The Watkins Museum of History, located on Massachusetts Street in Downtown Lawrence, Kansas, has captured and portrayed Douglas County stories, with an emphasis on Lawrence, since 1975. Its three floors of exhibits tell of heroism, activism, tragedy, and survival among the diverse residents of the Douglas County community, using unique artifacts, photographs, computer programs, and compelling narration. Visitors to the Watkins gain an appreciation for the exciting history and community spirit that makes the Douglas County and Lawrence area unique. Not only does the Watkins boast impressive exhibits and public programs — it’s also where you can find several Jayhawk alumni from the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at work as staff members. There, they continually find ways to apply their passion for history and storytelling in ways that engage and better the community. We spoke with five of these College alumni about the Watkins, their time at KU, and how they’re applying their liberal arts & sciences degrees on a daily basis.
I received an MA in History in 2013 and a PhD in History in 2017. My three concentrations were the American Civil War, 19th-century U.S. history, and public history.
I’ve been fascinated by history since age seven. At first, I enrolled in grad school planning to become a professor, but soon decided to work in the public history field. For my first Museum Studies class at KU, I was lucky enough to be part of a group that designed an exhibit for the Watkins. This was how I became familiar with the museum and its staff. It was this class that inspired my choice to pursue a career in public history.
Every day at the Watkins, we’re reminded of our great support network in town. Lawrence folks seem to value their history more than any other community I’ve seen! It’s vital for a community to know and document its own history, for studying history shows us where we’ve been and provides inspiration for a path forward.
My advice for current KU students is to engage with your professors, TAs, and fellow students in and out of the classroom: speak up, volunteer, and ask questions. Even if you don’t find the subject of a class interesting, the more you participate, the quicker and easier it will go, and the more likely you’ll be to find it fun and rewarding.
I graduated from KU with my Masters in Museum Studies in 2012. I plan to graduate with my PhD in History in 2019. I have always loved history and I thought pursuing a degree in Museum Studies would be a really unique and interesting way to apply my love of history.
One of the most memorable classes I took during my Masters was the Exhibits class. My group got to design and install an exhibit on The Day After at the Watkins, which is how I got to know the museum and the director, Steve Nowak. That experience taught me a new way of interacting with the public and it gave me the opportunity to learn how the Watkins engages the community with interesting exhibits.
Local history makes history seem more real and personal because the people, events, and places happened in your town. I really enjoy hearing people’s stories and connections to Lawrence, especially those families who have lived here for several generations. I think we are lucky to live in a town that places such a great value on its local history.
I recommend that KU students take advantage of all the great opportunities going on in our community. Lawrence has a lot of really awesome places to visit and things to do. Including the Watkins!
I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts degree in 2008, majoring in History. I graduated with my MA in Museum Studies in 2010.
I knew I wanted to do something with history from a young age. I love history and studying it has always helped me make sense of the world around me. I initially thought I would study history in an academic setting but the more I talked to people about history, the more I realized that what I enjoyed was sharing what I had learned or had researched with other people. Museums appealed to me because it combined working hands-on with historical objects with relaying information about the past to an audience unfamiliar with history.
My time at KU shaped not only the work I wanted to do but introduced me to hobbies and reinforced things I already loved. I took a film class taught by the great Kevin Wilmott that was so much fun I nearly changed my major to Film Studies, took women’s studies classes from Kathy Tuttle and Katheryn Rose Mockery that shaped my perspective of the world, and loved all of the history classes I took in undergrad.
This is especially true when we find events that have been forgotten such as the Citizen Diplomacy efforts the people of Lawrence made during the last years of the Cold War.
There are always exciting events going on at the Watkins! Families will want to take part in our Tails and Traditions event on December 1. Planned to coordinate with Lawrence Old Fashioned Christmas Parade, the Watkins buzzes with activities: hobby horse building for the kids, family portraits in the museum’s antique surrey, and a great view of the parade as it makes its way down Massachusetts Street!
My advice for students at KU is to find an activity or club that interests you. Something you love and want to do more, or something you’ve never done and have always wanted to try – either way, use the opportunities a diverse campus can bring. Take part in activities wherever you can. The schoolwork won’t go away, but it’s always more fun when you know someone in your classes and when you have a chance to get out in your free time.
I graduated from Coe College, where I majored in American Studies and minored in History & Writing. Then, I did my MA in Museum Studies at KU, graduating in 2008. After college, I was unsure about what type of career to pursue. I was working an office job and learned about the Museum Studies program. I had an interest in teaching, but not in classrooms, and a strong interest in public history. I didn’t even know that such a program existed, but I quickly realized that it was the place for me.
I appreciated the opportunities to explore different fields of museum work while still focusing on education. I had several internships at museums during my time in the program, and one had nothing to do with either education or public history. I was happy to work at the KUNHM/Biodiversity Center in the herpetology lab tagging and cataloguing frogs, snakes, skinks, geckos, toads and their relatives, knowing that I was building a skill to enhance my understanding of how museums work…and that I could hold a collections job if this education thing didn’t pan out! I learned a ton about museums from John Simmons, who was my advisor, teacher and supervisor at KUNHM.
Working at the Watkins, I love getting to know people and figuring out ways to share local history with them. Classroom teachers have been a terrific and welcoming audience and I really enjoy coming up with ways to help them teach local history.
I would tell current students: Do multiple internships at a variety of museums! Work hard! Talk to your instructors! They know a lot–and they know people at other museums who might have internships or jobs available.
I graduated from KU in 2014 with a BA in History and a minor in Communication Studies.
I decided to study history because it was a subject I always enjoyed. Studying history at KU only enhanced my love of history. As soon as I was immersed in my studies, there was no doubt that I made the right decision on what I should be studying. I found the classes to be highly interesting and enjoyable and the coursework to be stimulating.
My time at KU helped my interest in history blossom. My degree helped me point into a direction that led to my career path. The classes that I still look back on today were all taught by the same professor. The Great Depression, Contemporary America, HIST: 616 Theses. All three taught and advised by Jonathan Hagel.
The best part of working in a local history museum is everything that I get to do to make other people love and have fun with history. Whether it’s my work with exhibits or social media, my job is to create an experience that is unforgettable! Make it so you will want to come back for more!
My words of advice to current KU students:
- It’s okay to feel like camping for KU basketball is your major.
- Study something you love, or you know that you will enjoy, is something you shouldn’t be afraid to explore. A Liberal Arts degree may not seem like it offers the brightest future, but what I have discovered is that it has led me to opportunities that I never would have considered for a career path. I have found if you work hard and have a positive outlook on your future, there is no limit to success.
Be like these KU College alumni. Find ways to connect with your community and bring your skill set to work that excites you. For more information and the latest Watkins news, visit the Watkins Museum of History, as well as their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter social media accounts. Also see the Museum Studies Program, the Department of History, Integrated Marketing Communications, and the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas.