Staci Richey

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Interviewee: Staci Richey
Interviewer: Moira Church
Date: September 30, 2016
Accession #: PHP 022
Length of Recording: 39:31
Sound Recording
Summary

Staci Richey enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s Public History Program after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington where she double majored in history and music. She graduated from UofSC in 2005 with a Master’s degree in Public History with a concentration in historic preservation. She also earned a certificate in museum management. At the time of the interview, she worked as a preservation planner at the City of Columbia Planning and Preservation Office. Interview includes discussion of Richey’s decision to apply to UofSC, what drew her to public history and preservation, her ideas concerning specialized graduate education in public history and how it can be improved, and comparisons between UofSC’s preservation program versus other programs in the region. Richey also discussed the strengths of the Public History Program, the importance of internships, and her continuing relationship with the University.

 

Keywords

Historic Preservation | Internships | Museum Management | Preservation Planners | University of North Carolina-Wilmington

 

Transcript

Moira Church:  This is Moira Church.  It is September 30th, 2016 and I’m interviewing Staci Richey for USC’s Public History Program Archive. We are conducting this interview in Staci’s office.  To start off, how did you end up at USC and what drew you to public history?

Staci Richey: I ended up at USC because in my undergrad I expressed — which was at UNC Wilmington — I expressed an interest in public history to my history professor and the only two programs he knew about were Cornell and USC.  I knew I wasn’t going to Cornell. [Laughs] That left USC.  I didn’t really do a lot of research and understand – I didn’t know what to even look for for this program.  I wasn’t sure which direction I would head in but what got me interested in public history was I heard about them needing volunteers at this big fancy historic mansion downtown in Wilmington and I went and volunteer there.  The director was leaving at the time and they were looking for a new director and I was like how do you even become a director of such a place. They said he has a masters in museums or some sort of public history and I was like oh I didn’t even know that existed.

But then they also offered a class in the history program at UNCW, an intro to public history.  One semester I took that and kind of learned more about it.  I was like – Yeah, I’ll do that. I was already majoring – double majoring in history and music and minored in Spanish and no idea what to do with any of it. That actually seemed like something I could do. I could definitely hang out in old houses all day – that seemed like a good job.  That’s what got me going.

MC:  What is your opinion of Special Eds. graduate education and how do you think that your degree – also, your certificate has been?

SR: In general, I think it’s critical to this field. I know there are some programs offering it – offering an undergrad public history program, I don’t know enough about those to contrast and compare but I will say that I think a masters level is absolutely critical to get an understanding of the field and the basic principles and basic accepted practices.  The museum certificate is the same and that one was – when I was going to the program at least, it was heavily geared towards non-profit management basically – assuming most museums will be non-profits.  That has been extremely helpful to me because although I have worked most of my career in a private consultant firm with the city, I volunteer with a nonprofit – I’m on the board and I work a lot of hours with that.

It’s good to know how those are supposed to operate. Both things have been critical. I’ve certainly didn’t walk out of undergrad at least in my program even with the intro – with any sort of underlying basis of how to do this and how to stay within the secretary of interior’s standards for preservation – things like that were still foreign to me.  The big widely accepted professional practices were completely foreign until I got to grad school and after and the real world teaches you a lot. [Laughs]

MC:  Then why did you decide to go to history art preservation and if you were interested in historic preservation, what motivated you to get the certificate in museum management?

SR: At the time, I was at – I was starting USC – they had three tracks: archives, museum management, and preservation.  I didn’t know much about all three but the little I’d learned I knew I didn’t have the patience for archives.  Some of the museum management classes crossed over – like you could take them to fulfill the preservation degree.  I was like, “I’ll take one and see,” and it will fulfill at least my normal route here. I liked it enough — and I liked it and I wanted to expand my job opportunities big time as much as I could. I’m a full believer in taking advantage of the time you have and while you’re at school to do as much as you can because once you get out into the real world, it kicks your butt.  You cannot – it’s difficult to stop and go back and get more training — certainly do training on the way.  What drew me to preservation was that it was the buildings and architecture and hopefully, getting my hands dirty at some point because I liked to work on buildings and that seemed like the obvious root to me – once I started comparing them.

MC: Now, that you have a career in public history and preservation – is there anything you wished that you had learned or anything that you wished had been more strongly emphasized in your time at USC?

