Rhizomes: An Interview with Lauren Wheeler

Lauren giving a historical tour of Canmore for the AMA Conference in September 2018. Credit: Ben Fast.

Scroll this

Editor’s note: This is the tenth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Lauren Wheeler, the Program Lead for the Recognized Museum Program at the Alberta Museums Association.

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?

During the summer between high school and university, I got a Canada Summer Jobs position with the Canmore Museum & Geoscience Centre working at the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) Barracks. I spent the summer telling visitors about the history of the NWMP and the town of Canmore, and I got to put together a little exhibit about crime in early Canmore. It was the most fun I had ever had at a job.

I spent the first semester of university struggling through science courses that no longer held my interest or attention. In the second semester I took a chance, dropped all my science courses, and replaced them with whichever non-science courses still had openings—Post-Confederation Canadian History, Introduction to Canadian Literature, Greek Mythology, and Critical Issues in Psychology. I loved the Canadian history course and never looked back.

Throughout university, I found summer jobs that connected to history: running reading programs at the Canmore Public Library, then working as an interpreter at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. I liked the museum work more than the library work, so did a MA in public history at Carleton University. I then went into a PhD program, but kept working seasonal jobs in heritage because I wanted the PhD to obtain a position as a curator. I ended up leaving the PhD program to work full-time in the heritage sector six years ago and have never looked back.

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

For the past six years, I have been with the Alberta Museums Association (AMA) as the Program Lead for the Recognized Museum Program. This is a standards-based accreditation program for museums in Alberta that allows me to work closely with passionate museum professionals and volunteers from across the province.

A Recognized Museum sign at a museum in Lac La Biche, Alberta. Credit: Lauren Wheeler.

It is inspiring to see what museums can accomplish with limited resources and how important they are to the vitality of their communities. I love museums, and my job lets me spend a few weeks each year on the road visiting museums across Alberta and helping them with a wide range of issues such as sustainability, standards, deaccessioning, visitor experience, non-profit governance, and social responsibility. I also get to spend time researching and reading about new trends in museums and heritage in order to develop special workshops and assist in setting the themes for our annual conference. In the past, our conference has addressed topics like intangible cultural heritage, organizational resilience, and environmental sustainability. In 2019, it will focus on health and wellbeing.

Accreditation Panel at AMA-WMA Joint Conference 2017. Credit: Alberta Museums Association. 

Finally, my position with the AMA has given me administrative and project management experience that goes far beyond what I anticipated when I started work there. I never expected to lead a multi-year program review that involved managing a team, supervising an assistant, working with a consultant from the United States, managing multiple consultation sessions with members, and overseeing a massive overhaul of every piece of communications connected to the Recognized Museum Program, all while staying on budget and reporting to a granting agency.

There is not much I would change about my current position because I understand the limitations it has. The Alberta Museums Association is small—averaging eight staff—and there is not a lot of room to move up. It is a great place to get lots of diverse experience and training before moving on to something else. The only catch is finding that something else. The museum sector is not the highest paying and the senior positions are few and far between. My position provides enough challenge and opportunity for creative exploration. I know how lucky I am to have a permanent job with stimulating work so I am happy to stay where I am until the right position comes up for the next logical career step.

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

Heritage and museums are all about communication, and you cannot communicate without good research and critical thinking to back it up. History is an excellent field for learning those skills. I was also lucky to start my training in environmental history when NiCHE had SSHRC funding to help establish the field in Canada. I took full advantage of the workshops, seminars, and conferences offered, especially those aimed at helping graduate students develop a range of communication skills. Workshops like Writing for a Popular Audience gave me a crash course on how to harness the potential of social media. As the New Scholars Representative, I learned how to connect people across the country through the New Scholars Reading Group and the short-lived Place and Placelessness Virtual Conference. The networking NiCHE facilitated was fantastic and helped prepare me for my current job, where networking at conferences is central to building and maintaining connections.

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

I went into graduate school knowing I wanted a career in museums/heritage, so I always worked hard to make sure I was building my work experience through seasonal employment in the heritage sector. The skills that I use everyday are a combination of the critical thinking, research, and writing that graduate school is so good at teaching, and the practical skills that come with so many summers spent working in low-level positions in the heritage sector. In heritage, especially museums, work tends to be collaborative and team-based because there are so many different areas of expertise required to do things like create an exhibit. By contrast, graduate school, like academia in general, is a very solitary pursuit, and the way you work with others is based around ideas rather than tangibles.

Working in heritage shows you how often the theory learned in the classroom goes out the window in practice. Writing text panels that are under 200 words and aimed at a grade five reading level is very different from understanding the theory behind why the text panels are written that way. Similarly, lecturing to an undergraduate class is a very different kind of public speaking to a historic walking tour—and not just because the latter requires you to present while you walk backwards up a hill! These are practical skills that can only be acquired through work in the museums and heritage sector, so I never expected graduate school to provide them.

Lauren giving a historical tour of Canmore for the AMA Conference in September 2018. Credit: Ben Fast.

As I have moved into management-level positions, the skills I need have become more specific and further removed from what I learned in academia. These include project management, financial reporting, budgeting, stakeholder relations, human resources, and leadership. Luckily, I work for an organization that supports the professional development necessary to acquire these skills.

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

You never know where environmental history will quietly pop up even when you are working outside the field. In 2018, the theme of the AMA’s annual conference was “Cultivating Connections: Museums and the Environment.” I had the opportunity to use my experience and expertise in environmental history to help shape a conference that embraced getting out into the environment alongside the discussion-based presentations expected at a conference. The event was held in Canmore, so I was able to lead a walking tour through my hometown, focusing on the changing relationship between people and the environment that accompanies the shift from a coal mining town to a tourist town.

Lauren giving a historical tour of Canmore for the AMA Conference in September 2018. Credit: Ben Fast.

It was also encouraging to see diverse group of individuals in the Alberta museum community at this conference looking for ways to be part of solutions to environmental change in small rural museums as well as in large urban museums. The topics covered ranged from individuals from the Royal Alberta Museum and Royal Tyrrell Museum presenting on how to approach exhibiting climate change to the Okotoks Museum presenting on how a small museum can stay current in addressing contemporary issues and the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice supporting a presentation by the Kerry Wood Nature Centre on approaching change from an organizational level.

The following two tabs change content below.
Public Historian specializing in visual representation, memory making, environmental history, and Alberta history. Currently a Program Lead with the Alberta Museums Association. Past NiCHE New Scholars Representative and Place and Placelessness Virtual Conference organizer.

Latest posts by Lauren Wheeler (see all)

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.