Friday, October 21, 2011

Am I a Living Historian?

Once, when I was 28 and unemployed I was confronted by my landlord in an awkward driveway encounter. It was the middle of the afternoon, when most adults are at work and on seeing me arrive at home to enter my apartment my landlord asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a historian doing freelance work, mostly working for theater companies as a dramaturge. In reality I had just finished a stint as Production Manager of a Renaissance faire and was applying for any job I could find. I was doing a lot of history writing, but it was mostly for small stipends, and most real historians would look for the nearest vat of hot tar if they’d heard me say it. But my landlord’s reaction was mostly surprise, and definitely a higher level of respect. I look younger than I am, and I suppose one does rather expect historians to have grey beards and sit in armchairs while smoking pipes. So putting myself in the category of a learned academic meant that I was not going to be questioned about if I could pay my rent, or why I was returning home in the middle of the day.

I have been thinking about this recently because of all the stories about the unemployed who spent 20 years in the same industry but since they have been laid off have lost part of their identity. Can you call yourself a stockbroker if you don’t actually get paid to broker stocks? At the time what little money I had coming in was made by working in the field of history. But not everyone who works in the field of surgery is a surgeon.
In Stacy Roth’s book “Past into Present” at the beginning of her chapter on the Visitor she purposefully evokes the professional when talking about visitor relations.

“From a business angle, interpreters [which Roth defines as one who: translates material culture and human or natural phenomena to the public] provide a service and visitors are the customer. While such a statement sounds crassly commercial and clinical, it is a notion that cannot be ignored by anyone who earns a livelihood from historical interpretation. It separates the professional from the dabbler. Admittedly, many interpreters forget or ignore this responsibility. But the concerned professional interpreter, salaried or independent, and the serious hobbyist or volunteer care about the visitor experience.” - Stacy Roth, Past into Present

So while at first it might seem like Roth defines the professional as those earning their livelihood from LH she then does leave room for those not employed at museums (the independent) and those who don’t make money at it (the serious hobbyist and volunteer.) I’m encouraged that there might be room for me in Roth’s definition of the professional.

If I again find myself in the situation where I need a professional moniker but don’t have a full time job would I consider telling folks I’m a historian? Probably, though I do like the sound of Living Historian almost as much.

1 comment:

  1. I always use the term Living Historian, but I am also a writer, author, experimental archaeologist,DVD author and a primitive skills instructor. I daresay I could add more to the list. I have this thing about people asking me "what do you do", always refering to how you earn money. Why should one be defind by ones payed job?! My answere is usually "anything I want".