University of Virginia – Bachelors of Urban Planning and Environmental Design
Tulane University – Masters in Historic Preservation.
Graduating from the University of Virginia with an urban planning degree, Ella Camburnbeck thought she’d landed just the right gig as she packed up for Washington D.C. to work for a general contracting firm. It didn’t take long, however, for Ella to realize that the real love affair wasn’t with her position, but with the history-rich city surrounding her. In fact, Ella felt so connected to the city and its past that she decided to go back to school to pursue a masters in historic preservation.
After receiving her masters, Ella’s preservationist passion — and a tip from a friend-of-a-friend — led her to her current role as house director at the Beauregard-Keyes House Museum in New Orleans. Ella admits she was nervous to apply, given her age and limited direct experience, but she’s glad she took the leap of faith. “I was encouraged by the people that care about me to give it my best shot,” admits Ella. “And goodness, I’m so glad I did!”
The fact that it’s my job to breathe new life into the past is such a treat for me.
What responsibilities do you have in your role?
We’re a very small operation, so I wear many hats. I handle all of the collections management, educational programming, scheduling, finances, social media and event planning for the museum. Thankfully, we have incredible docents who lead our daily tours, as well as a very active and supportive Board of Trustees.
What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?
I was always the nerdy child who loved visiting museums, but was repeatedly let down because I couldn’t actually touch the items on display or peek behind that door labeled “staff only beyond this point”. Now, working for a museum, I get to spend my days behind the scenes, caring for and learning about our collection — not to mention (very responsibly) handling those items! I also love discovering new stories about the House and finding creative ways to share them with our guests. So many incredible people and events have been a part of this building’s history, and the fact that it’s my job to breathe new life into that past is such a treat for me.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
I have a lot of freedom in my job, which is empowering but also a little scary at times. The feeling that if I don’t do something, it either won’t get done or could cause the museum to suffer can be daunting. To keep myself calm, I make a lot of lists — lists of things that have to be done daily, monthly and quarterly, as well as lists of things I dream of doing, ideas for exhibits and events and new programming to keep me inspired and excited about goals.
Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
Work/life balance is always a challenge, especially during the spring and fall when we’re a venue for a lot of weddings. During those months, I often end up working six or seven days a week. Monday through Friday is spent on the museum and its day-to-day operations, and then the weekend is spent setting up for and overseeing events. To try and keep a balance, I make time for a yoga or barre3 class every day, guaranteeing that I at least have one hour all to myself when I can clear my mind, relax and reflect.
Was there ever a moment in your career where you’ve thought, “I made it!” What was it?
I feel very proud of where I am and the journey that has led me here, so in a way I feel like that sense of belonging and purpose is my “I made it”. Nevertheless, I still have so much to discover about the Beauregard-Keyes House and its stories, as well as the museum field in general. I think with each new goal and milestone, we can reach that “I made it” feeling, all the while never forgetting there’s still more growing and learning to be done.
What are some of the rules you live by?
Always be kind and keep an open mind. It takes courage to lead a life — any life. And if something needs to be done, do it and never, ever stop learning.
What qualities does it take for someone to be successful in your line of work?
I think to succeed in the museum and preservation field, you need to be a storyteller. Whether you’re leading a tour, arranging an exhibit or planning a presentation, you are the steward of all the stories that make up that museum or collection. You’re responsible for giving them life and making sure they don’t go forgotten.
What is one thing you think would improve your field?
More young energy! The museum and historic preservation fields are filled with experts who’ve been around for decades, but we’re desperately in need of new creative, passionate minds. Like I said before, I was incredibly nervous to apply for a directorship, but I took a chance, did an insane amount of research about the museum I was applying to and ended up with my dream job. If you think you might be interested in the world of historic preservation but aren’t quite sure, go volunteer as a docent at a museum that interests you, talk to the people that work there and see if it might be a good fit.
What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a 21-year-old version of yourself?
Love BIG! Love where you are, who you are and what you’re doing in this moment. Never hold yourself back or give less than your all — you won’t regret it.