Recent graduate Madison Horton (BA 2017) touched base with us to talk about how she’s putting her History degree to work in the world of documentary filmmaking.
What have you been up to since graduating?
I loved Ann Arbor so much that I stayed for a year after graduating. I spent that time working in the Museum of Natural History on campus developing fundraising initiatives for the move to the new Biological Science Building. Last spring I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a documentary filmmaker. I got a job working with filmmaker Gabe Polsky, and spent last fall helping coordinate the release of his latest film, In Search of Greatness. I am currently working on another documentary that will be released this summer.
Which skills from History have helped you in the filmmaking world? Can you explain?
It’s impossible to answer this question in one paragraph, but two skills I developed as a History major that I now use every day are writing and researching. The experience I got working in archives, and with archival materials, has been incredibly helpful, because the film we are working on relies heavily on archival footage. It has been very useful to know how to effectively search for extremely specific clips while wading through the vast archives of the internet, and then keep them organized for later use. The writing skills I developed as a History major not only help me in the actual process of making a film, but also in the day to day communication and marketing that releasing a film requires.
Why did you major in History?
My parents love to tell the story of me giving an in-depth tour of the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, as a four-year-old. I don’t remember it, but I guess history is something I have been interested in for most of my life. I actually initially planned on becoming a museum curator, but decided to pursue filmmaking instead because I also love documentaries. I have always been obsessed with figuring out how things got to be the way they are—and then explaining it to people incessantly.
You wrote a thesis—tell us more about that.
I wrote my thesis on the history of the Detroit Institute of the Arts and its relationship to the city of Detroit. It focused on three specific periods when the city saw major economic and demographic changes, and explored the museum’s shifting role as a publicly funded institution. My thesis is easily the thing I am most proud of from my time at Michigan.
What was your favorite History class?
History of Modern Africa with Professor Ellen Poteet! This class opened my eyes to the beautiful and complex history of an entire continent that was either lumped together or left out of my high school textbooks. I knew about consequences of the scramble for Africa for Europeans, but this class helped me start to understand the consequences for Africans. I actually took three of the primary sources we read for this class out to LA with me, and I didn’t have a lot of room in my car!
You were captain of the varsity swim team at Michigan—how did you balance that with the demands of schoolwork?
I loved swimming and I loved schoolwork, so I just had to figure it out. The scales weren’t always balanced, but there was no world in which I would have willingly given either of them up. I actually think the rigor of being a college athlete helped me become a better student because I was forced to prioritize and manage my time well. When I finished swimming, I had an a full 24 hours of time added into my week, and without the structure of practice and teammates to hold me accountable that time seems to just disappear!
Do you have any advice for current History students?
Write a thesis! It’s no joke, but it is 100% worth the blood, sweat, and tears. You get to spend more than a year learning about something YOU are interested in and you will have 8 million drafts and a sleek bound book to show for it