When University of Chicago alum Paul Durica was researching his dissertation on hobos and tramps as figures in American literature, he kept discovering stories that didn’t quite belong in his scholarly work—but were too fascinating to keep to himself.
So in 2008, he founded Pocket Guide to Hell, a public history effort that took many forms—reenactments, performances, walking tours—and combined intellectual heft with, on occasion, pure silliness. (For instance: Chicago’s 1855 Lager Beer Riot was restaged as a dodgeball game.)
The project, which has reemerged after a multiyear hiatus as a monthly pub trivia event, reshaped his career plans. Instead of becoming an academic, he wanted to find ways to bring history to wider audiences. Today, after four years at Illinois Humanities, he is director of exhibitions at Chicago’s Newberry Library.
In the following Q&A, Durica, AM’06, PhD’13, discusses what he learned at UChicago, what makes for a great museum exhibition, and oft-overlooked tidbits of Chicago history.
Did you imagine this would be your career path when you started your Ph.D. program in English Language and Literature?
Not at all. I anticipated I would write my dissertation and find a teaching position somewhere. But as I was getting to the dissertation-writing phase, that’s when I began to do more of the public history work, and I found it to be really appealing and much more in sync with what I wanted to do.
Although I didn’t set out to get here, I was making choices while I was at the University that helped me arrive at this place. One was beginning to do projects on my own and forming relationships with different cultural institutions across the city. When I decided that there might be a career in this for me, I had some relationships in place.
I also benefited from having a dissertation committee that was understanding and encouraging of this work, and saw value in it. They supported me in exploring other opportunities and ultimately helped me to end up where I am.
So, I remain grateful for that. I don’t think the work I do now, whether at the Newberry or prior, would be nearly as strong without the experiences I had at the University of Chicago.
What makes a great museum exhibition?
A strong, relevant, captivating story that has people at its center but then uses collection items as a way of adding physicality and tactility to that story. You’re not encountering just the narrative—you’re also encountering objects that remind you the story actually occurred in space and time.