I get a lot of calls from people asking for advice about careers: getting a first job, getting back into the museum field, switching to museums from another field.
I wish I could wave a wand and open a door for these earnest job seekers. I totally sympathize with their goal—personally, I think museum jobs are among the best in the world. My one regret about coming to work for AAM was losing the privilege of actually working in a museum, rather than with museums. I still miss “my” collections!
I want to do more than merely point out the obvious—that the economy stinks and there are very few job openings. (Not that this is news to the callers.) Some of the best and most experienced people I know in the field have “gone independent,” which often means piecing together shards of work as they become available. Some of the brightest and most talented young people I know have taken jobs outside the field, as they graduate with their hard earned museum studies degree and…nothing opens up.
However, since for every one person who does catch me on the phone or at a meeting, there may be probably ten or twenty or thirty others wishing they could ask the same question, here, for what it’s worth, is the advice I find myself cautiously offering. With the caveat that I don’t (ironically) have a crystal ball, these are just my best shots, based on watching the world and its behavior. How to get a job in the future museum, given the current lousy job market:
Do real work. Don’t wait to be hired for a paying job—identify a useful project and tackle it now. This doesn’t have to take the form of the classic (and increasingly resented) unpaid internship. Start a blog to share your thoughts, analysis and observations with the world. Fund your own project. Heck, start your own museum or museum-like endeavor.
Come at it from the side. Don’t train in museum work, train in something museums ought to know, but don’t (or should know better). Study games design. Or electrical engineering. Or futures studies. Get a good start in that field, and then convince a prospective museum employer that they can use that skill to expand their repertoire. Now instead of being one-among-a-hundred (or more) museum studies graduates you are a rare asset.
Focus on practice, not theory. If you are in a traditional museum studies program, don’t do your research or write your thesis on something academic or theoretical. For heaven’s sake don’t write the umpteenth paper on the history of accreditation (to have it molder on the shelf. Or on the hard drive. Whatever.) Find a museum that has a problem and offer to help solve it. Gather the data they need to make a decision. Prototype a process or a design that might work for them. Share whatever you learn from this project-share it: publish. Don’t wait for a peer-reviewed journal—publish on the internet on a blog or wiki or where ever else it will be known, accessible, useful.
Train for the future. Not for the past, or even the present. I talk to a lot of folks who seem to want jobs that were the norm twenty or thirty years ago. Some people want to be bookbinders or farriers too, and a few can find jobs, but it’s not as easy as finding work as a webmaster or a car mechanic. I think that for good or for ill, the old curatorial model of academic, scholarly expert will become rarer and rarer. Museums will need communicators, facilitators, moderators—who are in the best of all possible worlds also experts. Museums will be hiring curators of engagement and dialogue, curators of audience engagement and curators of the visitor experience. To make museums central to the next educational era, museum educators will need to know how to deliver compelling content over the web, make museum resources accessible and compelling for self-directed learners and create opportunities for exploration.
Perhaps the most useful thing I can do is open up this conversation to my colleagues: employed, unemployed, hiring, laying off staff or seeking jobs. What is your best advice to the earnest caller who says, “I want to work in a museum?” Use the comments section, below, to share your thoughts.