Mind in the marketplace (Part 2): Encouragement for independent consultants?

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When I started graduate school in the now-distant year of 1979, public history was still in its infancy. Within view of the spot that I habitually occupied in the basement of the university library, two or three loose issues (the entire run to date) of The Public Historian perched precariously on an otherwise empty stack shelf. During moments of daydreaming (or was it deep thought?), I thumbed through them idly, and thus became acquainted with the then-novel concept of public history.

Public history is now well established — one might even say flourishing — both within the academy and without.  Plenty of people do history work outside of academe in a variety of institutional settings, supported by web sites, associations, and professional networks.  Particularly within the Ph.D. community, colleagues who have moved “beyond academe” have reached out to each other to offer advice and assistance.

Among practicing public historians, however, independent consultants are still a bit of a mystery.  Working for yourself seems to be an underrated and perhaps underappreciated opportunity for those who have historical training and are looking for a way to make a living using it.

The NCPH Consultants’ Committee reflects this mystery.  My observation from more than a decade of working both in and with the committee is that until recently most “consultants” affiliated with NCPH were employees of large consulting firms. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure, but the needs and interests of independent (i.e. self-employed) consultants diverge rather sharply from those of folks who work for (or own) consulting firms.  Independent consultants still need to forge an identity for themselves as an interest group within NCPH.

More people with historical training ought to be working independently.  More of them should not just be working independently, but should be earning a respectable full-time income from doing so.  And more of those who have figured out how to do this ought to be talking about it with their colleagues in the field.

As a general rule, historians (and humanists in general) are not big on entrepreneurialism.  It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure, but for at least some of us, the dirty business of operating one’s own enterprise is actually rather appealing.  It is to those individuals in particular (and to all other welcome onlookers) that I will be addressing my remarks in several subsequent posts for this series.  It’s my hope that this may encourage others who have found success and satisfaction as independent consultants to speak up as well.

In the next post I will discuss the mindset that adheres to independent consulting.  Inhabiting this territory comfortably can be the key to success–or failure–for an independent consulting venture.


— Christopher S. Clarke, Ph.D.

Exhibition Developer and Consulting Historian

Rochester, NY


  1. Graduate student says:

    Really looking forward to learning more about your path and reading your advice.

  2. As a museum historian, I specialized in the history of invention and innovation. The question of why some inventors capitalize on their invention and others don’t was always compelling, but I can’t say I truly understood it until I left the profession and started my own business. Now I get it – if you’re not scared and hungry, chances are you won’t succeed.

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