Rebecca Bush

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Interviewee: Rebecca Bush
Interviewer: Charlotte Adams
Date: October 13, 2016
Accession #: PHP 003
Length of Recording: 79:08
Sound Recording

Since childhood, Rebecca Bush enjoyed visiting museums and interacting with history through American Girl dolls. Bush earned her BA in History from Kansas State University, where a professor encouraged her to pursue a public history graduate degree. While at USC, Bush was in the Museums and Material Culture track and also earned her certificate in Museum Management. She cited the internship and assistantship components of the Public History Program as well as the field schools as her favorite and most valuable experiences at the University. At the time of the interview, she was the Curator of History at the Columbus Museum. Interview includes discussion of the England Field School, Charleston Field School, and her experience as a Graduate Assistant at Historic Columbia.


Curators | English Heritage Trust | Hampton Plantation | Historic Columbia | Internships | Kansas State University | McKissick Museum | Museum Management | Public History | Riley County Historical Museum | Study Abroad Programs


Charlotte Adams: Ok, so. This is Charlotte Adams with Rebecca Bush for the USC Public History Program Archives. So, getting started, we’re just going to do some, you know, get started questions. So how did you first hear about, become interested in public history as a field?

Rebecca Bush: So, the very first time that I… I’ve always really loved history since I was a little girl, loved going to museums, was a big fan of American Girl books, had a doll. But it wasn’t until I was between my junior and senior years of high school and I was on a trip and I went to Greenfield Village up in Detroit. And it’s a living history museum, Henry Ford’s assemblage of all these random buildings and I really found it fascinating, really enjoyed myself and I asked one of the interpreters, I said, “How did you get a job here?” You know, “How does this work?” And he said, “Well, I’m just here for the summer. You know, I’m only seasonal, part time, but there are people who work here year-round, behind the scenes doing things.” And that was a revelation, for whatever reason I had never thought of that before.

So, that was definitely on my mind going forward then as I went into college. I majored in history and the spring of my sophomore year I had a really excellent advisor, and she sat me down and said, “What do you want to do with this Bachelor of Arts in History that you are getting?” And I said, “Well, I don’t really know because I don’t think I’m interested in anything enough to study it for a PhD to spend the rest of my life working on it.” I wasn’t interested in doing secondary school teaching at that point. And, she said to me “Well you know there’s such a field as public history,” and I had not actually heard that term before. And then she said “It encompasses museums and archives and all historic sites, all different manner of things.”

So she got me set up with an archival internship with someone who was A.B.D. in the department. This was at Kansas State University. Set me up with an archival internship at Fort Riley, which is very near to there. And by the end of the summer I, and I worked there a couple more summers. But by the end of it I knew I didn’t want to work in the archives. That was not the spot for me. But there was an associated museum and I was always jealous when my boss got to go up to the museum and work. And at this point I kind of made the connection back to three years earlier and a little bit of what Greenfield Village was doing and I…that was when I kind of really decided going forward this is what I want to do. Something in museums, something local, something working with the public. So…

CA: Alright. And then so you were an undergrad in Kansas. How did you make your way down to USC for the Public History Program?

RB: I…when I was I guess probably- I guess probably then a year later, the summer before my senior year, I really started researching programs. I never really looked at museum studies programs, I knew I wanted to be specifically in public history and I’m trying to think. I knew of- there’s a program in Kansas at Wichita State that I was already aware of, and I very quickly found out about Arizona State’s program by reputation. I think South Carolina I honestly might have found just by Googling? I think I Googled “public history programs” and South Carolina came up and looking at the website I became very intrigued by it for a couple reasons.

One of which was that…well three reasons. One of which was that I had just taken a really outstanding southern history class from a really great professor and had gotten really into studying that and thinking about that. I decided that would be something I would like to focus on. So it made sense to be in the south to study southern history. Then the other couple reasons were aspects that the program offered. So the emphasis on assistantships, not just that it’s funding but that they could offer positions that would translate into real world experience. That was really vital. And then also the field schools really stood out to me. So I think the first one listed was Charleston field school, which I understand they don’t do anymore. But we used to go- we, it used to be available in Charleston. And so I thought, “Oh well that’s interesting.” I’d never been to Charleston at that point. It seemed like it’d be interesting.

Then I saw they had an England field school. And I love to travel, I especially like England and Britain so I saw that and read about it and I thought, “Yes! This is what I would like to do. I would like to spend a month to six weeks in England as part of graduate school.” So those were the main things that attracted me to USC. So, I applied and was happy to get in and accepted.

CA: Great. So I want to get into the assistantships and the field schools in a little bit, but you mentioned that you never really looked at museum studies, you always knew you wanted to do public history. Why did you want to do public history over museum studies?

RB: For me, I think it was about I really especially in college thought of myself primarily as a historian academically or professionally and I enjoyed researching and I knew that I wanted to focus on history specifically, so that just seemed to make more sense to get a really good grounding. I think also at that point I mentioned I had the internship at the archives. I was interested in historic sites too, which are kind of- they straddle a lot of different lines. It made… I guess I didn’t want to necessarily specialize too much, like completely commit myself to museums. So yes, I wanted to specialize in history, not museums, I guess.

CA: Yeah. Makes a lot of sense. So, you are the Curator of History at the Columbus Museum and you- so did you so the museums track specifically in the program.

RB: Yes.

CA: Ok. Did you have any, you know, courses that stood out to you as being especially preparatory…Is that a word? In your future career?

