History Relevance in Action: A Conversation with author Tim Grove

One of the many joys I’ve had in my career is getting to know terrific colleagues who are doing great work on behalf of the history enterprise. Tim Grove is one of the founders of History Relevance (formerly the History Relevance Campaign), an author, the chair of the 2018 AASLH annual meeting, and a fellow history professional who, like me, proudly carries the “History Geek” moniker.

As you read through this, I encourage you to think about your own career path and how linear it was (or wasn’t) and ponder the passion that Tim exudes as you read how he discusses his life and career. I hope in each, you’ll find a bit of encouragement for your own career — and perhaps some ideas to share with those you mentor formally or informally.

Tim standing underneath Space Shuttle Discovery at the Kennedy Space Center.

Share a bit about you, your academic and professional background.

I’ve loved history since as long as I can remember but studied journalism/public relations in college. The reason being no one told me about public history and I knew I didn’t want to be a formal educator. I took as many history classes as I could though. After getting my degree, I realized my passion for the past wasn’t going away and I decided to try and make a career out of it rather than an avocation. At that point I found out about public history. Ultimately a journalism/public history combination has served me very well. It’s important to know how to write well.

One spring during grad school I went for an informational interview with the Curator of Education at the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian. That summer I had a grad internship at Colonial Williamsburg, then in the Fall I snagged a part-time job at the Portrait Gallery in education. Through that job I realized that I wanted to go into museum education. That job eventually helped me get a permanent job at the Smithsonian where I worked for twenty years at three different museums. Along the way I became involved in exhibition development and was among those first people thinking how museums could use the new technology called the internet.

Where did your love of history come from?

I grew up surrounded by Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Gettysburg and visiting history sites on family vacations. I just loved Williamsburg. It felt like a foreign country. Somehow history came to life for me when I could picture where it happened. For me the power of place is very real. One would think then that I would be working at the historic site, but somehow I’ve always been at history museums.

I gravitated toward public history/museums while in grad school. My summer at Williamsburg enthralled me and there was no doubt in my mind that I would do everything in my power to forge a career in public history.

You were one of the catalysts in creating the History Relevance Campaign, can you share some thoughts on that? What was your thinking there? Why was it important? Why now?

It was fall 2012 when the movie Lincoln was playing in theaters. I was fed up with the great emphasis on STEM then STEAM and started asking the question that others were asking: What about history? Why isn’t it valued? People will flock to see a history movie in theaters, but the funding all seems to go toward STEM.

Why does history have such a poor brand, if you can call it that? A small group of committed people kept talking about this, recognizing that the topic wasn’t new, but the problem is real and the past efforts to affect change had not worked well. Could we come up with a new approach to spur the conversation?

EDITOR’S NOTE: In some ways, this work embodies the principles of Ordinary People, Extraordinary Change

That is the genesis of History Relevance. The goal is not only to start a national conversation, but to engage the entire history spectrum, and get them to really think about how they can demonstrate their relevance to audiences and funders.

Relevance and value are deeply intertwined. To be relevant you need to make it personal.

Of course this was before “fake news” and now the need to show the value of history, teach historical thinking skills, and make connections between the past and present is even greater.

The AASLH annual meeting theme Truth or Consequences is inspired by History Relevance but also by current events, talk a little bit about that.

The two topics I’m thinking and writing a lot about recently are relevance and historical thinking. The theme manages to incorporate both of these, ultimately focusing on the challenges of interpreting a complex past, something anyone in public history knows well. But what does it mean to tell the whole story?

This intersection of trust, truth, relevance, and value fascinates me. We as a field are not doing the best job we could to show the complexity of the past and why it matters. We can and should do a better job.

To do this, we need to talk more with each other and see excellent examples of relevance in practice. That’s what a great meeting does, bring people together.

What hopes do you have for how this conference theme will resonate with the field? How can interested parties help — even those who can’t attend in person?

I hope the conference will spur the field to start talking more about how we can teach critical thinking skills and multiple perspectives, how we can teach empathy and show our process. We need to tell visitors that we don’t have all of the answers, but this is how we’ve drawn certain conclusions. We must find ways to show visitors the historical evidence and challenge them to draw some conclusions from it. Visitors want our authenticity, transparency and honesty, as well as our expertise.

A few years ago, you began a writing career. Can you share a little bit about what you’ve written and how you’ve developed as a writer?

Tim Grove with the World Cruiser, was the subject of his book First Flight Around the World.

Despite my journalism degree, I honestly fell into writing. I was invited to contribute as a co-author to a museum practice book because they needed someone to write about technology and I was writing the “History Bytes” column for History News. Then, for fun, I started writing stories from my time working on the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial exhibition.

I had some great experiences that I didn’t want to forget. I kept writing, added projects from other places I’d worked, and eventually decided to see if I could find a publisher (inspired in part by Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and a park service book Ranger Confidential). My seven-year labor of love became A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History. I’m told it’s a career memoir, but to me it’s a collection of stories that provide insight into the challenges of interpreting history at some of America’s most visited history museums. I am hoping it will encourage other public historians to share their stories. We all have interesting stories to tell.

Then at work I was presented with an opportunity to pitch a children’s book to a major publisher. While working on a new exhibition, I learned about an incredible airplane in the Air and Space Museum that few people know about. It was a grand adventure story and I was sitting on the artifact, 400+ photos and a journal in the museum’s archives. The story was begging to be written. The book, First Flight Around the World, ended up a finalist for a major national award I had never even heard of, and as a result, an agent came to me. Librarians and teachers regularly tell me they desperately want good historical nonfiction for kids. I know from personal experience that books can inspire a love of the past, so suddenly I’m trying to take advantage of this new author platform to inspire younger generations to love history, visit historic sites, and to gain an understanding of the history process. My third kids book, Star Spangled, is coming out next year.

You recently made a career change, share a little bit about that. What types of things will you be working on going forward?

As a Smithsonian employee I was regularly being approached to offer feedback on colleagues’ projects. I began trying to figure out how to contribute my expertise and experience more broadly to the history field and to find more time for writing. After twenty years working in education and exhibition development at the Smithsonian and a stint on the Lewis and Clark exhibition, I recently decided to start a consulting business. I thrive on variety and so I’m hoping to work with history institutions of all shapes and sizes, including historic sites! I deeply desire to help organizations create more engaging exhibition and education products that will increase interest in the past and change some perceptions of history. We’ve got to do better at demonstrating our relevance and showing why history skills are so important. I’m ready to pull out every tool in my education tool kit to help my colleagues in a new way.

Thanks Tim! For those who are interested in Tim’s consulting business, visit his website at http://grovehistoryconsulting.com. You can learn more about Tim’s books at http://timgrove.net.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.