SR: So many things. [Laughs] I feel like…and each program has its strengths and weaknesses and it’s up to you – I mean it’s up to me to go find the program that I think meets my wishes but at the time after I finished undergrad – I spent a year helping my parents build their house and I was like cooped up with them in a little apartment – garage apartment while we were building the house right next door.  Didn’t really have access to – I mean we had some internet access but I wasn’t really sure what I was even looking for like I said I haven’t even picked the track until I got to USC. I wasn’t really sure what the word was – what the lingo is to be looking for.

I just knew I needed a degree to get anywhere.  Once, I got in the program, I was really looking forward to the Charleston field school because I thought maybe we would get to work on some sort of big project – I don’t know what I thought. Anyway, we wound up doing a lot of meeting and greeting – which is good – you meet a lot of people in different jobs.  Of course, you want their jobs.  I do wish there had been more emphasis on understanding the technicalities of how historic function.  If you look at the programs for SCAD or College of Charleston – I look at their classes all the time, a couple times a year just to see what they’re teaching.

They have lots of great classes about building mechanics and what makes a building fail and just things that would be really helpful for what I do today. When I was there, they did have a historical architectural class but that professor, Dr. Bryan, retired and they did not keep that class going. I feel like that program really needs to get back into – at least a class on historic architecture because you’ve got to understand the styles and what made them that style and what dates those styles do because just like for instance, I had a case going in front of our commission, where someone proposing something – some particular porch column or something and I’m like well that’s not really appropriate to the style of the building and the commission which is made up of volunteers – although, they are architects and things. They’re basically flat out in the middle of a meeting – isn’t this – asking – this is literally word from word, “Isn’t this all just fantasy cause you don’t know what was on the building. It was a portion that had been enclosed.  We don’t know what the original columns were.”

Having an understanding of historic architecture and all the buildings I’ve surveyed over the years at my previous job – I was like – well, no. You would have this particular porch column. The one I’m suggesting not the one that the applicant is suggesting. It’s critical to get that…foundation and everything else can build from there.

MC: Then what were some aspects of your training you thought that USC did really well when you were there?

SR:  They did a great job of laying the foundation for the overall principles that are accepted nationwide in preservation like understanding secretary of interior standards, understanding how the national register works and we wrote a national register nomination and those big ticket items that will get you almost…I like – I almost used the term brainwashed but it’s not what it is but it’s getting you into the mindset of a professional preservation person because there are people in the field who’ve never had that training and they kind of – they can do preservation, anyone can, it’s not brain surgery but they don’t necessarily understand the principles behind why they’re doing it or what might be appropriate or what might not.

MC: What were some of the courses that you took at USC that you thought were particularly influential and were there any professors who were particularly influential do you think?

SR: The one I mentioned before Dr. Bryan. He also taught preservation planning, which was very helpful. Then I had Dr. Weyeneth – of course, teaching the foundational ones.  Dr. Schulz was very helpful.  She had a research methods class, which really I enjoyed because I do enjoy researching quite a bit. That opened up all these other research methods and places I had not taught about before. Of course, museum management classes was really helpful as far as learning nonprofits and how board ship functions. I had a lot of great classes and basically every professor I had was good. I didn’t have any concerns with anybody.

MC: Could you talk a little bit then about your thesis and then how you came to your thesis topic?

SR: When I was in the program, they made you minor in history, which is not a problem for me cause I had a history degree. That meant I was in history classes with other history majors – graduate level and the professor was only a history professor — he wasn’t a public history professor…Dr. Mainey…I can’t remember…I’m sorry. I had him for like two courses. I had him for the level where you were supposed to be starting your thesis in the class like your eight hundred level paper that would then become your thesis. Since he wasn’t in public history, he was turning down all my ideas from my thesis because they weren’t a history topic. That was a little difficult. I wound up having to do a kind of a pseudo history on planning efforts in the city of Columbia designed to eliminate Black neighborhoods in the downtown.

Looking at the history of planning, it seemed like there were concerted efforts to eradicate Black neighborhoods and till this day in Columbia, it looks the way it does because those efforts became successful during the White flight and fight blight campaigns in the 1950s and 60s. That’s how I got to that topic – was trying to merge history with buildings somehow and planning. It certainly wasn’t groundbreaking.  No one would say that but I have been blessed with people using it. I know Dr. Linda Brown’s class used it last semester and Dr. Donaldson had his…I think his entry-level history kids reading it. I mean it’s gotten some readership, which is fantastic. I wish I had double-checked for typos now. [Laughs] Now, that people are actually reading it. [Laughs]

MC:  What were some of the topics that were too preservation oriented that you got rejected or things that you would’ve rather work on your thesis that you were unable to?

