Jennifer R. Bridge
Jennifer R. Bridge received her PhD in U.S. and Public History from Loyola in 2009. She serves as the Curator of Exhibits and Interpretation at the Naper Settlement in Naperville, Illinois. History PhD candidate Katie Macica caught up with Dr. Bridge to learn more about her career in public history.
Describe your current position.
I'm the Curator of Exhibits and Interpretation at Naper Settlement in Naperville, Illinois. It’s a large community history museum with 30+ historic and reconstructed buildings. I'm responsible for developing and managing the institution-wide implementation of interpretive projects and visitor experiences, including exhibitions and mobile tours. I partner with local organizations and businesses to create museum-based and off-site exhibits. At Naper Settlement, the exhibits include furnished historic interiors, so I monitor the environments of the interpreted buildings and the condition of the artifacts on display. I also support the museum's Curatorial and Learning Experiences departments during special projects and day-to-day operations—including occasionally stepping in to cover staff absences in school programs, visitor tours and public research library hours. In addition, I edit grant applications, and manage the museum's American Alliance of Museums subsequent accreditation process for staff and board members.
What are the most interesting and/or challenging aspects of your job?
The most interesting aspect of my job is the opportunity to deeply engage with historical subjects I previously knew little about. Right now I'm immersed in the history of dairy farming and trends in modern agriculture as I research artifacts in the collection and exhibit topics for a new Agricultural Interpretive Center we're developing at Naper Settlement. We are also embarking on a Common Heritage Grant project (funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities) to document the history of the growing Chinese and Indian communities in Naperville. Meeting community members and learning more about their stories and the artifacts that are meaningful to their histories has been very rewarding.
How did your graduate education at Loyola prepare you for your position?
My graduate education at Loyola prepared me for this position by giving me a strong background in academic research and public history methodologies to use in exhibit development. Also useful is the practical experience I gained through required internships and practicums (at institutions including the Museum of Science & Industry and the cultural resources management firm Tallgrass Historians, LLC).
How did you envision your career trajectory as a graduate student?
I entered Loyola's MA program in Public History planning to work in the museum field after finishing my degree. After graduation, I worked at the Chicago History Museum before I returned to Loyola for the doctoral program in American History and Public History. While I enjoyed my time in the classroom as a teaching assistant and a Teaching Fellow, I realized that I prefer the more collaborative nature and direct public impact of museum work, including serving as part of a team in sharing artifacts and communicating historical research with visitors through exhibits and programming.
What led you to your career in museums?
As a kid, I loved visiting museums and was a big fan of E.L. Konigsburg's book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which two children run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and explore the mysterious provenance of a marble angel statue. I didn't want to live in a museum, but I thought it would fun to volunteer at one. I became a costumed interpreter at Naper Settlement in my teens. In college, after I decided against applying to law school, a history professor encouraged me to professionally pursue my interest in museums. I arranged an internship with a small, accredited county history museum where I had the opportunity to try out many aspects of museum work—lead school programs, catalog artifacts, develop an exhibit, assist researchers, etc. Because an advanced degree is required for most permanent curatorial positions, the county museum’s curators encouraged me to apply to Loyola's MA program.
Do you have any advice for current graduate students about career exploration and navigating the job market?
I've had informational interviews with history graduate students who've told me that they are interested in pursuing museum jobs, but have never volunteered at a museum. If you think this is a career path you might want to pursue, I recommend getting some direct experience as soon as you can to make sure it’s the right fit.
I tell my interns who are interested in museum careers to be as flexible as they can afford to be in pursuing their first jobs. It's a very competitive field, and there are many qualified candidates applying for every job posting. Consider relocating to a new city, or taking on grant-funded, temporary and shorter-term projects to get your foot in the door. For example, my first job as a research assistant at Chicago History Museum was supposed to be part-time and last three months. I helped organize a conference of science and history professionals to consider the possibility of performing genetic testing on the Lincoln assassination artifacts in the museum's collection. The project’s scope grew, and it became known as "Wet With Blood: The Investigation of Mary Todd Lincoln’s Cloak." My part-time, three-month gig turned into a full-time position that lasted for five years, encompassing an online exhibit and the chance to co-author an article for Science. While we were securing more funding for the "Wet With Blood" project, I temporarily filled in for various roles in the museum's Collection Services department, including assisting the Registrar, processing collections, and performing other tasks as an interim collections manager. After "Wet With Blood" ended, CHM hired me to assist with label writing and interactives development for the "Chicago: Crossroads of America" exhibit. The breadth of this valuable project experience served me well when I applied for my first permanent position at Naper Settlement.
It's worthwhile to keep abreast of new and innovative programs and exhibits in museums and current trends in the field, and to take advantage of networking opportunities. The American Alliance of Museums, the National Council on Public History and the American Association for State and Local History are great resources. Reading books and blogs by museum thought leaders like Nina Simon and Colleen Dilenschneider will help you understand what your job interviewers are talking about when they mention the participatory museum model and "meeting audiences where they are." The Chicago area has great networking opportunities for new professionals, including the Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group where you can meet your future colleagues and mentors.