Graduating Public History Major Already Working to Preserve History

By Tom McLaughlin

Simply put, where others see an old building, Rachel Craft sees a treasure trove of historical information.

Behind the facades, explains the graduating Rutgers University–Camden student, there is much more than meets the eye.

Craft recalls that she was always up for a walk through a historic district, such as the one in her childhood hometown of New Castle, Del.

“Buildings are very telling of history, so I appreciate the importance of preserving them,” says the graduate public history major.

The Mullica Hill resident already has a hands-on role in making sure that they are, thanks to the expertise and career direction gained during her time at Rutgers–Camden.

Craft currently serves as a historian for Hunter Research, a cultural resource management firm in Trenton. She primarily helps to complete archeological surveys – conducting historical research, taking photographs, and filling out the requisite documents – in order to make the case why certain buildings or sites should be historically preserved.

“There is a great deal of behind-the-scenes research that goes into historic preservation and the process by which these buildings and sites make it onto historic preservation lists,” she explains.

It is a role, adds Craft, that would have been out of her wildest dreams as a kid. She has loved history as long as she can remember, she says, noting that she was always up for a walk through a historic district, such as the one in her childhood hometown of New Castle, Del.

Craft later discovered her fascination with archiving – the preserving and cataloguing of historical documents – as an undergraduate at Rowan University. During her senior year, she also gained experience serving as a site manager, coordinating history tours, at Red Bank Battlefield Park in Gloucester County.

For the self-described “visual learner,” these experiences to see and touch the past, and share those experiences with others, sparked her interest in public history.

Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history, Craft arrived at Rutgers–Camden in fall 2016 on a graduate program in history fellowship to pursue her master’s degree in public history.

At Rutgers–Camden, she explains, she had the unique opportunity to conduct a great deal of research in and around the Cooper Street Historic District. She describes the area as a living classroom, reflecting the rich architectural history of Camden over a few city blocks.

For one particular project, she recalls, she and her classmates researched the women who had lived on Cooper Street. Knowing the history behind the homes and who lived there, she says, made a “physical connection” to her work.

Craft describes the Cooper Street Historic District as a living classroom, reflecting the rich architectural history of Camden over a few city blocks.

“It’s amazing to walk down Cooper Street and know about a woman who lived in a house in the 19th century,” she says. “I could see the work that I was doing; it was tangible.”

It was experiences like that, she continues, which propelled her to do what she is doing now.

“I thought, ‘How cool would it be to make a career of this?’” says Craft, who served as a teaching assistant for undergraduate classes.

Craft’s interest was further piqued when she took an introduction course on historic preservation. It was the first in a series of classes, offered by the Rutgers–Camden-based Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH), leading toward a certificate in historic preservation.

The course, she says, further introduced her to architecture and a fundamental understanding of historic preservation that would continue to chart her career path.

“I really liked learning that historic preservation has to happen at a really local and focused level in order for it to really make an impact,” says Craft, who recently designed and led a history tour of the Mullica Hill Historic District. “I realized that was an effort I wanted to be a part of.”

Over the course of her studies, Craft also took on an increasingly active role with MARCH, dedicated to supporting humanities research, programming, training, and communications throughout the region. She provided digital content management for its pioneering online resource, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, and later helped to coordinate programming for the certificate program.

Upon finishing her coursework in December, Craft didn’t waste any time applying and landing her current position with Hunter Research.

She is now excited for the opportunity to do her part in making history more relevant and significant to others.

“That’s a big part of what public history is: making it meaningful for people,” she explains. “It’s about getting them engaged with it in a way that they can relate, beyond what they can glean from a book.”

For now though, adds Craft, commencement is a time to stop and smell the roses – and admire the architecture.

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