SR: I wanted to research on why the vista area in Columbia was a successful preservation effort and now that I have been here and seen the history of it, which was a huge fight in the early 1990s, I think it would’ve been a worthwhile topic. I didn’t know enough at the time to convince a professor of that. I just knew I liked the area like the buildings and I thought that it had an interesting history. I had been in the library looking at city directories from the early 1900s in that area and there were madams listed in the city directory like prostitutes listed in the city directory. [Laughs] I was like what kind of area was this…that they were just listing these women, ladies of the night in the city directory. I thought well that’s unusual…that’s an unusual part of town.

Anyway, that was one topic for…I remember and that was my first wish and when that didn’t work, I thought of something else that didn’t work. I can’t remember what that was at the time but I was interested in some buildings and some stories that was associated with the buildings and why they got preserved, why that’s working – and anyway it didn’t work out.

MC: Do you think that the research that you did for your thesis or for other classes that was really Columbia specific has that played any role in either attaining your current job or just kind of as a through current in the work that you do now?

SR: It may have helped to get the job.  I actually had an internship here during grad school. I had an internship with the city of Columbia, where I did a survey basically of downtown Columbia. I went and photographed every historic building and the original footprint of Columbia, which is the two – about two miles square and I think that probably set the stage for having a really good comprehension of what Columbia looks like now versus what it used to look like and where historic buildings are but yeah, probably has helped and I think that understanding that whole concept of why there are so many parking lots and vacant lots and why there are so many mid-century buildings in Columbia downtown is because of those efforts to get rid of the Black neighborhoods because a lot of them – the coliseum is a prime example is sitting on land that was a Black community. If you don’t understand why Columbia looks the way it does now it might be difficult to gage which buildings are important. So often we get requests to research buildings to see if they could become landmarks and having that contexts, that background context of Columbia – it looks like now and what it used to look like and why it looks that why has been helpful.

MC: How did the utility of your internship differ from your coursework and then how did it play into shaping your coursework and your eventual career?

SR: I had two internships since I did the museum management certificate.  I had one here and then I had one at the state museum with Dr. Fritz Hamer, who was their curator of history at the time. They were both useful because they got you in the real world –meeting people who do this everyday and you reeling it’s not at the Land of Oz, it’s just a normal job. [Laughs] Maybe you get to do things that you really like from time to time. Whereas – a lot of it crossover from classwork – a lot of research I did for the state museum internship, I did research on possible exhibits and topics.

I crossed over just fine. The national register work we did – I guess in class helped prepare me for the architectural survey here. Just looking at buildings critically and being able to describe them architecturally. What was the second half of the question?

MC:  Do you think in any way that your internships shaped your coursework or shaped the way that you approached your coursework?

SR: I certainly try to – I don’t know if they shaped.  I guess I did what my assignments were and did my internships. I did internships during the summer.  It didn’t seem – I wasn’t doing both at the same time but I don’t know. I guess I’ve always just done what people assigned. [Laughs] I tried to make everyone happy with the product. I really didn’t do a lot of crossovers. Some people did – you can double dip – use it for both, I didn’t get to do too much of that.

MC: While you were at USC, how did you think about the public history program within the larger history program?

SR:  I felt like we really got the shaft. [Laughs] It’s like we were the redheaded step kids or something. Really, I’d be sitting in a – I had to take several classes with history professors and history students because that was my minor. They would just – [Laughs] – they just believed that they’re true historians and we’re not. Whereas, I think history is no good if it’s not really getting out to the public. I just remembered sitting there thinking, wow we’re doing a lot of arguing with each other about interpretations of this history and these guys are gonna do this for the rest of their lives.

They’re going to argue with each other for the rest of their lives. I’m gonna go work on an old building. [Laughs] I do remember specifically, I think Dr. Johnson, one of my history professors, looked at the two of us – I think that were in the class that were public history majors and he said, “You must really like old buildings because you certainly aren’t gonna make any money.” [Laughs]  I was like…what? I didn’t know. I had no concept of how much I would earn with this degree because I had used some ridiculous career program in my undergrad that said museum directors made hundred grand a year.

