Ten Ways to Gain Experience in Preservation

Jumping into a career is always tough, especially when you are just out of school or making a mid-life switch to a new profession. More often than not, the jobs that are available require individuals with skills and experiences that have already been tested, not someone coming in cold.  Practical, real-world skills will not only make you more marketable, but also more knowledgeable about the current trends in the preservation world. Here are 10 ways to beef up your resume, make connections, and gain experience in preservation.

1. Volunteer for a statewide or local preservation organization.
One of the best ways to gain experience—and get your foot in the door—is to volunteer for a statewide or local nonprofit. These organizations live and breathe preservation on many levels—they work with historic preservation commissions and government officials, offer education programs, and advocate for preservation in your state and your community. While volunteering is an unpaid gig, you will gain a window into how preservation works at the grassroots level.

2. Prepare a National Register nomination, building history, landmark application, etc.
Forum member Alice Gilbertson  (Historic Denver, Inc.) states that “there is nothing like the real world experience of doing the research, writing the application, understanding what constitutes significance, and then going through the political process of seeing something get designated.”  Preservationists are a jack-of-all-trades and wear many hats, so even if your ultimate job in preservation is unrelated to designating historic sites, knowing the basic process provides a solid groundwork. And by participating in the nomination process, you may end up providing important documentation for saving a historic structure, and educating opposing stakeholders.

Gilbertson emphasizes, “Although it took nearly two years, a group of neighbors, including myself, pursued designation of a local school threatened with demolition. We were successful in our efforts and gained tremendous publicity through the process. To this day, we are still on very positive terms with the developer—although we didn’t start out like that!” 

3. Intern. Intern. Intern.
Internships provide another useful way to gain experience in preservation.  Be creative in your search and look beyond the usual suspects (the local preservation organization or historical society). Check out a cultural resource management firm or an architectural practice.  Matthew Pelz from Galveston Historical Foundation advises: ”For a job in this field [it] is [good] to be as open as possible. Avoid limiting yourself by strictly defining what you think you would like to do or where you think you'd like to live.”

Developing a wide range of skills makes you a more appealing candidate—and it also shows initiative and focus. (Peltz, who now works as a project coordinator in preservation and conservation services in Galveston, interned in construction with Richard Marks Restorations, Inc., and at the National Trust’s Southern Office.  He also did a field school in Falmouth, Jamaica.)

However, internships sometimes require a larger commitment than volunteering—and are often unpaid.  If that is the case, taking an entry level position can also be a step in the right direction. Andrea Rebeck, AIA, (Preservation Buffalo-Niagara) did just that, working as the office secretary for Orin M. Bullock Jr., FAIA, in Maryland.  Since the firm was small and focused on historic preservation she saw everything that went on and was able to “learn about historic preservation from an architect’s point of view.”

 4. Interview or shadow someone in the field.
There is no such thing as a bad internship, since, at the very least, you learn about jobs or activities that are a best match for your interests and skills (or those that are not). However, there are other ways to find out about various careers without actually putting in a large time commitment. Identify someone who currently works in a particular position that interests you. Then, either through a mutual contact or a short introductory email, explain why you are interested in the work that person does and that you would like to learn more in order to develop your own career goals.

It is important to go into these interviews prepared with specific questions and a general knowledge about the organization the person works for. Keep in mind that while this is not a job interview, it is an opportunity to make an impression and put your best foot forward.

Shadowing someone requires a little more effort. Sometimes called externships these visits are shorter than your typical internship and usually involve observing a particular position over a short period of time. They are an excellent way to get a feel for what someone’s day-to-day work is like.  For preservationists, externships are a good way to gain insight into the preservation jobs that require a lot of fieldwork.

Note from Alice Gilbertson: "Most everyone loves to tell you about their career—and make sure you send a thank-you note."

5. Look outside the box: Diversify your knowledge.
In David Field's recent article,
10 Ways to Find a Job in the Recession , he recommends spending some time to “take some classes or sharpen job skills, such as learning new software or developing a personal website or blog that can become part of your portfolio.” Understanding the role of preservation today includes looking outside the traditional preservation box and gaining skills in new technologies, green building trends, development, business, finance—anything will broaden your knowledge and skills and ultimately allow you provide new perspectives in your preservation career, which leads to creative and sustainable solutions for preservation projects.

6. Attend or join a historic preservation commission, local planning, or neighborhood meeting.
A good way to get involved at the local level is to join the local historic preservation commission, planning board, or neighborhood association. Or simply attend the meetings. For Val Ballestrem, a Partners in the Field rep in Portland, Ore., involvement with his local preservation association “helped [him to] spearhead the fight to save a fantastic neighborhood home and urban green space—slated to be replaced with a four-story mixed-use/condo building. We ultimately lost the battle (although the house was relocated), but through the process, I learned much about local historic preservation rules, regulations, policy, and how Portland’s planning and development services bureaus function in general.” 

One of the most important skills a preservationist can have is being able to communicate and interact with the public. Sonja Ingram, a field representative at Preservation Virginia found serving on a historic preservation committee to be valuable “in many ways—in learning preservation language, meeting the right people, being innovative, how to deal carefully with preservation issues and the public, and just basically giving me a dose of what to expect.”

7. Attend a local or state preservation conference (or, if you can, the National Preservation Conference).
Conferences serve many purposes. They are an excellent place to network and meet like-minded individuals from other parts of the state and country. The educational and field sessions provide valuable insights into current preservation issues and trends. If you are a student, you may be able to take advantage of scholarships or student discounts.

8. Become involved: Advocate for historic preservation at the local, state, and federal level.
One critical skill to bring with you to any historic preservation job is the knowledge of basic advocacy practices. In the age of social media, the tools available to effectively get your voice heard have expanded dramatically, however it is still important to learn how to approach and lobby your elected officials directly. Numerous resources tell you what to do (
Blueprint for Lobbying by Susan West Montgomery is just one example), but nothing solidifies this knowledge more than actually participating in an advocacy campaign. Such a campaign might involve promoting a bond issue, advocating for a zoning change, or demonstrating the benefits of a state rehabilitation tax credit..

9. Attend a field school.
Field schools are usually set up to provide hands-on experience in a specific preservation project, such as an archeology dig or a building restoration. They offer practical experience in one or several elements of the project. This is a great way to build your knowledge base while sampling an activity you might not otherwise have the opportunity to try.  Many people come away from a field school with a refined set of career goals and some of the tools they need to achieve them.   

As Matthew Pelz states “the most important experience during my time in grad school was my internship in the summer of 2008 in Falmouth, Jamaica, through US/ICOMOS. I worked with the Falmouth Heritage Renewal to prepare the historic town for major incoming developments.”

10. You never know what is around the bend -- take risks.
Most of the stories that professionals tell about gaining experience in preservation always starts with the sentence (or something similar) “I was at the right place at the right time.”  But luck isn’t everything. At some point this individual did one of the first nine activities and made an impression, and consequently was presented with an opportunity that he or she decided to accept. Take risks and be willing to take on a challenge. You might not always be successful, but at the very least you will walk away with valuable information that translates into something the next candidate might not have—experience.

By Priya Chhaya, Preservation Leadership Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation. With contributions by: Pepper Watkins (National Trust for Historic Preservation), Alice Gilbertson (Historic Denver, Inc.),  Amy Minnick (Columbus Landmarks),  Andrea Rebeck (Preservation Buffalo-Niagara),  Sonja Ingram (Preservation Virginia), Elizabeth Sappenfield (Preservation North Carolina),  Matthew Pelz (Galveston Historical Foundation), Val Ballestrem (Architectural Heritage Center/Bosco-Milligan Foundation)