What inspired you to write the book?
Three answers: First, my friends in St. Louis, upon hearing my various adventures with Lewis & Clark, would tell me I needed to write them down. When I finished the exhibition, I decided they were right. If I didn’t record the stories, I would forget them. I had such a good time writing that I decided to write about some of the other fun projects I’d worked on. Second, I decided that my stories could serve a nobler cause and demonstrate that the pursuit of history can be fun, an adventure. History should not be about rote memorization of facts, but more like detective work. Third, I’m hoping that this book will inspire other public historians to write about their projects.
Did you really receive a grizzly in the mail?
Yes, read about it in chapter 12. The working title for many years was “For the Love of History,” which I thought articulated the essence of the book. But I came to realize that the title would not grab the attention of a broader audience, especially those people who say they don’t like history. One chapter was already titled “A Grizzly in the Mail” so I did an online poll of variations of that title with a wide group of friends and the winner ended up the official title.
What was your favorite project?
The Lewis and Clark exhibition. I had the luxury of working on one topic for three years and could dig deep into its many layers. The team I worked with was top-rate and of course, the story. The strong narrative of the saga of exploration against many odds and through rich, complex cultures was totally fascinating to me. With each new project I step into a new world, so to speak, but Lewis and Clark was more literal than other times.
What advice do you have for aspiring historians or people trying to pursue a
I am living proof that students of history can get a job in the history field. The key components are: a graduate degree—for most professional history jobs, it helps to have a master’s degree in a history-related area; perseverance with a capital P; internships—don’t hesitate to work at unpaid internships if you can afford it, even a day or two a week, or volunteer as a docent, show that you want to be at work in the field; informational interviews —network, network, network, many people get jobs through networking and meeting new people through interviews. For me, an informational interview led to a career at the Smithsonian. Also, be flexible and willing to move or work at a place you may not think will lead anywhere.
What is your favorite adventure in the book?
So many to choose from! I suppose it would be the story from the title. Not many people can say they received a grizzly in the mail. A close second is my attempts to ride a highwheel bicycle. That was a day I won’t forget. Planting a cotton patch and picking cotton with visitors watching was fun, too. A favorite story, not adventure, is the story about the corn mill and how its utility as a time-saving tool was lost because Lewis and Clark presented it to the men instead of the women.
Of all of the museums you have worked at, which is your favorite?
They are each different in their own way and truly one-of-a-kind. I can’t choose one.
Favorite time period?
Every historian gets this question on a regular basis. I can honestly get interested in any time period. There are fascinating stories from any time in the past. Certainly periods of war tend to provide more points of drama and tension and amazing heroics, but history is about change over time and that fascinates me.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a book for ages 10-14 about the first flight around the world. It is an incredible story that few people know. I’m working with an original journal from the journey and over 400 photographs. Great fun. Look for it in 2015.
Why don’t some people like history?
My theory is it starts in the classroom. At some point in their education people who “hate” history were forced to memorize dates and names and failed to see the fun of discovery and exploration that is part of a historian’s job. Some people claim they just don’t care about what happened in the past, but they need to see how everything about the present is informed by what happened before. As I say in the book, I’m convinced that anyone can be learn to enjoy some aspect of studying the past.