RB: Mmm. That’s a good question. I will say that especially from the museums track I think the History and Theory of Museums course actually was very helpful in that that was a class where we had really great- it was- I took that my first year and we had the second year students too in that session. So, we had a lot of really great discussions every week on topics that I had not necessarily thought about before.

Topics I had thought about but people well, had different perspectives, as you do, and our last assignment for that was to write a philosophy paper, our museum philosophy. And it was- the instructions were basically write your museum philosophy, and there were no guidelines on length or topics that we had to cover. We had suggestions on what we said we should do but Allison left it very open ended for us. So I enjoyed working on that for one reason because it was more free-flowing, I could just write, didn’t have to footnote (laughter) but that is actually something I have found myself going back and referring to.

I have been working on a book project and I have a co-editor and we’re working on a conclusion for it a couple weeks ago and I was writing about trying to say why museums are important and that we really have to think about visitors and that we serve the public and I went back to my museum philosophy paper and looked at it pulled a couple sentences because I thought “No! This is still what I think. I still believe this.” So, and I wrote that six years ago now? Coming up on six and a half years ago.

So that was foundational for me I think in thinking about a lot of different topics and kind of coming down with some firm stances on them. And some things I’ve shifted and changed my mind on a little bit as I’ve worked in the field. And things have changed and others I was reading and I was like “Nope, that’s one hundred percent still what I think.” So, it’s always interesting to go back and see how your thought process changes but. I think especially from the museum track, that’s the one that stands out.

CA: And you had Dr. Marsh [Allison Marsh] for that one?

RB: Yes.

CA: Ok. Ok, and so outside the specific museum track, you mentioned doing the field school. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?

RB: Sure. Would you like me to talk about both of them or just England or what would you prefer?

CA: Both of them. Let’s go for both of them.

RB: Both. Ok, well we’ll go in chronological order because I did Charleston first. So that was the Spring of 2010. Spring semester 2010. And we went to Charleston six times. I think we went every other Friday as a group and we had a full day of sessions that Bob had set up, Bob Weyeneth, and would meet with folks and discuss things and then we also had individual projects that we did. So everybody had a project that they were working on in the Charleston area. And those were very interesting because everybody did different things.

Mine was working at Hampton Plantation-had to stop and think about it…Hampton Plantation, which is a little bit north of Charleston near McClellanville and they had…it was a state historic site and they had on the property, excuse me they had on the property an African-American cemetery that a nearby community had been using and it was a- descendants of people who had been sharecroppers or enslaved people on the property and then there was also… they knew the rough location of what they believed to be the slave cemetery and they had done some ground penetrating radar looking at different marks and things.

So it was this, there was some preservation work in it and site interpretation and I ended up writing a possible interpretive plan for them on how to interpret that. Because at the time they were just really starting to talk about how to pull that into their interpretation of the site because they had the big house and for years that’s what they had focused on. So that was a change.

CA: Before you get into the England field school, I know that this shares some similarities with what you eventually ended up writing your thesis about with the African-American sharecroppers and farmers, do you think that really shaped your research going forward to that?

RB: I don’t know that I would…specifically know, but it definitely got me thinking about interpretation and thinking about sources and how to approach things and the importance of working with the community. I would say, so more in a general interpretive sense. ‘Cause at the end of my, the last part of my thesis, was a little- again some interpretive decisions so some of that I probably drew on my experience from- from that project I did. I guess the last thing I would say about Charleston…Charleston field school is that… what I, one of the more interesting aspects of it to me and this is not academic at all (laughter) this is just a personal observation, but we rode down together in state vans. So we would take turns driving every other week and there -I’m trying to think how many of us were in that class- maybe thirteen or so? It was enough people that we had to take two vans. People would take turns driving. So it was a process, we would go the night before to the state motor pool and pick up and we all had to have- we had to submit our driving record and you know be checked out, make sure we weren’t gonna wreck the state vans and then drive down there and drive back.

It was always really interesting the groups that we ended up with, who was in your van on which trip and where… where…Bob was always with us and I think Allison. Allison may have always been with us too, or was with us all but one time maybe. So yeah the different conversations that we had going because we would talk about what we’d seen, especially on the way back or we might talk about other school projects or things going on. Several of us were from out of state so we would be comparing notes on things that way, so it was just an interesting bonding experience and then additional, it was like the class was not just meeting from ten to four or whatever our day of meetings was in Charleston. You know, the van time was very integral to that too as well. So that’s something that actually really stands out to me about that experience. As mundane as it seems.

CA: Do you think the program had a lot of… impetus on sort of, it’s hard to phrase, fostering your experiences and your unity as a cohort? If that makes sense.

RB: I think a lot of that happened naturally anyway. Some maybe, I mean I think naturally when you’re all taking a lot of the same classes and you’re in the computer lab and you’re walking around seeing each other it just happens and you’re talking, and then if you go out and see each other during the week you know, then that’s another chance to talk and compare notes and commiserate and yeah. I think especially for our cohort we were fairly close-knit I think compared to some other groups I’ve seen or had friends talk about their cohorts. And well we were fairly close. We all got along, so.

CA: How did you think the Public History students fit into the larger scheme of the graduate History Department in terms of the PhD students and the Public History students?

RB: That’s an interesting question (laughter). I would say overall we were very accepted by the PhD students, you know we’re all in the graduate program together, certainly our overall cohort that we came in with because you know of course we had PhD students with us, too. So we all, we had reading classes and research classes together and certainly when I say our cohort was fairly close I include the PhD students in that as well. Supportive, interested in what we were doing. Yes, so I would say overall we fit in very well. I think sometimes there were …and I have…this is a little bit of hearsay because I didn’t have as much direct experience with this as a couple of my friends did.

