Day in the working life of a historian: Rebecca Lush

Rebecca Lush discusses working life in the public history sector. 

6:00am: I have been trying to wake up early in the morning so I can be somewhat productive before going to work at one of my several jobs in the public history sector.

First thing I always check is what is on the day’s agenda. Having completed my Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies only a few weeks ago, I am still trying to adjust to life without study. This does mean triple checking the day of the week!

Cockatoo Island entrance sign. Image via Rebecca Lush.

I am very grateful to have an amazing array of jobs that constantly challenge me yet offer something exciting. I have two main roles: heritage interpreter on Cockatoo Island, and curator at the Harry Daly Museum. On an average day, I could be guiding primary school students around Cockatoo Island, working in a medical archive at the Harry Daly Museum or delivering programs at the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. To fit everything into my schedule I tend to work weekends as well as during the week.

Once I know where I’m headed, the next thing I always do is check Twitter and Google for upcoming conferences and journal deadlines. I find Twitter to be the most useful social media tool for my profession. I especially enjoy reading through articles posted by other medical curators including Carla Valentine and Monica Cronin. #medhist is a fantastic hashtag to browse!

7:30am: Regardless of where I’m working, I am usually on the light rail or train by half past seven. On average my commute can range anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour. I take this opportunity to listen to some history-related podcasts. I especially like listening to “Stuff You Missed in History Class”.

I believe it is my role, as a public historian, to make history accessible to a wide audience. I like to take the past and deliver it through interesting stories that captivate. This is why I enjoy listening to podcasts that challenge notions of the past or cover material that is not contained in your typical syllabus.

Biloela Industrial School and Reformatory (Cockatoo Island), 1889. Image via Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales.

8:00 am: My journey today takes me to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Cockatoo Island, formerly a convict settlement, and later a girls’ industrial school and naval dockyard. Even if my shift is later in the day, I always try to arrive on Cockatoo Island early in the morning. It is a truly beautiful location in the heart of Sydney Harbour filled to the brim with history. On one small island you can see remnants from an Indigenous past to large engine rooms built during World War II. The tour I take most often is Convict Times, which is aimed at students in grades 4 and 5.

For three hours I guide students around the island sharing stories of convict Sydney. Characters from the past are brought to life through stories and role-playing. I have to admit this is when I feel most proud to be a historian. Mostly because I am able to communicate with others who are just as excited as I am to delve into the past. I have yet to take a tour that is completely disinterested – that would be a most atypical day.

However, being a tour guide does have its challenges. In the space of only a few minutes you must be able to read a group, tune into their interests, and find a way to deliver content that resonates with them. No matter how prepared I am for a tour, I find that it’s impossible to predict the dynamics of a group. Whilst challenging, it is also a job that presents many opportunities for me to re-interpret the history.

Rebecca Lush holding the graduation cap of Dr Mary Burnell (1907-1996), anaesthetist. Image via Rebecca Lush.

8:00am (alternate days): On alternate days, my journey instead takes me to the Harry Daly Museum, an initiative of the Australian Society of Anesthetists.

A typical day at the Harry Daly Museum can consist of anything. This medical museum houses a fascinating collection relating to anaesthesia and anything else related to treating pain. My favourite objects in the collection are medication packets. Seeing what medications contained in the past is both horrifying and fascinating.

Being the curator of a small museum means I am in charge – something I am still grappling with. I still remember cataloguing an object on my first day at work. I wrote down a question to ask my supervisor – before remembering that they did not exist.

At Harry Daly I spend half my time researching enquiries and preparing publications, and the other half of my time working through the archives and preparing an audit. I have also started planning an education/public program surrounding the exhibitions and objects. Finally, I am working with our librarian, Peter Stanbury, on an exhibition for International Museum Day next year. All very exciting!

I started to move away from academia during my honours year. I began volunteering with the Queensland Police Museum and MacArthur Museum Brisbane (housing a World War Two collection) and soon realised that my true passion was exhibiting the past and working with collections. I enrolled in my Masters mid-way through honours and could not wait to move down to Sydney and begin the following year. At the back of my mind, my end goal was to become a curator and have the privilege of working with a collection. I did not expect to achieve this goal so soon, but I am humbled and ecstatic that my career path is on track.

Exhibition cases at Harry Daly Museum. Image via Rebecca Lush.

My advice to anyone out there who is looking to build a career as a public historian is to build experience. Take as many opportunities as you can because you never know when one will lead to something amazing. In other words, volunteer as much as possible and make sure to make meaningful connections.

5:00pm: Back to public transport and listening to podcasts. On the trip home I make a to-do list for that evening. To say I like being organised is understating things.

6:00pm: I spend the rest of my day catching up on some reading and writing. I run my own blog, Curate Your Own Adventure, where I document and review my museum experiences. I still have a few museums left to review from my recent trip to Scandinavia.

I also spend this time pondering a recent acceptance letter from Curtin University. The cut-off date to accept my place in an externally delivered archives course is looming. Last night I procrastinated again from making this decision by booking a spot on an Ancient Egyptian Skies tour at the Sydney Observatory and organising what museums to visit this weekend.

Whilst I really enjoy studying I have a busy 2017 planned and I wish I could outsource my decision-making to someone else. I have a strong feeling it will be a last-minute decision to accept or decline. I don’t know why I am so hesitant to accept. I want to improve my knowledge of archives, and I can do so whilst continuing to stay and work in Sydney. At the same time, it is a big decision to commit to another twelve months of full-time study.

9:00pm: Another day is done. I am extremely grateful to have so many opportunities to communicate my passion for history. I am aware this industry is tough and, yes, I often panic about what the future will hold. Then again, I know tomorrow will be a rewarding day because I am working in a field that I love. I am slowly learning the importance of taking things one day at a time.


screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-3-34-39-pmRebecca Lush is a Curator of Medical History at the Harry Daly Museum. Her other roles include program producer and volunteer coordinator at the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences and Heritage Interpreter at Cockatoo Island. Rebecca has recently graduated from a Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies program at the University of Sydney.

Follow Rebecca on Twitter @LotteNaughton.

Read her blog here:

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