Rhizomes: An Interview with Will Knight

Will Knight inspecting a case in Artifact Alley, a forthcoming exhibition at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which re-opens in Ottawa on November 17. Photo: Will Knight.

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Editor’s note: This is the first post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. This interview features Will Knight, curator of agriculture and fisheries at Ingenium: Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation.

Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position/career. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?

The path from graduate school to my current job was unplanned, a product of circumstance and distraction. Out of all the choices and moments, three are worth relating. One was deciding to narrow my dissertation from a study of Canadian natural history museums to a single one, the Canadian Fisheries Museum (1884-1918) in Ottawa. Refocusing my project led me into a deeper encounter with the working life of one curator and one museum and, more broadly, with material culture. I said to myself, at one point, “This research might be good preparation for a museum career.”

More practically speaking, I participated in two public history projects during my studies at Carleton University that both distracted me from my dissertation and set me on a museological trajectory. The first was an exhibition at Ottawa’s Bytown Museum in 2012. I helped Joanna Dean—who supervised my doctoral work—curate “Six Moments in an Urban Forest,” which was based on her research. This was my first experience in museum work, and it was a thrill to see an exhibition materialize and later engage people with key themes in environmental history. The next important moment arrived courtesy of Jim Opp, co-director of the Carleton Centre for Public History. Jim hired me to be project manager for Rideau Timescapes, an iPhone app which was launched in 2013.

Both these projects forced extra innings in my dissertation, but the experience gained was full compensation for the additional pain. And I can’t discount the element of fortunate timing and luck. I defended in late January of 2014 and the curatorial position I now hold was posted in late February. I was interviewed and hired in April and began work in June. With a then 14-month-old child about to enter daycare, the job could not have come at a better time.

What do you like most about your current position/career? What things would you change about it, if you could?

I like most the varied pattern of work. My job comprises three main areas of responsibility: research, collections, and exhibitions. Sometimes one aspect—and lately it has been exhibitions—can dominate my workload. For the last two years, I have been assigned to the Science and Technology Museum renovation (which re-opens November 17), curating a massive exhibition called “Artifact Alley” that puts almost 700 objects on display (see photo below). The Alley is now almost complete and I have enjoyed immensely the process of working with other curators, designers, conservators, mount-makers, and artifact handlers who have contributed to it.

Preliminary artifact layout for the printing case in Artifact Alley. Photo: Will Knight.

At the same time, I have been able to continue researching and publishing, though the ability to do both in any concentrated way is rare. I serve as managing editor for Scientia Canadensis, a peer-reviewed journal that publishes research on the history of science, technology, and medicine in Canada. This part of my job, more often done at home, gives me an opportunity to work with authors, improve my editorial skills, and hopefully influence how scholarship is disseminated.

Collection work, which includes both acquiring and disposing of objects, is another stimulating aspect of my position. I look for interesting objects—currently, I’m seeking ones related to craft beer and medical marijuana—and sort through offers of donations. This brings me into contact with people who possess fascinating stuff and stories. My decisions about what to acquire and what to dispose of will shape the federal agriculture and fisheries collection for decades to come, for better and for worse.

What would I change? Being a historian in a museum can be challenging. People don’t necessarily share your passion for historical thinking, which can challenge common beliefs and standard narratives about the past. Historians appreciate contingency and indeterminacy, which museums find challenging to present in text labels with limited word-counts and Grade Six reading levels.

All the same, I think colleagues appreciate the historical perspectives I bring to our collective endeavours. Since we’ve just come through an enormous renovation project, I would like less work pertaining to exhibitions, which have consumed most of my daily life for the past couple of years. I’d also like my old email address back (@techno-science) because it reminded me of the legacy of scholarship in this field, and how technology and science shape and reshape our social lives.

Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position/career?

Graduate training in history forces you to re-think conceptualizations and categories, and to reflect on how history is recorded, who counts in it, and who gets to tell the story. Environmental history widens those questions to include the non-human world and our reciprocal relations with it. Being inter- or least multidisciplinary, environmental history is open to connections, such as the intertwined histories of railroad construction, fish introductions, and ecological change—narratives that might not otherwise intersect. I keep these kinds of confrontations and methods in mind as I work, especially when I write acquisition proposals in which I justify acquiring an object.

Being an environmental historian gives me a wider perspective upon the past and present, as well as the ability to connect separate, often quite disparate issues or topics and to place them in relation to each other. Neither agriculture nor fisheries can be studied independently of our historically constructed ideas about environments or societies, or the environmental and social contexts in which we live and work today.

Finally, as I noted above, Carleton’s interest and specialization in public history shaped my career path in significant ways.

Will Knight inspecting a case in Artifact Alley, a forthcoming exhibition at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which re-opens in Ottawa on November 17. Photo: Will Knight.

What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?

Drawing on my informal experience in curatorial work during my doctoral studies, I think institutionalizing some form of practicum in doctoral programs makes sense. Not everyone can, will, or wants to pursue the assumed end-point of a PhD, which is a tenure-track job. PhD programs should therefore help students discover and plan alternate career paths. There are already lively alt-ac and post-ac discussions going on among scholars and former scholars working outside the academy, but those discussions need nurturing within the academy as well. Jennifer Polk, a history PhD who provides commentary and advice on alt-ac careers, suggests the same thing in one of her recent University Affairs columns. And this Otter series helps too!

What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?

I am a white male who has benefitted from structural advantages and possibilities throughout my life, which needs saying. I am also a late bloomer and pursued graduate studies later in life; this was a leap of faith, as was moving from Vancouver to Peterborough, where I met Stephen Bocking. I volunteered to help organize the city’s Earth Day celebrations and proposed a walking tour of Jackson Creek, which flows through and under Peterborough. Someone recommended that I talk to Stephen, who agreed to help lead the walk. He introduced me to the idea of environmental history and, in subsequent conversations, encouraged me to undertake an MA, offering to supervise it. In preparation for Trent’s MA program, I took his fourth-year seminar course, “Doing Environmental History.” This course supercharged my thinking, and changed my life’s direction at a time when I was hungry for such a change. Environmental history offered me a perspective that galvanized my view of the present and the past, and helped me make sense of my personal experiences working seasonally and briefly in several extractive industries. I don’t think my story is unique: I know other students of environmental history who have had similar experiences. So I suspect that students who are now doing environmental history already have an answer.

My advice, for what it is worth, is to continue working, continue posing questions, and continue amassing experience. This is the stuff of your career—including your career at the university, as Jennifer Polk says.

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William Knight

Curator at Canada Science and Technology Museums Corp.
William Knight is curator of agriculture, food, and fisheries at the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation in Ottawa. He wrote his dissertation on the Canadian Fisheries Museum.

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