Ask a public historian: Anna Gibson Holloway
02 August 2018 – editors
Anna Gibson Holloway is the former maritime historian for the Maritime Heritage Program of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. Previously she was the vice president of collections and programs, as well as curator, of the USS Monitor Center at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. She has bachelor’s degrees in English Literature and Classical Civilization from UNC-Greensboro, and an MA and PhD in history from the College of William and Mary. She currently serves as the museum services director for SEARCH, Inc. and is the author (with Jonathan White) of “Our Little Monitor”: The Greatest Invention of the Civil War (Kent State University Press, 2018).
What led you to the job you have now?
I think if anyone had told me when I was in high school that I would one day be a maritime historian I would have thought they were crazy. For one thing, being from Piedmont North Carolina, the biggest body of water I saw on a daily basis was tiny Salem Creek. For another thing, back then I felt that history class was something to be endured, not enjoyed. No, I wanted to be a musician.
But I had always loved history outside of the classroom, and I was drawn to museums and historic sites, so much so that when a new historic house museum opened in Greensboro, North Carolina in the late 1980s, I began volunteering there for fun. Soon, I was hooked! I began looking for jobs within the field, though all of my work experience was in retail and music. Still, I sent out applications and tried to show that what I lacked in experience I made up for in quirky abilities—like being able to read Medieval Latin, work a lucet, and play the recorder. I had been cautioned by friends, colleagues, and professors to not add such useless information to my resume. Thankfully, I didn’t listen to them.
The first offer I got was as a seasonal interpreter on replica ships at Jamestown Settlement in Williamsburg, Virginia. Two things on my application had caught their eyes: I could read Latin, and I could read music. It seemed they needed someone to translate seventeenth-century legal documents, and they had a daily concert on the ships and needed musicians, too. So, in 1990 I ran off to sea for a seasonal job that paid minimum wage.
I ate a lot of ramen noodles.
I also ran off to graduate school. My ultimate goal was to work at a maritime museum, or with a government maritime heritage program. I knew I needed advanced degrees. Along the way, I saw everything as an opportunity. I took every chance if it meant I would gain a new skill.
I’ll be honest, it wasn’t an easy road. Permanent positions can be hard to come by, particularly in maritime heritage. So I worked contract jobs for any type of museum that would have me (meaning I was historically agile, and that I had costumes that covered five different centuries). I performed in an eighteenth-century circus (where I added fire eating and mind reading to my CV). I worked for a few years as an educator in an art museum. And it paid off. I spent fourteen wonderful years at The Mariners’ Museum as USS Monitor Center curator (and Vice President of Collections and Programs) before an opportunity with the National Park Service (NPS) came along.
What was the biggest opportunity that you accepted?
When I started as director of education at The Mariners’ Museum, my specialty was sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sailing ships. So, it came as a complete shock when the CEO, John Hightower, approached me about taking on the creation of the USS Monitor Center—the biggest project that institution had ever undertaken.
A nineteenth-century iron ship? With no sails? Who, me?
His reasoning was strategic. He wanted the planned 20,000-square-foot exhibition to appeal to more than just Civil War fanatics who were mostly older, and mostly male. He wanted a scholar—but not a Civil War scholar. And, he wanted an educator instead of the traditional curator. It was at once terrifying and exhilarating. So I dove headlong into the world of Civil War ironclads, and that’s where I found my true calling. Along the way I transformed into a curator, and a nineteenth-century maritime specialist.
My experience with The Mariners’ Museum then opened up a new opportunity for me. When the NPS revived its Maritime Heritage Program in 2014, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Instead of being focused on one institution and one ship, the NPS position allowed me to engage with the national maritime heritage community in exciting new ways. Perhaps my favorite part is that we were able to provide grants to maritime museums or historic ships (thanks to our partnership with the Maritime Administration or MARAD), thus allowing greater public access to these national treasures. Sadly, that was a term position which came to an end in 2017. But I am still working with maritime museums and heritage artifact collections around the country in my new role as Museum Services Director for SEARCH, Inc.—a global cultural resource management firm.
What advice do you have for someone looking for that first PH (public history) job?
The hardest part of breaking into the public history field is getting your foot in the door. Volunteering or interning at a place is a way for you to gain experience, and for the institution to get to know you. Of course, volunteering doesn’t pay the bills. But even if it means giving up your only day off, volunteering is an important first step for many wishing to break into the field.
I would also suggest not limiting yourself to the specific type of position you want. For example, if you want to be a museum curator at a particular institution, but the only positions are in security or visitor services, I would encourage you to apply for those positions. These are the departments where you will learn the most about an institution in the shortest amount of time, and give you the best perspective on what visitors want. I believe that front-line work is essential to becoming a good public historian.
Seasonal positions are also a good way to gain experience early on—and if you are willing to move in order to take one (either with a private institution or a government agency), then your opportunities expand exponentially.
Finally, join professional groups like NCPH, AAM, or your regional museum association. The conferences are fun and informative, and you will be well on your way to building a network that you will keep for the rest of your career.
~ 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.