By Violet Caswell
In the spring of her senior year at McGill University in Montreal, Judith Marshall opened her computer and searched that question that is nearly ubiquitous among history majors:
For students of history who do not want to teach or work in academia, this wearisome question is ever-present, made worse when relatives exclaim “History! What are you going to do with that?” at every holiday dinner. Yet, as she browsed the internet, Marshall found occasion for hope, not despair. History majors, she realized, could pursue careers in all kinds of organizations and institutions. As the possibilities stretched out in front of her, one path seemed particularly enticing: public history.
After graduating from McGill, Marshall moved to the United States and enrolled in the public history program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Over the course of two years at UMass, she broadened her horizons and discovered that her interests were more diverse than she could ever have imagined.
“One of my responsibilities was to research the craftsmen and laborers . . . I didn’t think I would be interested in these men . . . but as I learned more about them and immersed myself in their lives, I became absolutely fascinated.”
“I had an internship with Historic New England,” she recalled, “and one of my responsibilities was to research the craftsmen and laborers who built a historic house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I didn’t think I would be interested in these men—and they were all men—but as I learned more about them and immersed myself in their lives, I became absolutely fascinated.” Marshall’s intensive research allowed her to understand the craftsmen as dynamic individuals with robust political and social lives. Her capstone project, a walking tour of Portsmouth, showcased those lives and brought them to life.
With plenty of skills and experience under her belt, Marshall graduated from UMass in 2105 and entered the job market. She soon learned that a position was opening up at the Lynn Museum and Historical Society in Lynn, Massachusetts. After shadowing the Museum’s outgoing education and research specialist, she took over the position. There was only one problem: “I didn’t know anything at all about Lynn. Here I was training docents and working with our visitors, and I was just learning all of the history myself.” Marshall wasn’t intimidated by her task. With little determination and a lot of research, she eventually became well versed in Lynn’s history.
“It’s a little like being a teacher,” she explains, “Where at first, when you’re doing lesson plans and you’re teaching yourself along the way. But then it gets easier and easier.”
Now, Marshall serves as an excellent resource to her institution’s patrons. She works with any researchers who come to the Museum to look at its remarkable photograph collection, which spans from the nineteenth century to the present day. Although the Museum has transferred its archival holdings to the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, she routinely directs research requests and assists the public in any way she can.
There is no such thing as an average day for Marshall, whose duties at the Lynn Museum are broad in a way that is common for professionals working at smaller institutions. On any given day, she might be training docents, developing new exhibits, leading fleets of elementary school groups through the Museum or even trying to figure out why that fountain in the courtyard keeps leaking. “Small institutions can be like that,” she laughs.
Marshall says that juggling so many responsibilities can be a challenge, and that time management skills are essential to her success. Flexibility, too, is crucial– as is the ability to remain calm under pressure. When busloads of students arrive early for a field trip, or when buses are late to pick them up, Marshall has to improvise and find ways to entertain them for longer than anticipated.
Despite the occasional hiccups that arise, Marshall finds planning field trip programming to be one of her most exciting responsibilities. While she works with students of all ages, her most extensive initiative is with third grade groups. Because of Marshall’s planning, these Lynn public school students have the opportunity to participate in a field trip that much more dynamic than your average, forgettable one-day field trip.
When she first started the program, Marshall says, “I didn’t have any idea how to communicate with third graders. I didn’t know what they looked like or what they could know.” After careful research, she developed an age-appropriate program to teach Lynn students about their city’s history. She and her colleagues go into the classroom twice—one before and once after students visit the Lynn Museum—to reinforce the lessons that students learn. She also invites the students and parents to the Museum’s end of the year Open House to reinforce the students’ knowledge of the institution and to create new bonds with parents.
Through her work with the Lynn Museum, Judith Marshall has put her background in public history to good use, developed new skills, and brought history to life in Lynn, Massachusetts. Yet, her career trajectory was one that she never could have predicted, even as she graduated from UMass Boston.
Her advice to current students?
“Apply for jobs- lots of jobs. You never know what you’ll end up being interested in.”