A beautiful late spring afternoon. Bright office filled with antiques and books. A collection of caps featuring different emblems hung on the back wall. A room filled with oriental taste. Everything in the office of a historian made this interview so delightful.
Some twenty years have passed after Professor Barbara Fertig started her teaching and research as a historian at Armstrong State University. When coming to the question why and how she moved toward the track of teaching and studying history, Professor Fertig paused then burst into laughter. She admitted, “I always wondered why my friends were studying history.” As an art student at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, the farthest thing from her mind was becoming a teacher, let alone a history professor. Following graduation she first sought a profession in the museum world, working at museums in upstate New York and Washington DC. Ironically, while she worked in a small museum in Orient, New York, she taught an interactive history lesson once a week to a fourth grade class. “By the time it was done I realized that teaching is a really wonderful thing to do.” Soon Fertig discovered the indoctrination problem in the museum industry: “People in the museum business, especially in museum education, always assume that people would understand if you taught them what you wanted them to know about the things in the museum. And they didn't.” This realization drove her back to school in hopes to provide a solution. Her background in museum work offered an excellent foundation for the pursuit of public history as a graduate student. It seems Fertig’s efforts to avoid teaching and history in her early life, essentially led to the beginnings of her journey as a public historian.
Yet the journey was not always like a big bang once for all and life was full of changes and surprises. Perhaps Fertig’s journey is like a quilt, each strand of fabric has a distinct and valuable purpose leading to another strand, all interconnected and a part of the finished product. Fertig simply puts it, “I have simply gone where the opportunities existed but they all tie together.” One time on her way home from a vacation, she was exposed to the fascinating history and culture of the Azorean Portuguese population when she passed through the small fishing town Stonington, Connecticut. This small fishing town on the coast of Connecticut had a population of roughly 500 Azorean Portuguese immigrants. Their families came to America on whaling vessels in search of a better life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This close-knit community intrigued Fertig, especially their rich culture with unique traditions stemming from their Portuguese heritage. What followed seemed natural for her—she joined the American History and Folklore and Folklife PhD program at George Washington University and immersed herself in the study of this unique culture. In the following summers, she joined the local people to observe their distinct traditions and rituals, with full respect and sincerity.
Her next opportunity landed her far from her home in the North East. In the midst of Fertig’s dissertation research, an old classmate living in Savannah, Georgia approached her about helping develop the syllabi for the public history program at Armstrong. It seemed opportunity knocked at Fertig’s door at just the right time. She gladly opened it and the start of her connection with Savannah, Armstrong, and history professor began. One year later her application for a teaching position at Armstrong was answered with a resounding yes.
The opportunities are vast for a public historian living in a historic city such as Savannah, since Savannah could supply multiple venues and avenues for success. Not only has Armstrong benefitted from Fertig’s passion for public history and museum work, but the city of Savannah has also. Fertig has worked in the Savannah History Museum and continues to have an active relationship with the Telfair museum. All of Savannah’s numerous tourists, and those natives who just wanted to learn more about the city and take a tour should thank Fertig, who wrote Savannah’s historic tour guide manual. Even after Fertig’s extensive career, her curiosity and work ethic continue to shine; she is involved in ongoing research on the local native community of Pin Point, GA and working with a team to develop a museum highlighting this unique community in Savannah.
If an aspiring history student sat next to Fertig she would advise them to “find something that you're interested in, that you can’t help yourself and it just drags you along with it.” She continues to explain, “That’s kind of what happened with the book The Cheese and the Worms for me, this need to understand why people do what they do." After she read this book by Carlo Ginzberg, Fertig became interested in understanding why people do what they do and the context in which they do it. This has been Fertig’s experience as a historian. Her career is a model of her advice to young historians—she found something that she was so intrigued with and passionate about that she could not help but pursue it. Fertig’s endeavors have enriched Armstrong’s History program and the wider Savannah historical community from her experience in the museum world to her passion to understand people and the context in which they live. Fertig’s quilt may not be finished yet, but it is safe to say that it is a beautiful, historical, and influential one nonetheless.
(Interviewed by Melissa Gibbs)
Melissa Gibbs, “The Journey of a Historian: An Interview with Dr. Barbara Fertig," Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no. 2 (Aug. 2012).