Ben Justman ’07 has always been a history buff. When he enrolled at Central, he knew it was what he wanted to study. “I love the stories involved in history,” he says. “But also, I have always liked the critical thinking that is tied in with the subject.”
Justman also knew he wanted to pursue a career in the field. Unfortunately, he didn’t really know what kind of career that might be.
During his junior year, while spending a semester in the Central College Abroad program in London, Justman landed an internship that helped him settle on a career path. Working at London’s Churchill War Rooms, a branch of the Imperial War Museum, he learned to appreciate the connections museums make with the community. There, he first considered museums as a serious career opportunity.
After graduation, Justman spent a year in Chicago volunteering for various museums while taking courses through Northwestern University’s museum studies program. It provided a formal background on the educational, ethical and business aspects of museum work. “All those internships and volunteer positions were almost like an apprenticeship,” says Justman. “I was able to pay my dues and really learn about the job.”
Following his gap year, Justman enrolled in a graduate program at Western Illinois University, where he studied U.S. history. After earning his master’s degree, he began an arduous, nationwide job search. In a field with a low turnover rate, Justman submitted resumes to more than 100 positions before being contacted by the Sarpy County (Neb.) Museum, a local museum just south of Omaha.
Since 2010, he has been the museum director, using all of the various skills years of study and volunteering have taught him.
“It’s a bit shrouded in mystery,” Justman jokes of the work museum directors do. As the museum’s only paid employee, he recruits members, manages a team of more than 30 volunteers, plans and sets up exhibits, manages the finances and markets the institution by building community awareness.
One of his primary concerns is building the community’s interest in its personal history. “Familiarity with local history helps to build cultural identity, which is incredibly crucial. It develops pride in your local area. The more you understand your roots, the more pride you have,” Justman explains.
Though you might not expect a county in Nebraska to have the richest history, Justman explains that Sarpy County has been a “national and global player.” Lewis and Clark passed through the area multiple times during the exploration of the West, marking the area as a base for America’s expansion. Home to Offutt Air Force Base, Sarpy County has strong military ties. Following the 9/11 attacks, the base was among the first places President Bush visited. Offutt was also the site of Strategic Air Command, putting it at the center of the Cold War nuclear standoff.
To interest Sarpy Country residents in their local history, Justman makes himself as visible as possible. He represents the museum at community gatherings to drum up grassroots support. And when he inherited the museum, Justman began to rethink the exhibition strategy. Rather than displaying all of the museums holdings at once, he rotates exhibits to encourage visitors to return.
Justman is also tasked with helping to document history as it develops. This is a unique challenge, as the museum depends largely on donations. Often people don’t perceive an item as historical, particularly if they used it themselves. The current perception of artifacts, bolstered by popular auction and pawn TV shows, makes this even more difficult. “People are quick to put a price tag on history,” Justman says. “They’re more likely to try to sell something than bring it to a museum.”
From his time at Central, Justman knows that seeing a historical artifact in person can make history’s lessons more impactful. Participating in a live-fire exercise with World War II-era weapons in a Central history course allowed Justman to better understand the war. He believes a museum provides a similar opportunity.
Considering the wide range of challenges he faces, Justman says the ability to analyze and think through problems is the most significant tool he gained from his time at Central and later in graduate school. “I know a fair amount about history, but that doesn’t mean I can just spout off every significant name and date there is,” he says. “Critical thinking is the biggest thing I took from the classroom education.”