Dr. Oldstuff puts down the worn looking manuscript. His student assistant races over to his desk.
“What is it?” Timothy asks as sweat drips off his forehead. He was starting to regret taking this internship. He and Dr. Oldstuff had been scouring old libraries in Virginia all summer, while his friends were enjoying themselves at the beach. The weather was as hot as a stolen tamale.
“I think I’ve found evidence that Lincoln didn’t die that day at the Peterson House,” Dr. Oldstuff says, shaking his head.
“Where did he die?”
“At Franklin Pierce’s house. Mary Todd discovered he’d been cheating on her with Jane, the ex-President’s wife, and she sent an assassin to rub him out at the scene of the crime. What a fool I was to believe otherwise!” Dr. Oldstuff says while walking over to the library’s window. Timothy scans the document. It is a death certificate for Lincoln, citing the cause of death as “a poison-tipped dart to the left buttock.”
“Wow, this is going to change everything,” Timothy says, with a tinge of disbelief. “Now, we just need to authenticate this baby.”
“That won’t be the hard part. The question is how do we get this information to the public without the Pentagon butting in?”
Admittedly, historians rarely get to discover such groundbreaking evidence (true or otherwise) that changes the course of history. However, they often discover some pretty cool stuff. In recent history, some art historians found a lost Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece hidden on a wall inside a cavity in Florence’s town hall. In not-so-recent history, historians have uncovered and investigated such priceless artifacts as the Dead Sea Scrolls, King Tut’s tomb, the Peking Man and the Rosetta Stone (until this last discovery, it took people forever to learn Spanish.)
In the case of Leo’s lost painting, historians suspected its existence at the location in question, but they had to come up with enough evidence to convince the mayor of Florence to remove parts of Giorgio Vasari’s The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana. Needless to say, the gamble paid off. Maurizio Seracini, an historian at the University of California, San Diego, used radar to find the work. His team drilled tiny holes and removed six samples that were scanned using an electron microscope. They found that the black pigment found on the half-finished da Vinci painting matched the one on the Mona Lisa. It was a pigment not used by other artists. (Apparently, da Vinci was a pigment hog.)
Case closed, right? Nope. Other historians such as Marco Ciatti, the head of Florence’s state restoration centre, were not convinced. Seracini suspected that Vasari left clues within his work of the presence of the unfinished Vinci. On one of the flags in Vasari’s fresco, he wrote “He who seeks, finds.” Pretty exciting. How was Nicholas Cage not on the scene for this one?
Not all of your time will be spent with your head buried inside books. Historians will frequently conduct their research at the actual location of a historical event. In fact, historians LOVE historic places – go figure. Often they are the voice of opposition when historic areas become at risk for demolition or change. For example, on Gettysburg’s 147th anniversary, 278 American historians signed a letter addressed to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board urging them to reject a proposed gambling hall that was to be built a mile and a half from the battleground. These historians believed that a casino would increase traffic and commercialization of the area. If Gettysburg isn’t sacred, what is?
There was also quite a lot of furor over the raising of the Titanic once the sunken ship was discovered. So much of it was destroyed that it wasn’t simply a matter of hookin’ her up and dragging her to the surface. Academics generally want to let sleeping dogs (or ships) lie until the technology is available that will guarantee preservation. It’s the same reason no one has tried to help Kirk Douglas out of a chair in the last 10 years.
History is a sacred thing to historians, which is why they spend countless hours trying to get it right. There is a proper way to handle and store a document, extensive precautions that must be taken any time an artifact is being unearthed, transported, displayed, etc. These guys take more care with a letter written 200 years ago than some surgeons take when operating on a human heart. Although we don’t recommend you schedule any procedures with those surgeons.
Historians research history in order to create a cohesive and honest narrative of events, people, ideas, individuals, wars and places. Because history is about as sprawling as the day is long, historians generally specialize in a time period, civilization or event (although usually broader than “between May and July of 1814”). Most historians work for a university or college. They teach students, research subjects and write essays, articles or books – hopefully for publication, and not just to share with their family around the dinner table. Some historians find jobs with museums, historical societies, history organizations, the National Park Service or consulting firms.
Historical consulting firms conduct research, interview participants, plan museums, analyze historical evidence for attorneys and help organize corporate exhibits. Despite the range of options, there are not a whole lot of jobs available in this arena. There are a few positions for those with a bachelor’s degree in history, and you may be able to find a position at a museum; however, more job opportunities will present themselves if you get a master’s or Ph.D. Students getting out of graduate school usually vie for positions within universities. When someone becomes a tenured professor at a university, they stay for a LONG time – like, until they reach retirement age and are practically historical artifacts themselves.
So, what do you do?
Become attractive to employers by expanding your skill set. Write papers, publish articles, become involved with your local historical society, pick up some editing skills to work for a publishing company, earn a museum studies certificate or join the American Historical Association.
However, be aware before getting into this field that, as much as you may feel history is important, it isn’t essential. In other words, the world will keep turning and society will keep moving forward without you. You are a toy for rich institutions – it’s not like you’re an oil driller who is directly responsible for producing something we visibly, immediately need. We may make some of the same mistakes we’ve made in our past without you, but to be honest, we probably will anyway.