew how to stretch a dollar.

That was a big challenge for me because while I did know how to do that…those above me just refused to let it go. There would be times where we would do these temporary exhibitions that would maybe be one month in the dead part of the season like January or February. We might get a couple hundred people within the exhibit during that time. We would…the director would spend forty-five thousand dollars on graphics for a temporary exhibit. [Laughs] I’m like no, this money could go elsewhere. This is…there’s so much more we could do with so much less and then, when I would ask to say, — oh, these historic ledgers or these back ledgers from the 1920s — they’re one of a kind. They’ve never been digitised.

People across the company still used these for research. We need to digitise these. It’s only gonna cost two thousand dollars. Nope, can’t get it — can’t do it. It’s not a…there is no financial return on investments to show that it would lead to an increase in money, which is why…which is what I was told. It was things like that. Especially, when tour guides…sorry, not the tour guides. I was…one of the mannequins in the museum…I like to tell this story. One of the mannequins in the museum was Ted Williams. People liked to pluck out his hair. At one point, he was missing an entire eyebrow.

In my budget, I rang it fourth to the CFO and the financial committee at the company. I said, — yeah, we need the earmark a thousand dollars to get us his eyebrow and other missing hair to put back in and what was the response, — what’s the internal investment? He hasn’t had an eyebrow. It looks terrible. Yes, but if we spend a thousand dollars what kind of money do you think we’ll get back for spending that. How do you quantify a missing eyebrow? It were things like that that were really hard to deal with. It really, really was. Yeah, there were definitely challenges like that that I had to deal with but again you fall back on what you know and you try to make it…you try to help other people know.

I had an argument one time with my director who was so obsessed with image and media that she threw proper artifacts care of handling out of the window. She wanted to go on WGN…WGN TV in Chicago to bring a priceless shoe of Joe Jackson back and let the people in the studio on this national station hold it without wearing white cotton gloves. We had an argument. I said, — that’s very unsafe for the artifact…very, very unsafe. She said, — you don’t understand, it looks silly wearing white gloves and blah, blah.  She was ready to do it until I finally had to hit it on her level.  I said, — okay, we will never be able to get an object from any lender or other museum if you go on there and show we don’t know how to handle artifacts.

It makes us look dumb…to the rest of the museum field. I think that resonated with her because it was all about image. There were definitely horror stories where I dealt with that but I was able to do a lot there. I will say I was able to do a whole lot there. It was definitely a different beach for sure.

MC: I guess kind of to wrap it up then. What do you envision as the future of public history programs just in general?

NS: I think the future is very bright. I think that in the future, public history programs will be doing a lot more with the collaboration. I think…I really think that’s gonna be the key right there. You’re gonna see public history programs really be mandated to work with other departments. That it can’t just all be specifically history. Work with the business department. Work with the science department. Put together programs that tie into history. You have history in every field. Working with other departments to collaborate together, I think that is the big direction everythings going in with museum and public history programs.

I do worry that so many universities over the past five to ten years have begun public history…either public history programs or public history courses. The courses are fine but I worry that so many that have been popping up aren’t preparing the students for what’s out there. The museum field is a very, very tough field to get in and stay in. It’s a very tough field because it’s…the job supply is very limited…very small. While museums often cut. Museum’s studies programs are increasing and that’s flooding the market with a lot of students. A lot of universities are putting together programs that are just not preparing students the way I was prepared at the USC’s public history program.

I do have a concern about that. That it could be more competition for other public history programs and USC’s public history program in particular. I think what USC’s public history program needs to do…now and into the future is play out in strengths. Southern studies, the international program, the job placements. That’s key right there…the job placements, the research…all that you get to do and all the materials and all the assistantships. That’s also a big key, that’s what gonna bring people in. If you can guarantee an assistantship in a museum that’s gonna help more than anything.

A lot of universities who are putting these programs together can’t do that. It’s gonna be more competitive for the public history field. I see that in the future as it being far more competitive to get those students coming out of undergraduate programs that want to get their master’s in public history but I also see the collaborations as a part of that future too. To basically get more people involved. I think those are the two areas right there I would say are the future of the public history program.

MC: Lastly, what motivated you to volunteer to be interviewed?

NS: I still have that passion for public history. The public history program at USC got me to where I am. Plain and simple. I’ve been successful. I’m museum director…I became museum director before I was forty years old. I’ve learned a lot on the way and landed some amazing jobs, met some amazing people, done some really amazing things to make a difference in some  communities. I wanted to be interviewed because i want people to know just how important public history is and how it really needs to be around and how it needs to survive and I like telling people, — it’s the greatest field you could possibly imagine and yeah…

MC: Okay. Well, thank you.

Interview ends (52:34)