Conversation with History Alum Rebecca Guest

June 14, 2024

Author: Mel Sheehan

Rebecca Guest's journey from VCU history student to Mariners' Museum philanthropy coordinator reflects on her lifelong passion for museums and artifacts, driven by a desire to engage the public and preserve history.

Rebecca Guest

Views expressed in this interview belong to the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Mariners' Museum.

What bachelor’s program did you do?
I majored in history at VCU and graduated in 2015. I took a lot of anthropology and archaeology courses, as well as did a lot of networking with Dr. Means in the Virtual Curation Laboratory. 

Why did you choose history at VCU? 
When I went back to VCU, I was an adult student. After high school, I went to community college and I got my associate's degree. I actually toured VCU when I was a student at Rappahannock Community College, and it just left a great impression on me. I thought it was a lot of fun and that the city was really neat. I decided when I was ready to go back to school, I'd go to VCU. At the time, I was interested in art history, but as I started taking more history courses, I realized this is where I need to be, this is what I want to pursue. Research, writing, and museums, which I’ve always loved.

What was your experience at VCU like?
I really enjoyed it. It was a little intimidating at first, because I was maybe 10 years older than a lot of my peers. It took me a second to get kind of in a groove, but I made a lot of great friends, some I'm still in touch with. The professors are very top quality. I took to a lot of Dr. Shively’s materials.

How did your degree prepare you for your current job?
A big thing is being able to talk to the public and do engagement, that’s what I learned at VCU through public history. Being able to talk to folks, that’s a big key to my success.  I really took to the antebellum, Civil War and reconstruction area courses. I interact with a lot of people that want to talk about certain times in history, or they have a certain historical figure they want to learn more about. I’m proud that I can answer a lot of their questions.

Why did you choose to work at the Mariners' Museum? 
I wanted to be part of organizations that embrace cultural heritage, such as museums, ones that tell the full story. When I was still at VCU, I interned with the Virginia Association of Museums that was based in Richmond. VAM is a network of all the museums across the state. They had this program called "Virginia's Top 10 Endangered Artifacts Program." With my history and archaeology training, I thought that I would love being part of that program. I networked with museums across the state to submit artifacts in their collections that needed attention. That really started my work in the museum field. The team there are some of my greatest mentors today. I was in engagement, membership and fundraising roles. Since then, I've also worked for the Fairfield Foundation in my hometown of Gloucester, Virginia. They're a history and archaeology organization. I also spent some time at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, which is neat being around animals. 

As an intern at VAM, I arranged a meeting here at the Mariners' to meet with its staff to review the artifact they submitted. I got a behind the scenes tour of the conservation lab where I saw artifacts that were in treatment then that are now on display. Having that connection before is really neat. One of the ladies who gave the tour was Tina Gutshall, who worked in the Mariners' conservation lab at the time. I remember thinking that she was so cool and that I wanted to be her one day. Then when this opportunity came up at the Mariners' Museum, I really was excited and wanted to pursue it.  Now her cubicle's next to mine. I get to say that she inspired me 10 years ago and now we’re coworkers. This month, I celebrate two years here at the Mariners'. 

What is it like working at the Mariners' Museum?
It's very fun. Our admission here is only $1, and people don't realize that. We received an endowment from the Batten Foundation to keep it $1 for all time. I joke that we're a better deal than the Dollar Tree now. Originally it was $15- $17 for adults. Our goal is to reach out to all members of our community. It’s a great opportunity to engage and to welcome all to come visit the museum. I get to apply my love for history, museums and my job and talk to people in our local area and around the world. I get excited when people say they’re from Richmond, and I can say I went to VCU. Even here at the museum, we have a lot of peers that went to VCU. 

One thing we started this past year is museum membership swaps. Our most popular swap is the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk. For an entire month, zoo members can come here and Mariners' members can go there for free just by showing a membership card. We get folks from South Hampton Roads region, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, who have never heard of our museum. They come for a day, spend it with their family. That's exciting for people. It's a great partnership too, to learn from our peers and work together.

What do you love most about the Mariners' Museum?
I first visited the museum when I was in the fifth grade. The Cape Charles Lighthouse lens has been here the whole time. I was immediately drawn to that. Now I get to see that everyday and remember how inspired I was by that. The leadership here is incredible. Our CEO and president Howard Hoege III, he's one of the best museum directors I've worked with. His passion and drive is very inspiring to others. Working here at the Mariners', having leadership that loves what they do, having that projected to the team, and making sure everyone's involved and communication are key aspects. That kind of engagement and touch points really honor the work people are doing. 

Most of all, a lot of the history here relates to my research interests, antebellum, Civil War and reconstruction. We have the USS Monitor Center, which is very popular in the museum field and amongst researchers too. The fact that I get to see artifacts and hear stories, even talk to veterans who come through is amazing. It's been inspirational working with the public. 

What advice would you give to history students?
Discover what you're passionate about, what you enjoy about history and find a certain focus that you enjoy. Also think of the big picture, of all history, how it ties in with other majors like anthropology, even the art history side of things. Stay focused on the history program, but see what other courses you can take that apply to your major. Customer service is a big thing, too. However, a lot of researchers can be behind the scenes and don't necessarily do public facing engagement opportunities. Get involved, practice on skills. There are public history courses, and other elements too, that you can work with your professors and classmates on. During breaks, try and get a job in between semesters that applies to your studies, or maybe look for internships. 

What advice would you give for those wanting to go into the museum field?
Follow as many museums and similar organizations as you can. Social media, follow their website, sign up for newsletters. A lot of them have volunteer internship job opportunities that you learn just from those communications alone. Be engaged with that type of communication. It's great to compare what others are doing because I get inspired by what my peers are doing. We could apply things to something or we could do a similar program, as well as collaborate with our peers too. 

I want to encourage our classmates to give as well. Donations are important, to support nonprofits, museums, arts and culture organizations. Please give or research and follow these organizations. That goes a long way. I currently give back on VCU Giving Day, because I know the impact is the greatest with different promotions and contests. If you can, support societies and organizations that you're passionate about and really love. Stay engaged with them, too.