But I think there were some professors who really appreciated what were doing and were interested in our research and how we looked at things and really saw us as full graduate students just focusing on other things. Then I think there were other professors who definitely made a distinction between the PhD students and the Public History students and could be surprised or very interested to see what you would do in a more general…like a readings course, for example. So, I would say there was actually more differentiation coming from the professors than from the students. I think with the students it was much more collegial because we’re all in it together, we’re all ultimately doing a lot of the same work and assignments and research even if the exact bounds of that are different.

CA: Ok so let’s jump back to the England Field School because I don’t- we don’t do that anymore, so I really want to hear about your experience in that.

RB: Which is so sad.

CA: I know!

RB: (Laughter) It’s unfortunate. England field school. So, when I went it was the summer of 2010; I think we went from mid-May through the first week of June. We went pretty much right after the Spring semester ended. It was the first year that Allison did it, before that it had been Connie Schulz, who had recently retired. So Allison took it over. There were six of us who went, all women. Five- let me get this right; I’ll be very precise. There were four of us, yes. Four of us from the Public History Program and they were actually all my year, all- we had just completed our first year in the program. All Public History students. We had one student who was starting in the fall [Katharine (Thompson) Allen] and had asked about England field school and Allison had indicated to her that it might be a while before it was offered again, so she should just go ahead and enroll and come with us on this trip, and she did and that worked really well. And then we had a student who was actually in the library school, she was getting a Masters of Library and Information Science so not in the Public History Program, but had been taking library and archives classes and was interested in that aspect of it so she came with us. She was in between her first and second years of a three-year program maybe, I can’t remember exactly how that worked.

The first three weeks we spent at Kiplin Hall, which is in North Yorkshire near Richmond and Northallerton, it’s kind of halfway in between. It’s a classic country estate from the 1600s, has associations with Lord Baltimore so there’s a big association with the University of Maryland there and they have several outbuildings on site as you do and they had a large-sized farmhouse that they had remodeled and turned into accommodations specifically for students. So, we stayed there. We were split between three rooms so two people in a room there were, but it had a capacity to house much more than that. I remember most about Kiplin, or what I liked the most was that they had sheep on the grounds and I just personally really, really like sheep, so that was exciting to wake up to them baa-ing outside my window every morning. That was just a lovely way, I was like “Ah I’m in England.” (Laughter)

While we were there, we spent two days a week working on a project at the house. So my project, I worked with… the incoming person was actually going to focus on archives, so the two of us worked together on archiving their institutional, organizational papers, a lot of which was pulling out staples…I pulled out more staples those three weeks than I ever have in my entire life. There was a lot of staple removal. But organizing and pulling duplicates and going through email chains. This, sorry, total diversion, so this is in 2010 and so you had fewer, you were starting to have conversations about how to deal with emails and things in archives and this group, this board to their credit had tried to be very on the ball about things and tried to keep everything.

So what you would end up with was that every time they sent the email about a discussion that email would get printed and it would have all the prior replies on it and then when someone replied to that they would print that and they would have all the prior replies on it. So pages and pages and pages of email or organizational history. She and I worked on that project, then the library student and the other museum student who went, they worked on cataloging books in the library of the house. More collections objects that had never just really been cataloged. So they worked on a portion of that rather massive collection.

Then the two preservation students worked on a project that had to do- they had uncovered the archaeological footprint of the- I’m trying to think, they called it something else I think. The greenhouse essentially. They had had a Victorian greenhouse on the site and it had been torn down and they were starting to do some archaeological work, so they looked at records and they did I think they might have done a little like one or two days of kind of preliminary excavation, kind of doing test plots and things and kind of recommending a way for that. So we’re doing projects that benefitted our host, benefitted the house.

And then- then we did that Tuesday, Thursday. Monday, Wednesday, Friday we took field visits. We had two cars and a few people who drove, not everybody, but a few people did, and we would go out. I think the furthest we went was probably Hadrian’s Wall which might’ve been a two-hour drive; I don’t think it was two and a half, I can’t remember how far we went. But we went out hither thither and yon, mostly in North Yorkshire but we went out to Whitby. We went other spots too and we went and met with people from national organizations so we met with English Heritage and the National Trust, which are the two main history, historical site, or preservation organizations in England.

We met with city planners, we met with archivists, with curators, we may have even met with a couple education people at different historic sites, so we looked a lot at process of how they did things and their philosophies on things. We also talked a lot about how things changed. I’m trying to think. Governmentally? If that’s a word. We looked at the structure of, you know, how all these non-profit heritage preservation, whatever you want to call it, how things were set up in the UK versus the US and how that affected what they did and the different opportunities and challenges that present for them versus what we were used to. So we went to outdoor living history museums, we went to brick and mortar museums, we went to historic sites, we went to ruins, we talked a lot about. That was good preservation conversation.

We went to many, many ruins of castles and abbeys to the point where they started to blend together like, “Oh, it’s another abbey today, okay.” So that was interesting and then on the…let me back up. We had a kitchen and we all did our own things for breakfast if we were at the house for lunch, did our own things for lunch, and then we would all eat dinner together as a group. Allison had a friend of hers come with us, her name is Lynn and I can’t remember Lynn’s last name, but she worked at the Postal Museum. She had been a colleague of Allison’s there and they were still friends and so she came with us and cooked our dinners for us, which was delightful.

One night a week we had traditional British food. She would make a British food menu for us I think on Thursday nights maybe. And we did the taste test of the weird chip flavors they had. We had a little contest; it was fun. So we would have a lot of discussion then every night around the dinner table too; that was actually part of the course was talking about everything we had seen and discussing, and so there were six of us who were taking it and then Allison and Lynn who were both folks with years of museum experience, so some really interesting conversations there. Then on the weekends we would- we were completely free on the weekends, and so what do museum people do when they have free time? They go to other museums.

So (laughter) we would get together, I think we mostly…I think we almost always went as a group all six of us. We might’ve kind of split a couple times but I think mostly we just all went together and went to places that were a little farther to drive to. We had a three day weekend once because they had a bank holiday which happened to be the same day as our Memorial Day and so we didn’t have class that Monday because there was nowhere to go to that would have been open as far as meeting with professionals, so we went to the lake district and- which was a farther drive and took the ferry out that way. I’m trying to think.

Trying to give you like little interesting details that aren’t noted in the course syllabus. We had a…there was a kind of a combination TV room slash library study, so there were books you could pull from in there but a lot of evenings we would end up there at some point before or after dinner and we would watch the news which was interesting, or we would watch different BBC shows. So, we would watch and the people that had been over there before and really spent some time would kind of explain things. We got, for those three weeks we were there we kind of got into watching “East Enders” which is this like working class soap that has been on forever, and were like (laughter), “This is culture! It’s part of the deal.” It was also right as they were starting another season of “Dr. Who,” which is such a huge, huge cultural phenomenon over there and it’s gained more of a foothold over there, and one of my friends and I got started watching it and still watch it to this day because we got introduced to it over there. So, you know, things followed us back across the pond.

There, the estate, had lots of woods around it and there were some walking paths, so sometimes some of us would go out individually, we would just kind of go out and walk by ourselves, absorb things. Let me see. And then for the- so we were at Kiplin for three weeks and then at the end of three weeks we packed up and we drove down to York and then we had a flat in York for a week. And all six of us girls were in one flat and Allison and Lynn had a separate one so we were- ‘cause the flats fit six people but it was tight fit so. So there we were much more on our own, we had a grocery store nearby, so we would walk down and grab things. All our site visits were in York. We dropped the cars so we just walked everywhere. Similar things, similar types of places. We were going, we went…what was that? We went to the Viking Museum which is really interesting and they have smells and they have a mock archaeological dig I remember that was one of the last things we did when we were there. We had these rubber pellets, which I then would keep finding in my shoes when I came home (laughter). Like it was an activity where you were digging for artifacts and the dirt was rubber pellets and then I found them the rest of the summer after I came back in my shoes, all over my luggage.

Then I think we had a weekend when we got there and then we usually had a little bit of time in the afternoon, and we might not go all day so we would have time to walk around and go see different things. I’m trying to think. (clicking tongue) We had, random observations, we had Wi-Fi in the house at Kiplin, so it was not very strong, so we would go into Richmond, there was a pub in Richmond we would go to that had Wi-Fi. Because its very common for bars and pubs in England to have Wi-Fi, which I think is now more common over here but it was not at all back then, but it was very much like it was the equivalent of or coffee shop, right? It was like in America if you wanted free Wi-Fi you went to the coffee shop, if you wanted it in England you went to the pub. So we did that sometimes.

At the flat in York we did not have it at all so how we communicated with the outside world was we would each take trips. There was a pub like five doors down from us so we would go down there. We were right next door to a Methodist Church so the Sunday we were there, the- Virginia, who was the library student, she and I went to the service, which was very interesting, it was very different. No, like you just have to know the songs and it was it was very informal and they were all interested in us, they were like, “Oh what are you here for? What are you doing?” (Laughter) So that cultural experience. And York is a walled city and our flat was right outside the walls. Like not even- maybe the length of a football field but probably not. Maybe more like fifty yards or seventy-five yards. We were very, very, very close to the wall. So I would go walk on the wall in the evenings sometimes, I think we all did. We would go as a group and go by ourselves. And there was…oh I can’t think what they call it… the state health office, the national… they had a doctor’s office right there in between us and the wall so it was like, “Well if we get hurt we’ll go (laughter) and use the free health care that’s conveniently here next door to us.” Cause that was in 2010, so Affordable Care had just passed. That was interesting to be right next door to that when people were still talking so much about that in the States.

Yeah, I just have so many memories from that trip, really beautiful scenery, pictures, really interesting discussions. I kept a notebook, all of us kept notebooks, and notes on things like from all our meetings. And mine I found it a couple years ago when I was moving, and I was like “Oh this is really detailed, like there’s actually really good information about here about what we did, everything that we learned.” Bringing it back to a more professional sense, (laughter) I would say that that really made me think about doing things in a different light. I just came back with a lot of interesting practical ideas like there are still, I’m working on getting a, we’ve been doing kind of a ad hoc community gallery here at the museum for the past year or so and I’m working on actually getting that formalized into a process with a proposal and the first time that I saw one of those and learned about the proposal process was…was it the Bowes? I don’t wanna say which museum it was because I’ll be wrong, but one of the museums over there has clearly stuck with me all this time. And just different you know different cultural perspectives on things.

I really like to travel, I really think that you learn a lot when you travel anywhere but especially overseas, so that’s always going to be positive in opening our eyes. And again it was something where like I mentioned lots of little random funny things that we did or saw or talked about while we were there so it was a bonding experience for the other people in my cohort with me, who I already really liked and got along with great, and then also Cat, who came in and joined us before her first year. That really, you know, helped her get integrated with us and then she really fit right in with us when she started in August because she’d already take the class (laughter) and hung out with some of us.

