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Careers in History: Museums

Paul Christians

Co-founder of Open Hand Studios, Chicago, IL

After working in museums in 2005, I entered the University of Chicago’s master of arts program in social sciences. While there I focused on anthropology and history, completing much of my research on Ghana. My fieldwork and thesis explored the impact of postcolonial politics and development on West African museums, as both social and historical sites. Along with two other Calvin alumni, I am co-founder of Open Hand Paul Christians in AfricaStudios, a nonprofit that partners with communities across the world, academics, and the international public to create hands-on museum exhibits and virtual media that nurture social justice. Last winter Interim, I taught Museums for the 21st Century at Calvin. For Interim 2009, Open Hand is partnering with Dr. Bert de Vries to conduct digital archaeology and creative media fieldwork at Umm el-Jimal, Jordan. For more information, send me an email at prc@openhandstudios.org.

Why did you choose to major in history at Calvin?

Although I started in biochemistry, I decided to investigate history after thinking about studying abroad. Calvin’s history profs are persuasive: one added me as an advisee (to his already full schedule) the first time we met. But by the time they were through with me, I wound up with more than one major. At graduation, I woke up with an archaeology minor; a research fellowship; international experiences in Greece, Ghana, and China; and an internship that led to my first museum job.

How did your time at Calvin prepare you for what you’re doing now?

It’s probably cliché that a liberal arts education is supposed to prepare you for life-long learning. It is true Calvin readied me to compete at a high level in graduate school; I was very fortunate to receive a full scholarship to Chicago. But far more importantly, Calvin—and especially my time in the History department—not only taught me how to think critically but to do so with purpose. Founding a nonprofit along with Jeff DeKock (BA Communications 2001) and Craig Mulder (BSE Mechanical Engineering 2002) has stretched us to rethink what’s possible in the real world, not just in theory.

What are some of your memories of the Calvin History Department?

It was demanding, for one thing. I still remember an exam—the professor shall remain nameless—where we had to write the entire history of the Roman Empire in 50 minutes. And that was only the last question. But I’ll also never forget what the dungeon of a slave fort on Ghana’s coast smells like, or the feel of Tiananmen Square on a smoggy summer midnight.

Do you have any advice for current students or those thinking of majoring in history at Calvin?

First, there’s more to historical studies than teaching, law school, or a PhD. Finding a great job in today’s dynamic market really is difficult, regardless of your major. But, more and more people in the for- and non-profit worlds alike realize that knowledge of cultures and histories is increasingly crucial to the workplace in a globalizing world. Second, don’t wait until school ends to build professional experience. There are myriad internships, fellowships, and other opportunities that help undergrads build real skills. Find some that work for you—before those pesky student loans come due. Third, spend some time with History faculty. They really do have an uncanny vision that teaching isn’t just a classroom lecture. Get to know them, and they’ll be only too happy to go bat for you later. Fourth, do whatever it takes to study abroad. No joke—quit reading this and go do it already. Chances are you’ll find out that you’re far more successful at what you’re truly passionate about than what you think you may have to do. I, for one, am glad I took that chance.