November 13, 2013

Getting a job as an interpreter at a historic site: What to include on your resume and why


"What should I include on my resume if I want to get a job as an interpreter at a historic site?"  That question and others like it have been asked on various lists, however I have yet to see anyone who hires people post a reply.

I recently talked with someone who is responsible for hiring interpreters at a historic site in the greater Boston area and was fascinated by what she looks for when she reviews resumes.  Some of it surprised me, and I knew all of it would be of interest to anyone looking to get a job as an interpreter at a historic site.  Note that this site is not owned by the National Park Service.  (The photo of the interpreter was taken at Old Sturbridge Village; Old Sturbridge Village is not the historic site where the person interviewed for this post works.)

Six critical skills

Historic interpreter in the farm at Old Sturbridge Village

Interest in history: "I can't tell you how many cover letters I get in which the writer claims that they really love history, but when I look through their resume, they've never done anything that shows they have that interest--not even joining the history club in college."

Dealing with children: "They might have worked at a children's museum or been a teacher."

Communicating to the public: "This is fundamental.  Have they had to talk to the public before?  I need to see that experience on their resume.  Mybe they were a tour guide at their college.”

Customer service: “Customer service experience—-hospitality—-is a key role for interpreters.  They’re the people that our guests, who coming here on their free time—-on the weekend or maybe on vacation-—interact with  They want to learn, but they also want an enjoyable experience.” 

Dealing with pressure: "We have a lot of people come through, and sometime it gets hectic.  People have to know how to deal with that and not get flustered."

Experience handling money:  "All or our interpreters may, at some point, be involved with selling tickets or items in the gift shop.  Working as a cashier at a supermarket or a waiter or waitress clearly shows that they can handle money, but people will leave those jobs off their resumes.  They're thinking that those jobs are going to detract from their history work, but I'm looking for experience handling money, so when I see those types of jobs, that boosts their chances.  They definitely should leave them on. . . Being a cashier at a supermarket is great experience.  You can deal with money and pressure, and you had to be nice to every person that went through your line, even if they weren't." 

Other comments

"Mormon Missionary!  I saw that once and I called that person immediately.  Those people have to get out, introduce themselves to others, interest them in what they have to say, and be polite, regardless of the reaction of the person they're talking with.  And then, even if they had the door slammed in their face, they walk down the street, knock on another door, smiling and pleasant."

"Some people put down their experience with archives and collections, and that's fine, but since we do interpretation and aren't involved in that area, that experience just isn’t that relevant as an interpreter, at least at our site.  And because those jobs turn over so rarely, it's not as if that person is  likely to even have an opportunity to be considered for that position.  It is a good demonstration of an interest in history and in museums, but six different internships in archives makes me think you ought to be looking for a position in archives.  A guide job is not likely to turn into an archives position.   I'm really looking for people who want to be museum interpreters."

“A museum studies degree helps, but that’s certainly not enough on its own.  I’m willing to help a museum studies or public history student get started with an entry level position, but they need to have the other skills.” 

"Our hiring is somewhat seasonal, and I hang on to resumes.  So you may not hear from me for three months, but I've kept your resume, and I'll pull it out and look at it for our next round of hiring."

"It's a small positive if someone speaks a foreign language.  Sometimes they put it down separately.  If they've studied the language in school or spent a semester abroad, I assume that they can can speak at least a little of the language."

"You don't need to list that you know Microsoft Word or have 'computer skills.'  This is an interpreter job, not an office job.  I'm far more interested in their verbal skills than their computer skills."

"People need to be patient and to realize that not everyone has the same background as they do when it comes to the period we represent.  You can't talk down to people, and yes, you'll get some dumb questions, so teaching or coaching experience shows me that you can break things down and understand how to explain things to someone who just doesn't have the knowledge or background that you do.  Some people need you to start with the basics., but that doesn't mean that they aren't smart.  They've come here and have shown an interest.  What a great opportunity for someone who loves teaching."

"A masters or PhD in history does not guarantee you a spot on the short list, and you don't have to have to have been a history undergrad.  You do need to have some of these other skills, I need to see those on your resume."

See below for comments received after this was posted.

To get a better idea of the work of interpreters at historic sites, Mystic Seaport has a video on the roles of interpreters at their site. (July 14, 2016)

More resources for job seekers:

Comments received since the initial post include . . .

Another thing we often look for is people with a bit of acting experience.  Community theatre in addition to the love of history often moves that person up on our list.  You automatically know that they are okay with costumes, scripts and first person interpretation.  Having a Masters or PhD cannot guarantee that.

— Public Programs Coordinator at a state museum (November 13, 2013)

Be sure to include special skills and successful experience you might have: storytelling, music, theater, puppeteer, drawing/painting/sculpting, historic trade or domestic art, whittling, historic gardening or agricultural activities, horse backing riding, etc.  These are skills that might enhance one's interpretation and serve different learning styles.  And, please indicate that you understand that interpretation is more than just giving toursthere are a lot of different modes of interpretation.  If you don't know about this, read up on the current literature and intern with good mentors or trainers.  Look at the work and workshops of National Association for Interpretation; Association for Living History, Agricultural and Farm Museums; and specialty skill organizations.

— Kathryn "Katie" Boardman
Principal at The Cherry Valley Group, Adjunct Professor CGP, Board Member at Cooperstown Graduate Association (CGA)
(November 18, 2013)


Have you hired interpreters or others for a historic site or other history organization?  If you'd like to share your recommendations, let me know.  We'll add them here or in another post; we won't publish your name or organization.

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