Just a really great experience; I’m sorry they don’t do it anymore. I know it was a bear to organize and complicated and when we went it was actually, I think had used to be six weeks, it was almost five or six weeks. And when we went, Allison actually gave us, since it was her first year doing it, she got a feel of who wanted to go and she talked with us some in planning about when exactly do you want to go? We went so early because then that gave us the rest of the summer to do internships and she said, “How long do you want to go? Six weeks feels like a long time but we could do this here, we could do it in four weeks this way.” So we had some input in the planning process.

The other thing, which I’ll randomly add just ‘cause it’s interesting USC history is that the, I don’t know which office it would be. Basically the Study Abroad Office did not realize that we were doing this, and I’m sure they were told at some point but they didn’t really know, so Allison asked them I think a very basic question about health insurance overseas- if there was something they knew of or that we should be looking at to get to make sure we were covered if anything happened. And I guess there was a flurry and a panic because they did not realize that this graduate Public History class had just been going to England every couple of years for decades. This was a surprise (laughter) to them. So our class was the one, our group was the one that spilled the beans and filled them in on that and then I think we had to do extra paperwork or something (laughter). So just you know as much as the Public History Program I think it’s really important to USC, it can definitely fly under the radar sometimes just like that. That was an outstanding example.

CA: So was that the summer that you did your internship for the program?

RB: Yes, it was.

CA: Where did you do that?

RB: I wanted to get back to Kansas for the summer, so I did it at the Riley County Historical Museum, which is the local historical museum in Manhattan, Kansas, which is where I went to college at Kansas State. They have a museum, brick and mortar museum, and then they have a couple historic houses they administer as well. I did- my primary project was they had just received a donation of barbed wire samples from someone who had actually- and they actually were actually fairly local samples. I think they weren’t from South Dakota or something, they were relatively close. And so I cataloged those, so that was my first time for like cataloging anything, working in Past Perfect, which is the only collections manuscript software I’ve worked in to this day is Past Perfect, that was my first time working in that.

Then once I cataloged it they did small exhibits, small displays for a… retirement community; it wasn’t a nursing home or anything it was a retirement community. And they did small displays and they took me over and said “This is the case,” or no it had two cases, “These are the cases, do something with the barbed wire, make a barbed wire exhibit that we can put in here.” So that was interesting because that was something I never would have worked on my own. I was like, “Well let me research these barbed wire types and figure out different- why is this particular type important and ok I’ll write a label about it, try (laughter) to make it interesting.” So that was a good experience. I also did some research on a particular property that they were working with local people on a preservation plan for and I wrote an article about that and why it was important so that involved doing some library research. So those were my main projects. That was, I was there about, I’m trying to think how long I was there. Six weeks, I think, so it was fairly short but I got a couple good projects done out of it while I was there.

CA: Was that one of your first experiences with researching and planning an exhibition by yourself or had you had prior experience doing that?

RB: No, that was the very first time. And then I immediately ended up doing a lot of it and I never stopped (laughter). That was actually my very first go round.

CA: Cool. In terms of other things outside of the classroom that contributed to your public history experience, did you have an assistantship in your second year?

RB: Yes, I did. My first year I had a teaching assistantship so my first semester I was a grader, second semester I actually led discussion sections which I actually enjoyed. I think I was the only Public History person in my cohort who actually enjoyed the teaching part of it or at least grading and having, and I was I think I was the only one who had a discussion section. All the other discussion section people were PhD students and for a combination of many reasons I got slotted into one and actually ended up enjoying it.

My second year I had an assistantship at Historic Columbia. And I know that they’ve been able to add on recently and have- they’ve kind of fluctuated through the years in how many assistantships they’ve been able to offer. So that was when they were only offering one, and it was in the collections department and I had some experience being around them in my first year just knowing that they were in the community doing things, going to different things. The person who had the assistantship was a second year student my first year and so I knew she was going to be graduating and just on my own, I don’t think I ever actually even said it to anyone, but I thought “I would really like that assistantship. That would be- that’s exactly- I think this is exactly what I want to be doing, this seems like a really great organization,” and then the stars aligned and Allison came to me and was like, “Would you be interested in this assistantship? Because I’ll recommend it for you.” And I said “Yes thank you! That’s exactly-you read my mind.” I went in and interviewed and I was accepted.

I did that from August through May of my second year. My direct supervisor was Fielding Freed who was brand new himself, pretty much the Director of House Museums and the very first project we did, (clicking tongue) I got there and he said, “Ok. I’m doing this exhibit on Victorian mourning and I’m comparing it, Victorian mourning clothing and I’m comparing it to gothic clothing of today. Because I found this designer who is really inspired by Victorian mourning clothing, and we’re going to put it up on the second-floor hallway of Hampton-Preston and it’s up for the month of October, which means its opening in six weeks. This is what we’re doing for the next six weeks is we’re working on this.” Definitely got thrown into the deep end with that. So that was another like very quick exhibit turn around.

Fielding and I did that together and it was great, it was really great for us to get to know each other as colleagues for the year and great exhibit development experience too. I was actually, I did the Museum Management Certificate as well through McKissick [McKissick Museum] and I was taking the Exhibition Development course that semester, and Lana Burgess actually had our class come over for a field trip when we finished the exhibit and she had me talk about it and Fielding would always joke with me, and say “Can’t you just test out of this class or something because you just developed an exhibit? Why do you need to take exhibition development?” And I said “Well it doesn’t work that way.” (Laughter) It dovetailed nicely. So that was a good experience. I’m trying to think.

