Ask a public historian: Jessica Baldwin Phillips
25 September 2017 – editors
Jessica Baldwin Phillips was raised and educated in New York’s historically rich Hudson Valley. After receiving a BA in history from Marist College (with minors in politics and philosophy), she went on to obtain an MA in public history at the University at Albany. Learning from museum greats at institutions such as the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, and the Hudson River Valley Institute, Jessica parlayed her experience and education into her current position. Her passion for historical collections, American history, and museum leadership has brought her great satisfaction and success in the field. Her personal interests are gender equity and cat rescue.
What was your career trajectory?
My undergraduate major was history, a subject I love. The goal: become a lawyer. It was a career I was told I’d excel at due to my argumentative and determined nature, plus I was attracted to the earning potential. I plodded through my courses but in my senior year my vision of my adult self was disappointing—always at battle with a cash reward for victory. This was my “Aha!” moment. I realized I wanted to build a career in public service using history as a platform.
My favorite way to access history was through museums, so why not work at one? I investigated schools that offered advanced degrees in public history and museum and/or curatorial studies. But I had sticker shock. The job listings for entry-level museum positions didn’t match the debt that I would take on, and my job as a waitress barely covered my living costs. I chose a state college and only took out the necessary loans.
I got my degree in a year and half and attempted to start my career as a public historian just as the 2008 economy tanked. Five months after graduating I moved to a new city to start my first paid museum job as a volunteer coordinator. I never thought I would be managing volunteers after graduate school, but I was thrilled to have a paying job that had health benefits. Over the next several years I learned the skills to manage staff and effectively navigate bureaucracy. I made a lot of industry connections, which helped me when I started to look for a position more related to curatorial practices. It took nearly two years and dozens of applications to find my next job, which was as a curator.
What was the biggest opportunity that you accepted?
I was originally hired as a curator. I didn’t think it could get any better. I was living my dream, plus I had health insurance—history worker euphoria. Within the first year I was promoted to museum director while maintaining my curatorial responsibilities. One year later I was offered the vacant executive directorship. I wanted to say “no, thank you.” I didn’t picture my personal mission being fulfilled through budget drafting, board relations, and the quagmire of administration. Luckily, a wise board member told me that as the executive director, I would be setting the strategic plan, essentially paving the way for the museum growth I saw so easily within reach. It was an opportunity to make real change. I accepted but not before successfully negotiating for the same salary my male predecessor had received.
What was your favorite project?
My favorite project was starting the curatorial and collections management internship program. I knew I never wanted to be a classroom teacher, but I love working with individual students, recent graduates, and those wondering what to do with their history degrees.
I take great pride in mentoring and learning from interns. I like watching them put museum theory into practice. Interns have done amazing things, such as nearly complete a collection inventory. I’ve hired three former interns for fulltime positions.
I believe internship programs are essential to mission access and community relevance.
What advice do you have for someone looking for that first public history job?
The clichés abound, but my favorite advice—and the hardest advice I received when I complained about being a waitress with a masters degree—was: looking for a full-time job is a full-time job. I knew what I had to do. I did it with only a few millennial tantrums.
Are you working at the museum’s admissions desk or in an unrelated field to pay the bills, but you really want to be a curator? Volunteer on weekends in a curatorial department. Attend conferences. Dive deep into finding out who your area history-worker pioneers and leaders are, and make their acquaintance.
~ This post is part of our series “Ask a Public Historian,” brought to you by NCPH’s New Professional and Graduate Student Committee. Follow the committee on Twitter at @NCPHnewgrad. You can find more “Ask a Practitioner” posts here.