The process by which I came to work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the work that I do here, forms a tale that has both cautionary and encouraging elements. It’s encouraging, in that it offers hope for those people (like me, circa 1997) who believe they are professionally doomed because they study dead white European guys, and soldiers to boot. On the other hand, there was a good deal of luck involved, and readers should also be aware of the potential pitfalls in this line of work.
I received my undergrad degree in history from St. Lawrence University in 1981. Following service as an army officer and some time in the civilian business world, I returned to school in 1989, first at San Jose State University, where I received an MA in European History, and then at Ohio State, from which I received my PhD in Military History in 1998 (with subfields in early modern and modern European history).
Just at the end of my graduate studies, my advisor was able to get me an inside track for a job with a federal commission in Washington. That was interesting work, and did call upon my skills as a researcher and writer, but it had little to do with history. After a little over a year with the commission, I saw an announcement for a position at the Museum. Since I knew the commission job was going to disappear shortly, I applied, and got the job as an Applied Research Scholar with the Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies (CAHS). My primary duty is to serve as project leader and editor-in-chief for the Museum’s seven-volume Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945.
Why did I get the job? Well, I can say confidently that it had nothing to do with my knowledge of the Holocaust, or of putting together a multi-volume, multi-author work, since I was woefully ignorant in both realms. It also had nothing to do with my expertise in military history, since that is largely irrelevant to my main job. It had far more to do (as far as I can tell) with my ability to express myself verbally and in writing, my interpersonal and organizational skills, and my fluency in German. The fact that some enthusiastic and persuasive people served as references was a key advantage, too.
What does my work involve? Our Encyclopedia attempts to provide information about each individual camp or ghetto that the Nazis or their minions ran; we try to explain each site’s purpose, the kinds of prisoners it held, what kind of work they did, how they lived and died, and who guarded them, among other things. The process for completing the volumes entails creating a comprehensive list of sites; identifying and recruiting contributors; maintaining a complex database to track authors and entries; editing the entries for content; translating many of the entries into English; working with the authors on revisions; carrying out in-house research; writing entries for which we could not find contributors; identifying and preparing photographs; creating maps; working with the publisher on design, copy editing, proofing, indexing, and marketing; and managing the project’s finances. Naturally, no one person can do all this; the job involves working with or supervising dozens of Museum staff members, research assistants, interns, and volunteers, as well as others outside the Museum, especially the hundreds of contributors. Progress is slow – we worked on our first volume for eight years – and there are a nearly infinite number of frustrating little details to manage. But at the end of it all there’s the satisfaction of having created something significant and useful.
As for other duties and opportunities, I do also get to go out and give guest lectures and conference presentations several times a year, around the country and overseas. Some of these have drawn on the encyclopedia work, while for others I have simply added to my expertise on the German army by concentrating on the army’s role in the Holocaust and other crimes. On an informal basis, within the Museum I am also the “go to” guy on questions relating to military history. Additionally, my work has given me the chance to keep my German fluent, since most of my correspondence has been with German contributors.
So, the nature of the work is a plus. It is challenging and varied, as well as important: I come in every day knowing that, by working where I do, I am contributing to something larger than my own paycheck. The people with whom I work are great, as well, and that is a factor that no one should underestimate when considering job satisfaction. The main disadvantage to the job, at least for me, is that I can only teach and write on my own time. I do almost no research for the Encyclopedia, and the only things I have written for it have been short introductions, funding applications, and the like. There is no teaching involved, unless you count the occasional guest lecture (but hey, there’s no grading, either!). And, at least in this institution, one is bound by federal regulations that can be irksome at times. All things considered, however, this is a great place to work, and I encourage everyone to explore museum work as an employment option. There are museum job listings on the Chronicle of Higher Education website(http://chronicle.com/jobCateory/Museums/192/), the American Association of Museums also has jobs on their website(http://www.aam-us.org/aviso/index.cfm), and the government also hires museum people (go to http://www.usajobs.gov/).
Lastly, I should point out that my experience is probably not typical of museum work. The USHMM is somewhat unusual, in that it has its own scholarly center. CAHS functions, in some ways, like a professional organization for the field of Holocaust Studies: we publish an academic journal, support fellows, and host seminars and symposia, as well as answering inquiries from the public and working on our own research projects.
Outside of CAHS, as in other museums, there are also other trained historians here at USHMM who serve as curators, educators, archivists, and librarians. Their duties are many and varied. A curator, for example, is responsible for the selection and incorporation of artifacts, researching and writing exhibition text, handling all issues and inquiries pertaining to the exhibition, and often writing the exhibition catalog. Such a job requires both broad historical knowledge and familiarity with the relevant artifacts, and historians are often the first choice for museums whose subject matter is historically based.