When he said that – I was like, “Wait, a minute.” I researched and I was like, “Oh no. You don’t make much money.” [Laughs]  They were congenial too but certainly we were the other in the program, which I always found kind of interesting. Cause we had to take their classes, they never had to take any of ours. They probably had little understanding of what it was we did or hoped to do but which is perfectly human. I thought it was funny. [Laughs] They’re funny. They’re very smart, everyone is very smart but they want you to know it when you’re in history – a straight history – just a lot of top-dogging each other and I was like ew – I just want to go out to the public.

MC: Did public history ever come up in any of your history classes?

SR: Just in the ways I’ve mentioned just now. It didn’t really.

MC: But not in any real capacity.

SR: No. It was everything is on paper right.

MC: I don’t know how it was when you were at USC but now they have it where PhD students can do a field in public history…

SR: Mhmm.

MC: Was that something that they did when you were there?

SR: We did not have any PhD students in my classes that I can recall. I’m sure we probably did have one or two but the program has shifted since I was there to really push the PhD program. That’s a much — there much more prevalent now than when I was there. We didn’t really have any that I know of. Maybe – one or two. What was the question though?

MC: Did you have any PhD students when you were there who were either getting their masters in public history or were doing a field in public history?

SR: I want to say I knew at least one but I could not recall their name but it just wasn’t as big a deal because in my opinion – I know people at the university might disagree but the masters is a terminal degree for preservation.  There is no sense – in my opinion – in getting a PhD in preservation maybe history but not in preservation if you want to get a job because first of all, you don’t need it to get a job in preservation – a PhD – you do need a masters, I think. Also, they will not pay you any more than they would pay you if you – they can’t, the preservation jobs are so limited that I think it would almost be a hurt to have a PhD and looking for a job in this field because they would automatically – maybe — automatically think that we can’t pay you what you think you’re worth because you have a doctorate. That’s just a guess.

MC: Have you experienced that at all – meeting people who got their PhD in history or some other related field, who thought that they weren’t making as much as they deserved?

SR: I don’t know if they feel that way but I do know there is a PhD working at the state preservation office and I know people there don’t make – most of them don’t – at least the ones I am aware of, only be there a few years don’t make out of the thirties. I’ve applied for a job there. [Laughs] Last year. The pay scale with a masters preferably was between thirty-one or thirty-two and thirty-eight was the top. It didn’t matter if you had a PhD, they’re not – what are they going to do when you’re working for an agency like that — they don’t have a lot of wiggle room from what I understand.  The job did go to a girl fresh out of school. Of course, they can pay her at the bottom of the range — what’s the point of having a PhD in that scenario. There are people who are working there who have PhDs and who had worked there and left who had PhDs and they’re not making any more than the masters. I wouldn’t guess.

I haven’t seen their salaries but none of them are showing up on the state list that’s 50K and above I’ll tell you that.

MC: While you were at USC, were there any big kind of themes within your graduate study?

SR: No. Right after I left, the next batch dealt with a lot of segregate spaces in Columbia. When I was there we didn’t have any overriding theme. No.

MC: Was this idea of considering more diversity and kind of other spaces something that you think was increasing in the study at USC at the time?

SR: Dr. Weyeneth personal – professional interest. Maybe at the time, he was working on articles or something that helped steer that interest or projects he was creating for the students but when I was there I guess that wasn’t fully developed yet.

MC: Has your idea of public history kind of as an entity changed any since you graduated.

SR: Yes. I guess I thought of public history as the old house museums and working for the city or state perhaps but when I was looking for my first real job – I did not know that there were cultural resource management companies out there that would hire someone with my degree but they do. That’s where my first job was with The New South Associates as an architectural historian. That title scared me off at first cause I don’t know enough but really I did it was just the title imitating. I think the public history world that I was presented in grad school was somewhat limited.

When I got into the real world, I realized there’s a whole lot of people doing it that may not call themselves public historians. There’s also a whole field of crafts people like people who make replication moldings. People who work windows. People who fix historic cemeteries.  All these trades people are doing historic preservation and public history but they don’t understand that concept most of them have never gone to a formal program — not most but some. I guess have never gone – they just worked – they worked in the field with their hands – maybe they come from the construction industry or craft industry but it’s just much broader field than I thought at the time.

MC: Have you envisioned the future of public history programs?