I assisted with cleaning the houses every week. We had a really excellent volunteer Janice Bowman come in who was just awesome and so she and Fielding and I would clean Robert Mills and Hampton-Preston which were the main houses at that point, and sometimes we would go over to Mann-Simons. Woodrow Wilson was closed at that point so we didn’t need to go over there, so we’d just go across the street and back. Took turns opening and locking up the houses, that was one of my primary duties, so you know doing the alarm codes, opening and closing shutters, basically making sure nothing was terribly out of place, or was missing or falling off the wall or something.

Historic Columbia just by its nature because of its resources and because they do house museums, they’re not a big collecting institution so there wasn’t a lot of active collecting or acquisitions, but when we did I was essentially the registrar in a lot of ways. I would actually do the cataloging, fill out the log, put it in Past Perfect and all that sort of information. My second semester I got really deep into researching long-term loans that had never been reconciled into actual gifts even though they’d been sitting at the houses for forty or close to fifty years in some cases. I got really deep into researching that, I compiled a lot of information which then after I graduated, the next graduate assistant then actually followed up on that and actually was able to get a lot of those completed through abandoned property.

What I did was I kind of made a list of what was out there and I did a lot of phonebook research, phonebook and obituary research, trying to track down next of kin and actually contact people, so that did result in a few people just contacting us and signing gift paperwork and converting it outright. Some people just wanted to renew the loan and we said, “Ok at least we have updated paperwork, this is great, it’s newer than twenty years ago.” And then everything else that we couldn’t find anything for that fell under the abandoned property laws; the next graduate assistant picked that up and did a great job of following through on that. The other…the other… I know I did other ongoing things too.

Then also that spring I started working on an exhibit with Sarah Scripps who was a year ahead of me in the program and was never a grad assistant through, she never had an assistantship at Historic Columbia but she had done an oral history project. She was actually kind of a paid part-time project assistant on some things, and she and I started working on an exhibit for Historic Columbia’s fiftieth anniversary; they were having an institutional fiftieth anniversary that fall. So she and I kind of came up with a preliminary plan for that exhibit for what we wanted to do. My assistantship ended in the middle of May; I went to the Museums of Old York in Maine for the summer for a three-month assistantship and that actually fulfilled, excuse me internship, and that actually fulfilled my internship for the Museum Management Certificate.

Then when I was ready to come back, I’d been applying for jobs all summer, had had a couple interviews but hadn’t had anything firmed up, hadn’t had any success, and a couple of weeks before I came back, Robin Waites, the director of Historic Columbia emailed me and said “Would you be interested in being a part-time marketing assistant this fall?” She said “We want, we need some help in this; we know that if you’re available you could do this temporarily part time.” I said, “Thank you yes, I would really like to have a job.” (Laughter) So I did that I think twenty-five hours a week. I was focused on marketing, helping the head marketing person and then not in my twenty-five hours a week as volunteer time I…

Sarah and I worked on actually finishing that fiftieth anniversary exhibit which then we opened in the middle of November that year in November 2011. So even I mention that because even though it was after I graduated from the program it was a relationship I started during my assistantship. And my time at Historic Columbia was extremely transformative, it was one of the most valuable things I got out of the program was having that hands on experience with exhibit development, with collections management, with working with the public, researching, you name it, I was involved or around it working at special events, just a whole slew of things.

I made really great connections there, John[1], Fielding, mentors that I’m still in touch with, friends that I’m still in touch with from there. So that was just a really- I’m really grateful to have had that experience and I know my friends from the program and I we all agree that just the assistantships in general wherever they are with whichever institution they’re at are maybe the strongest point of the program, definitely in the top three in just that you’re getting you know ten to twenty hours a week for an entire school year of hands on experience.

You do more over a longer period of time than you do in an internship, you build relationships with people that are stronger than you get out of eight weeks or twelve weeks or whatever. And maybe so you really have good mentors and colleagues in the field, and of course, you’re looking for a job you have a recommendation letter, it looks great that you worked at this place for close to a year.

CA: So, you did the Museum Management Certificate as well. Did you finish in two years? Or did you take a little extra time?

RB: I finished…yes and by two years that means twenty-four months. I started the program in August of 2009 and I graduated with my Master’s in May of 2011 and then I did the hours- the internship hours for the management certificate that summer and graduated with my certificate in August of 2011. So yes, that was unusual, that was not necessarily recommended, but I did it, I had it in my mind that I was going to be there for two years, and I thought I could get it done and I didn’t want to necessarily linger. I was able to do it because I took coursework in the summer. So between my, so I did those hours for the management certificate, I did those six hours because it had to be a six hour- six credit hour internship, I took those hours in the summer after my second year and was able to officially finish the certificate then in August.

Then between my first and second years, I took England Field School which counted for three credit hours, and I did my internship for the Public History Program, so I got that done and out of the way. And that was when I also I chose to take a GIS [Geographic Information System] class for my skill instead of taking a foreign language class, and I was able to do that online actually through Kansas State. I was back in Manhattan taking an online class from the same school I had my undergrad from which was interesting. But I completed it, it transferred to USC fine, they actually said I might’ve more skills than I needed which was fine, whatever. They never- whatever. It worked; I got it done.

