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VCU launches public history certificate program, providing skills and hands-on experience at historic sites in Richmond and beyond

Emily Jones, a master's degree student in the Department of History, is interning with the St. Jo...
Emily Jones, a master's degree student in the Department of History, is interning with the St. John's Church Foundation, conducting independent research into their cemetery. Internships like Jones' will be a key component of VCU's public history certificate program. (Photo by Brian McNeill)

Between the 1740s and 1820s, an estimated 1,300 people were buried at Richmond’s historic St. John’s Church, but only a small percentage have been identified. Those who have, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s first editor, Thomas W. White, are typically buried at the highest level and have grave markers. The rest have no headstones, and many are buried around the foundation of the church.

Emily Jones, a graduate student in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, is interning this semester with the St. John's Church Foundation to identify as many of the people buried at the church as possible, learn what she can about their lives and build a publicly accessible database of the findings.

“We hope to find exciting stories of past Virginians that can be included in St. John’s tours or literature, and to be able to share these records with the public,” Jones said.

Internships like Jones’ have long been a cornerstone of VCU’s master’s degree of history program. Now, the Department of History is launching a new public history certificate program. It will feature an internship but also will be focused on preparing students for the growing number of careers in public history — including jobs at museums, archives, libraries, historic sites and government agencies, and involving historic manuscript editing, oral history, travel tourism, historic re-enactments, artifact curation and podcasts.

There is no better laboratory for public history than Richmond, Virginia.

“There is no better laboratory for public history than Richmond, Virginia,” said Ryan Smith, Ph.D., director of graduate studies and professor in the Department of History. “All the state’s historical agencies are centered here in the capital, as are many museums, monuments, historical sites, programs and archives in a wide range of size and scale. The region’s past spans all major eras of American history, and residents today are always discussing and debating what that past means. Our department and this certificate program are perfectly positioned to train students to engage with these many resources and make real contributions to the public and the profession.”

The new public history certificate will require 15 credit hours, half the credits required for the thesis track of VCU’s master’s degree in history.

The idea, Smith said, is that the certificate will prepare a greater number of students for public history jobs while helping meet the workforce needs of historic sites, museums and other organizations in Virginia and across the country.

“So many of our current master’s students are interested in public history careers after they graduate and are coming here because Richmond is such a rich historical community to do this kind of work in, that we’ve seen [public history training] as an essential component of our program,” he said. “Teaching and research are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to historical work.”

Though the certificate itself is new, it will rest on a public history program in VCU’s Department of History that has been in place for decades.

“Our graduate students have been doing internships at notable institutions for at least 20 years, and we have been offering a coherent set of courses on public history for at least 15 years,” Smith said. “So we have a remarkable longevity and track record for this kind of work. The certificate program recognizes this and gives us additional momentum going forward.”

Kevin Cale, a master’s degree student in history, for example, interned last spring at the Petersburg National Battlefield. He conducted research into City Point, the logistical hub for the Civil War’s Petersburg campaign of 1864-65.

“My research focused on reviewing the autobiographies and letters of many of the key Union Army players as well as going through the War of the Rebellion Official Records looking for items that related to City Point operations,” Cale said. “The result of this was a compilation of material that helped to paint a picture of the buildup, operations, the explosion of an ammunition ship, stockage of various items of supplies, and the use of the rail system for resupply of troops at the front.”

Cale’s internship also involved assisting park rangers at Appomattox Manor, now a museum at the City Point Unit of the Petersburg National Battlefield.

“I shadowed the rangers to learn about park operations as well as how they interacted with the public visiting the park,” he said. “Because of my research on the various logistical aspects of City Point operations, there were several times where I was involved in answering questions as well as walking visitors through the diorama explaining the layout of the site.”

Public history generally refers to any historical work that is outside of teaching in the classroom and academics. Importantly, the field has a different relationship with its audience. With traditional history — say, in a history class at school — the students are a captive audience and expected to learn the material and then move on. Public historians typically do not have a captive audience.

“The audience works in a different dynamic for a public historian because of what we call ‘shared authority,’ in that people who come to a museum or provide an oral history, testimony, or are participating in a historic site's recovery, are sharing in the authority as historians,” Smith said. “They’re providing source material, they’re making their own conclusions, they’re bringing their own portion to that debate, to our understanding of what the past means and what it means to us today.”

“Working with an audience that is not a class of students who are mandated to be there creates a very interesting, fun, challenging, oftentimes conflicted dynamic between what a public historian might want to get across and what a public may want to hear or may want to challenge,” he added.

The public history certificate program will train historians to work in Richmond and beyond.

“One of the things I warn people about [is that] if you get a job at a historical society, you will willy-nilly become an expert on whatever that historical society does. And then, five years later, your partner gets transferred to Idaho. It’s hard then to go to Idaho and say, ‘I know everything about Richmond, Virginia. I need a job,’” said John Kneebone, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of History. “It’s easier to go to Idaho saying, ‘I’ve been properly trained, I know what historians do, I can step in here and pick up the history and do the job.’”

Students entering the new certificate program will take a course on the theory and methods of public history, which will get them grounded in the field, and at least one internship.

The students will then take a deeper dive into more specific skills, including oral history, material culture, digital history, documentary editing, historic preservation, the study of memory and more.

“Whether they’re in the certificate program or the master’s program, if they’re interested in public history they’re getting what you might call meat-and-potatoes academic training and research skills, while they’re also getting this really hands-on, unique, committed method and approach with the best of our public history community in our area,” Smith said.

Public history is what excites many people about the study of the past, and the new certificate program seeks to recognize that fact, he said.

“Traditional academic historians have not always been good about that — they often just assumed that their scholarship was interesting or that everybody is coming to [an understanding of history] the same way they did, often through books,” he said. “But today, we understand that the general public — our students — come to history through public history. For that reason alone, it’s essential that our graduates grapple with all these methods and means.”

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 217 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Thirty-eight of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center and Level I trauma center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.