SR: I think they – if I had my (Unintelligible 30:44) – I would even change the USC program. I have had discussions with Dr. Weyeneth to help make the program more job skills orientated because the things I learned in grad school versus the things I learned on the job – let’s say that’s all one big pie of knowledge that I know now – about ten percent of that is school and ninety percent was on the job. If you can change those numbers a little and help grad school become more of a training ground for real jobs in this industry – then I think that’s a positive direction to go in because not everyone is going to teach — not everyone needs a PhD – people need job skills and those job skills that I’m talking about include survey skills – simple thing of photographing buildings and getting the right angles on those.  You always have to be able to photograph buildings.  Understanding architectural styles – history of styles – communicating orally and in written form because right now I have to present to a commissary every month.

I have to make arguments and be argued with and those are like debate skills. Skills understanding the law — we did a good bit of that in the program when I was there. Obviously, the written skills too. There’s also understanding the lingo of the customer you’re going to eventually be getting to. I have to deal with customers in the construction industry. I need to understand the building components that I’m talking about. I’m talking about little practical things that could probably do a lot of good for people as they look for jobs.

MC: Do you think in that program such focus more on real life experience in the form of internships or do you think that could be done by mixing up the coursework?

SR: Probably both. Internships are invaluable. I really encourage people to do as many as you can – as you can afford to do – since they’re usually not paid. Even just shadow for a day or even just do what your doing…interviewing someone or pick a job that you think you might be interested in and just call them up and say I can come see what you do or attend a public meeting that we do. Those are practical things you can do. Another thing I think is looking at other – looking at what groups are doing that you like.  If there’s a group in Charleston – like there is a girl in Charleston that has a sustainability warehouse. She’s doing deconstruction of buildings to harvest as much material as possible.

That’s historic preservation – not in the traditional sense but in an involving way. Find out where the cool projects are and then go hunt them down or even interview them for a class or get an internship or something that. Another thing too – practically is business sense is understanding budgets and understanding architectural drawings too but we deal with people’s money everyday.  They want to do this and we’re telling them no — that’s going to either increase or decrease their budget and having basic concepts of those types of things would be really helpful. Some of that could be done in coursework.  Some of those programs do some of that like SCAD or Charleston — they do some of that. I think I would probably look to see what kind of things they do that might interest the USC kids.

MC: You mentioned talking to Dr. Weyenth about the USC program.  I guess my question would be do you still maintain ties with the university in any way?

SR: I do. I do email Dr. Weyenth probably several times a year. He sometimes asks for recommendations for projects for students. I had a lady who has a really fantastic – probably 1820s house downtown and had a very minimum national register nomination like a one page thing.  She was in knowing more about it – I reached out to him and said look this lady interested and — it’s pre-civil war there’s got to be some African American component on this site. I know that would probably peek his interest just because that’s his field of – his study. Thankfully, it did and they got in touch – the student – that was on their project for the semester. They got a good product out of it. I do feel like I maintained that tie and also, in that – on the board that I’m on is for historical grandoff cemetery and we hired a gratis from the program last year. We’ve had interns here with the city a couple times. I do try to maintain some relationship and try to help students when I can.

Cause I’m interested in them doing well and interested in the program doing well and this whole field as in general – there are good people out there.

MC: To wrap it up – why do you think that public history is important?

SR: I think that – one of the things that strikes me about going to places like just outside of Charlotte – where there’s a lot of new construction – it’s difficult to have any sort of sense of place. You don’t really know where you are – you’re in a little mini mall, that’s been almost created like a movie set to look like a downtown but you’re not downtown – you’re in the middle of nowhere basically with suburbia that has stretched out from a real downtown. I feel like you can be anywhere U.S.A. and there’s no sense of architecture – there’s nothing to identify you’re in this particular town. For me – from a preservation perspective, I think that the buildings, the communities, the cemeteries, even the sculptors anything that are historic that are part of – our forefathers put there is something to be cherished because it gives you a sense of unique location. When you’re in Charleston, you know you’re in Charleston. When you’re in Beaufort, you know you’re in Beaufort –

they’re both old but they’re each old in an unique way, which is kind of interesting.

I think it’s essential to giving people a sense of community and identity instead of all the new junk that keeps getting thrown up everywhere. For museums, obviously, people can’t look at things from our past and understand where we come from with artifacts and even clothing was found fascinating. It’s difficult to appreciate how far we’ve come and what we have today.

MC: Lastly, what motivated you to be interviewed?

SR: My desire to help the program and help students cause I think it’s a good program and I want it to succeed and continue to do well.

MC: Thank you.