Because I was doing so much and taking credit hours during the summer I was able to get it done. I took nine hours all the regular semesters, so I didn’t overload. Let me qualify that. I took nine hours my first, second, and fourth semesters. My third semester I did take twelve hours just because I actually wanted to take oral history which was being offered that semester and it was the only time it was going to be offered while I was in class there. I just wanted to take it so I just said, “I will make this work.” So I didn’t actually need it credit hour-wise, I actually- if you look at it, I officially ended up with three more hours than I needed, so I didn’t even need to overload to graduate, it was just because I wanted to take the class.

So, which I’m glad I did; that’s been useful to me too. I did an oral history project here at the museum so it’s useful; I’m very glad I did it, and I will say it was probably my most focused semester because I had no other choice because I had so much going on. There was no way but to be extremely regimented and scheduled in how I did everything. In a lot of ways I think it was actually my most put together semester just by force (laughter).

CA: That makes sense. I wanted to ask you how you think that USC’s Public History Program you know by existing for a long time by having a reputation, has that helped you get a job? Do you find that people recognize the Public History Program outside of the state?

RB: Some places. It depends where I am. If I’m at NCPH [National Council on Public History] or maybe,  I just came back from SEMC [Southeastern Museum Conference] people know it there. They know we have a Public History Program, they know about, especially at SEMC they know about the Museum Management Certificate which is not always Public History folks but certainly does include some. If I’m…professionals from around the region especially NCPH folks then, yes, definitely. Sometimes, not always, I always try to talk about especially when I have interns that are looking into going to grad school, I always mention USC, give it a strong recommendation.

Down here in Georgia there’s actually a public history program at the University of West Georgia, which is only a couple hours from here, and it’s a very active program. They’re very active at NCPH too. So that gets a lot of attention down here; there’s a public history component at Auburn which is only forty miles away, so it’s not necessarily as well known here like exactly where I am, but I would say in the region, yes.

 I would say the amount of people who have connections through the Public History Program at South Carolina is staggering and has certainly been helpful to me, either people who went through the program or they worked at Park Service sites or they worked for the State Archives and History or the State Park Service or they worked at Historic Columbia; there’s just a network of public history folks emanating from both the cultural institutions in Columbia and the Public History Program. Combining all those people together are a ton of people in the world. I’ve gotten to know people that weren’t in the program at the same time as me but they were graduates and they stayed in Columbia and worked and they’ve gone on to other things.

The people that I was in classes with, both my cohort and above and below me, I’ve gotten to know; they’re good connections, people who actually even…people who have started since I graduated the program, who I was never in school with at the same time but came after me, I’ve gotten to know just through seeing them at conferences and different things. So, for me it’s interesting to get to know these people that are about to graduate or, you know, are new graduates, and seeing what they’re doing and connecting with them as colleagues in the field. And then I guess for them it’s just, I’m a continuation of the alumni network which is something they really talk about, I know it was when I came in and applied, it- they talked about “Oh they have this great alumni network,” and they do, actually truly for the most part, I feel like. And not that it’s- I don’t know that it’s in every single state; it’s not everywhere, it’s definitely concentrated in this part of the country more than others, but I- there’s a lot of connections I can have or people I know or people that I can… I don’t want to say “get to;” that sounds creepy. But people I can (laughter) get to or talk to if I need to through USC and Columbia connections.

CA: Do you think the Public History Program has done a good job of maintaining relations with you and other alumni?

RB: Yes. Yeah, I think so, in general. That can be a hard thing to do, to keep track of people. That’s not always easy. And I think a lot of it depends too on how close you are to your professors, because the professors are the ones who stay in the program, right? Like you and your cohort and your classmates go out in the world and do different things. But yeah, whenever I see Bob especially at NCPH we’ll talk. I’m trying to think where I see people. If I go back to Columbia, I don’t always get a chance to go in and say hi, I may or may not, but I’ll think about. I usually end up, I’ll either see Allison or Lana at something. I see Lana a lot at conferences so I’m really clued in with McKissick as well. I was not as close with Allison as a couple of my cohort were but she and I, we got along fine, we did, just some of my classmates talked to her a lot more than I did and I kind of went off and was more self-focused a little bit more and I worked with Bob on my thesis.

But I’ve caught up with Allison and Lana a couple times in Columbia, when I see her at conferences we talk. I saw her, she didn’t go to AAM [American Alliance of Museums] but we were in D.C. at the same time for AAM and so we caught up there. So it’s not always, I would say it’s not something where I’m in really constant, close contact with anybody there the way some people might be or the way that- well, no I started to say, I’m not good at keeping in really close contact with any of my mentors, which is on me and is about my personality (cough). No but if I’m, if we’re at the same conference or if our paths cross in the same place we do, we will get together and talk and catch up on things.

A couple, maybe the last time I was in Columbia which was maybe a couple years ago, Allison and I met up at Hunter Gatherer and talked and I remember one of the first things I said was “I want to thank you for”… Oh I can’t remember what it was now. But something we had talked about in class that at the time we were talking about it I though it was pointless and I didn’t know why we had to spend so much time talking about it. And just had to deal with it at work and I said, “Allison I owe you because (laughter) I had to deal with this!” And she’s very self- reflective and she’s always interested in getting feedback back from us I think on what- she was like, “How come? Why do you think? Why did it make a difference now? As opposed to when we were talking about it in class (laughter) and you didn’t like it.”

So that’s interesting. It’s always interesting to come back and talk to your professors as colleagues too. Which is part of school is kind of in between. You’re not an undergrad, you know you’ve moved beyond that level, but you’re still a student and you’re still doing certain assignments and certain things so it’s an interesting dynamic. I think I would say the program as a whole, Bob and Allison are both good with the Applgrad[2], the listserv, about sending out updates on things and sometimes things happening in Columbia, major things in the program, things that alums are doing, you know, if they’re getting published somewhere or they’re working on some project that might be of interest to us. The alumni use it, too, ‘cause sometimes to ask each other questions of find things out or to see who’s going to conference to set up a meet up.

