Historical Interpreters

Recommended if… you love speaking in front of diverse groups of people. Unlike teaching in a classroom, this work allows you to move within actual historical environments about which you have expertise. You will work with a wide range of ages and cultural groups, including foreign visitors.

Requirements… First and foremost, these careers require great presentation skills. Animated speaking abilities, the ability to answer questions clearly and concisely, knowing what audiences are interested in through subtle cues, and outstanding oral and narrative skills are all essential to historical interpretation. While many seasonal positions are available for people of varying educational experience, full-time positions benefit from an undergraduate or master’s degree, or even a PhD.

Introduction

Historical interpreters navigate the public through history: you are a guide who bridges the past with your audience as you take them through curated exhibitions, historical sites, and landscapes. It is a stimulating career choice for a historian as they get to share their knowledge directly with a diverse set of visitors, each of whom will react in their own ways to the historical narratives presented, and bring their own set of questions and ideas about what the history means to them. This means that the historical interpreter needs to be able to “read” their audiences in order to present information that the audience can best relate to. Visitors can range from small children to foreign tourists to retirees, and often include people from varied economic, cultural, and regional backgrounds. Any interpretive tour, exhibit, or resources is intended to provoke a response from the audience, to stimulate their experience in a site-specific way relating to the past and the visitor’s own experiences of the present.

Historical interpreter and public programmer Adrian Petry of St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre in Ontario comments: “Interpretation requires style and passion. An interpreter isn’t just a tour guide; an interpreter is the one who will connect a resource with the visitor, a connection that needs to be made so that visitors establish emotional attachments to institutions, artefacts, etc.”

Scope of work

Historical interpreters may also take on a curatorial role, collecting materials for, designing, and installing self-guided exhibitions. Creating literature, website content, educational audio and video, and other materials may also fall within the purview of the historical interpreter. Many of an interpreter’s responsibilities, when s/he is not giving tours and/or creating exhibitions and materials, are administrative. One job in the field, for example, divided the position into 40% public interaction, 40% administration of the visitor’s centre, and 20% various duties that ranged from writing an article, providing off-site interpretation for the local community, and leading canoe trips and educational events at festivals.

Jobs in historical interpretation may include working in museums, historic buildings, corporations, parks, library exhibitions, and public attractions. Some interpreters are self-employed, making a living giving historic walking tours of towns and cities during the tourist season, holidays, or even year-round. The tours might be about the local social life and culture, or about the history of war, crime, or hauntings. Historical interpretation provides an opportunity to match a passion (for example with wilderness areas or wildlife) with history and public presentation. Positions vary from seasonal (summer work during tourist seasons) to full-time (museums or indoor historic sites).

Challenges of Bureaucracy

The publically employed historian-interpreter is not free to individually interpret historical events and meanings. Generally, employers have their own set of mandates and messages that they wish to convey to audience members, and it is your job to deliver this. Bureaucracy and regulations can be also cumbersome. Those considering careers as historical interpreters should consider how they feel about the ethical issues of their work, and seek positions that are consistent with their own ethical framework.

There may be opportunities to conduct supplementary research, write articles or books, or expand upon the repertoire of historical interpretation – although to do this within the framework of your job will likely require the approval of your employers. Employers’ approval may also be necessary if you wish to create materials outside of your career that directly relates to the work you do.

Location

Sites for historical interpretation are sometimes rural and isolated, if often located in truly stunning locations. Employees at these sites are housed on-site in accommodations that can range from outdated trailers to brand new, state of the art residences. You have to be willing to move around the country for career advancement for certain jobs. If you have a partner or family, they may not be able to follow you to these places if they already have commitments in their home community.

Career promotions in historical interpretation often move people to more administrative, behind-the-scenes positions including supervisory and coordinating roles. Promotions can also mean responsibility for a variety of historical sites, not just one.

Some starting points

Have a look at the starting points listed under Libraries, Archives, Museums & Historical Societies. There are many suggestions under Museums and Historical societies at the bottom of the description that will benefit historical interpreters.

You can learn more this career by speaking directly with historical interpreters themselves as well as considering the value of further education, such as a Master’s degree in Public History.

For job listings, check the National Council on Public History. Other postings will be found with specific institutions, such as Parks Canada, the National Parks Service in the U.S., as well as specific museums, historical buildings and places, municipalities, and so forth.

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Do you have further insights on careers in historical interpretation, or additional information that we can add here? If so, please contact us so we can refine this resource.