Preparing for a Career in Public History

Tiger Tracks for careers in Public History


"Public historians come in all shapes and sizes. They are called historical consultants, museum professionals, government historians, archivists, oral historians, cultural resource managers, curators, film and media producers, historical interpreters, historic preservationists, policy advisers, local historians, and community activists, among many other titles.  All share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere."
- The National Council on Public History

The fields of public history and historic preservation are dynamic and diverse. Professions in these fields cover a wide range of governmental, private, and collaborative work environments, sharing in common a love of history and the desire to preserve and interpret historical resources for the public. Given the abundance of historical resources and sites in Virginia, and the strong history program at H-SC, students with an interest in public history careers are well placed to explore and find success in these fields.


Students should take a range of history classes to provide a broad base of historical knowledge, focusing much coursework on American history. Independent study courses allow students to focus research on a specific interest area and allow for special opportunities, such as designing an exhibit for the Atkinson Museum or presenting a paper at a professional conference. Students with a special interest in historic preservation should consider appropriate classes in visual arts. In addition to courses in American history, students might also want to take: Introduction to Historical Methods (HIST 299), Public Finance (ECON), Philanthropy (INDS), Public Speaking (RHET), and Topics in Art History (Virginia Domestic Architecture).

Programs and Extracurricular Activities

The Hampden-Sydney Atkinson Museum offers students many opportunities to gain skills and knowledge in public history, including volunteering, serving on the Student Museum Board or, in consultation with H-SC Museum Director Angie Way working on special exhibits. Students are also urged to join the Architectural Society, which regularly focuses on activities surrounding historic buildings.

Nearby, students can volunteer at the Moton Museum, the Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox, or Sailor's Creek National Battlefield Site, or any of the other local historical sites and museums. Volunteering not only provides useful experience, but also develops professional contacts in the field. The Virginia Association of Museums and the National Council on Public History provide students with a discounted member rate and a vast array of professional development activities.

Preparation for Employment

Hampden-Sydney students have interned at many area historic sites and museums, including the Museum of the Confederacy, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Museum of the Civil War Soldier at Pamplin, among others. The History Department webpage has a list of internship opportunities, and students should consult with their academic advisor when searching for internships. Students interested in Historic Preservation should consider internship or volunteer opportunities at the many regional historic buildings and homes.

Entering the Professional Conversation

Volunteer opportunities, internships, and other summer opportunities are invaluable when seeking a career in public history. It is never too early to seek out opportunities for hands-on experience, such as archaeological digs and museum internships or jobs. Museums offer many ways to explore the public history field, such as exhibit openings and installations, conservation reviews, or development of interpretative materials.

Networking with alumni and friends of the College can also be very useful in gaining industry knowledge. Many alumni of Hampden-Sydney work in the fields of public history and historic preservation, and are happy to conduct informational interviews with interested students. The Career Education Office, Alumni Relations, and faculty and staff, such as Dr. Emmons, Dr. Coombs, Professor Prevo, and the H-SC Museum Director Angie Way can help connect interested students to alumni for networking opportunities.

Examples of opportunities to gain experience in public history:
A Yorktown historian is planning to attend a meeting on the progress of exhibits at Yorktown's new facility. He would obtain permission, if required, to invite an H-SC student to attend with him and prepare a short general description of the meeting. The student will do light research on the organization and materials to be discussed. After attending the meeting, the student will write a short description of the experience and offer input on its value to him and his future career.

Another example:
Appomattox's Confederate Museum branch plans on loaning items to another Museum. The student would visit for one day and assist with the outgoing inventory, packing, or overseeing of loading of the materials to achieve an understanding of safe museum practices for the transportation of objects.

Alumni with careers in public history