Last December, I have my dates off a little bit, no that’s right, sorry, I don’t know what year it is (laughter). Last December my museum had bought something at auction in February 2015 that had gotten a little write-up in the antiques column in the New York Times that it was coming up for auction. It got a little attention and then we bought it. At the end of 2015 the columnist who wrote that contacted me and she was doing a follow-up on pieces she had spotlighted during the year and just kind of saying where they had ended up. So she talked to me and I got quoted in the New York Times which was like a highlight, life goal for me and Allison sent out a thing on the listserv about it because she is a reader of the New York Times and she saw it and just sent it out. I hadn’t mentioned it to her at all and so that was… you know I think that they’re just aware of what’s going on; they pay attention. They definitely aim to keep close relationships, so.

Like I said, I think just that larger alumni network does a lot of work of keeping us connected too because then we all see each other or we see Allison and Bob and Connie, I never had Connie directly in class because she was retired, but she was still involved and she would have parties at her house, department things, she would open up her house, so we’ll see them at different times. When I came back from- I have just come back from SEMC and I was talking to a couple grads of the program who went through before me, maybe five- four or five years before me- but again because of the program, Columbia connections, I know them they’re friends, and we were talking about Connie, were talking about- one of them had gone to England field school with her, we were talking about the differences in our experiences. So I think between all of us with the kind of the professors at the head of it and then all of us out in the world doing different things, we keep fairly strong ties I think. Certainly they’re there If you want to take advantage of them. How’s that?

CA: That’s great.

RB: They’re available.

CA: That’s great. So we’re, you know, we’re running out of time and I want to let you go soon, so I’ve just got a couple of wrap up questions for you. Why did you decide to volunteer to be interviewed for this oral history project, this archive?

RB: Number one because I took the oral history class when I was there and so I wanted to help out with the class project because I would’ve wanted people to do the same for me, want to give back. That’s my number one reason. But I think the program is important, I think it honestly does good work, it prepared me to go out in the world, I’ve been successful with the opportunities I was afforded through it, and there’s, it does have a long history, and there have been some interesting changes and interludes through the year and I’ve ended up both at Historic Columbia and here at the Columbus Museum working on institutional history projects and I just think it’s important to have a record of that so I think its a worthwhile project to be doing for its own sake, too.

CA: All right and now big broad question so put on your thinking cap. What-

RB: Thinking cap on.

CA: What would you like to see in the future of the program? What is your vision for the future of USC’s Public History Program?

RB: Whoa. Mind Blown. (Laughter) Let me think about this. I would like it to continue to provide- and this is not always possible for outside reasons but I think the assistantships are really important, I’d like to see that program continue and be expanded. I think the connections in the state in Columbia and Charleston are really strong and I’d like to see them continue that. When I was there, they were just- USC was just starting a real focus on Digital Humanities, and Allison was really interested in that and was working to make connections with that area and that was such a new area of study and I’m more- I’m a millennial, I love my smart phone, but I’m also more old school in that I- It’s easier for me to comprehend things right in front of me as far as a project to work on.

But I think it would be really great to see- and we did some of that in her Material Culture class, we did like an online exhibit which was the first time I did something like that and that was really interesting, but I’d like to see a more purposeful, maybe there’s a specific class on digital public history. You know, go ahead and take that on and really make that a focus because I think one of the strengths of the program through the assistantships and internships has been you have a really strong theoretical grounding in history research grounding, but you also have- you come out with really applicable skills. And so getting those digital components and all those kinds of projects I think is going to be essential.

I like that it’s grounded in a history program and that we took readings courses and research courses and we were integrated in with the PhD students and I would hate to see that change. I think, you know I really hope that continues. I think that it strengthens the overall History Department and the Public History department is also strengthened by having this huge history department to draw on. I would like to see I would think it would be cool to see the alumni network grow even further and I know there are people scattered in different pockets of the country, but to see that grow further. I would like to say when I went through the Public History Program at USC that everybody just knows what that is and that I don’t have to stop and explain that “I mean South Carolina not Southern California.” And when I say it around here in South Carolina, Georgia, you know the Southeast region, people generally know what I mean, but it would be great if I could go even broader, and I think that comes from graduating strong classes of students and also continuing to have geographic diversity in your classes. My class in particular we had someone who was a graduate of the undergrad program at South Carolina in their history program, and then we had, one of my friends was from Alaska, so we really truly had the entire… we had people from just about every part of the country, and I think that’s one of the greatest strengths of the program too.

So in a broad sense, general sense, I’d like to see the program to continue to build on the strengths I mentioned, continue to build strong relationships with the local and state organizations and then continue to be on the forefront and anticipate what skills are going to be needed, whether it’s digital…A lot of small organizations, which is what some of us end up working in and mine is mid-size but even still here, some those kind of- I think they’re called soft skills with like fundraising and working with donors and promoting yourself, you know some of those skills that are not strictly history skills, but they’re important practical skills. It’d be interesting to do maybe some kind of workshop or something on that, I don’t know, brain storming. Just continuing to anticipate what will be needed and utilizing the alumni network you have to grow even further so. Yeah.

CA: Great. Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

End of Interview

[1] John Sherrer, Director of Cultural Resources at Historic Columbia.

[2] Applied History Graduate Listserv