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Where Should Museums Look for the Workforce of the Future?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Intel just hired of the Black Eyed Peas to be their Director of Creative Innovation. Google hired futurist and noted transhumanist (“the singularity is coming”) Ray Kurtzweil as its Director of Engineering. President Obama just nominated Sally Jewell, the chief executive of Recreational Equipment Inc., to lead the Department of the Interior

That leaves me wondering, who would museums hire if they looked beyond the traditional pipeline? Especially as there is such widespread dissatisfaction with the traditional pipeline (e.g., museum studies programs, arts administration). Some signals of how this model of training and hiring is creaking at the seams include:

  • Recent graduates of museum studies programs are overwhelmingly white, and female, at a time when museums themselves are saying they need a diverse workforce to better serve diverse audiences;
  • Recent museum studies graduates tell me that they feel there are not enough opportunities for employment, and the resulting bidding war by applicants (for jobs) results in entry level salaries so low they don’t justify the educational debt they have taken on to earn their degree;
  • Museum managers labor to rejigger org charts, assignments and hiring to staff positions that didn’t even exist five years ago: curator of audience engagement, social media manager, director of digital and emerging technologies;
  • Museums struggle to find truly new approaches to delivering their core experience in a financially sustainable way, taking advantage of those emerging technologies and shifting patterns of cultural consumption without losing the museum’s soul.

I’m not convinced the solution to these challenges lies in recruiting different people to museum studies programs and tweaking the syllabus. I suspect it lies in a completely different pattern of recruitment.

I’m not talking about a return to the fad that (I hope) peaked in the ‘90s—that of hiring people from the business world as museum directors on the premise that for-profit managers would do a better job managing non-profits that people who trained up in the system. (That myth was, perhaps, finally laid to rest by the mess Larry Small made as regent of the Smithsonian, after having been recruited on the strength of his experience at Citicorp, Citibank and as president/COO of the FNMA.) As one person observed (in the discussion that followed Chris Norris’ recent post on the CFM Blog), people recruited from other sectors straight into museum directorships are likely to try to recreate the museum in the image of their own sector, be that higher ed or business. I’m talking about hiring for entry and mid-level positions, drawing people from diverse backgrounds, experience and skills, and giving them the museum-specific training they need once they are on the job.

This is not a revolutionary thought. Many of the most talented and creative folks I know working in museums today had at least one foot firmly grounded in a different field before they committed full-time to museums. Joël Tan, a poet and editor, was as the artistic director at SF’s Asian American Theater Company and worked as a health educator on HIV prevention programs before joining Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as their director of community engagement. While Seb Chan was getting a toehold in museums as systems administrator at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, he was also working as a freelance journalist, organizing music festivals, working as a producer at a radio station and founding and editing a magazine. Now he’s leading the “digital renewal” of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Nina Simon got her bachelors’ degree in electrical engineering, and worked as a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Center while beginning to work in the museum realm. Fewer than 10 years later, she is putting her principles of participatory design and practice to work as the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. (I could go on but then some people might get cranky if I left them out, so I will stop with this short, highly curated list.) I’m not suggesting something new, I’m suggesting a shift in what seems to be the default expectation for training and hiring.

Here is a list I’ve started of sectors I might fish in for museum staff, were I hiring today, with notes on the skills I hope they might bring to the job:

  • Gaming and games design: how to make experiences rewarding & compelling
  • Community health/community organizers: how to put the museum’s resources in service of community needs and (if you hire locally) a deep knowledge of and ties to existing community organizations
  • The military: logistics, planning and project management, risk assessment and management
  • Law (given the recent glut of law school graduates): considering how few museums can afford in house-legal council, having a staff member trained in research, critical thinking and writing with a legal background as well couldn’t be a bad thing.

Two things I’d love to hear from you: pocket bios of museum colleagues you admire who have “non-traditional” backgrounds (or your own alt bio, don’t be shy), and your list of other sectors we might draw on to diversify our ranks (in many different ways).

And as to how hiring in this manner might change the economics of museum jobs? Well, that gives me the topic for a future post…

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  1. This is an interesting article. I'm just confused. Early in the post you point out that there are many folks fighting for the few museum positions that are available and later on in the post you talk about how to recruit for positions. Am I missing something? Or should we be thinking about hiring for positions that don't exist?

    I would be more concerned about those folks who are currently looking for jobs and have a museum studies or history, etc background. What other jobs can they find? I currently do not work in a museum despite my museum studies degree.

  2. Thanks for this excellent and thought-provoking post.

    I think there are a lot of issues at play here, one of the most interesting being: In the future, will there even be people trained specifically for any given job, or is every individual his/her own entreprise that will see any given position (challenge) as an opportunity to build its brand?

    It's a cliche to say that life-long employment is a thing of the past. This automatically means that every educational (or professional) background gives at best some direction for the future. A person's background shows his/her favourite challenges. All the examples you picked in the post are people who are very much THE person for the challenge at hand, regardless of the organisation they're doing it for.

    So, I don't think we should look at any specific sector for our workforce of the future. We should look at people who are very good at tackling the challenges we face regardless of sector.

  3. Carolyn–Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Museums have plenty of museum studies graduates applying for open positions. I am suggesting they may be better served by actively recruiting from outside that pool (even if it means offering a higher salary, though that it something to explore in a future post).

    I am concerned about the number of museum studies graduates, too, and their prospects for employment. I think students entering college or graduate school should carefully research their prospects before entering a degree program. What are the employment rates of graduates? What fields are they going into, what is the starting salary, and how do both those statistics figure into the equation of student loans, debt & repayment?

    I've written before on the blog that perhaps the best strategy for a museum career is to "come at it from the side"–train for a skill or specialty that would enhance museum work (with the added benefit that if you don't land one of the few museum jobs, or are not satisfied with the pay, you have another career lined up.)

    One draft posts that I hope to finish someday is an exploration of what jobs (other than museum positions) a museum studies degree is a good springboard for. I hope to correspond with some museum studies graduates who ended up in other fields, and would love to hear what you are doing now. You can email me at

  4. I agree that museums should look beyond folks with traditional museum-related backgrounds, though I feel that is already the trend from my experience. However, we have established museum studies programs with the intention of those programs being a pathway to a job at a museum. Students who are looking at museums as a potential career could see the employment rates, etc., however, if their heart is set on museums, it's possible they would never come across articles such as yours on coming at the field from the side until they are already enrolled in a museum studies program (even if they have been in the museum field for some time).

    Museum studies graduate programs are the obvious pathway for many students, yet there are inconsistencies across programs and some programs are not training students in the practical skills necessary for museum work, particularly with the increase in the use of new technologies in museums.

    I suppose I am mostly arguing that if we have these established programs, designed to train new museum professionals and that already encourage folks who are interested in museum work to enroll, then why are we not using these programs as opportunities to train the workforce for skills we need for the future success of museums? Skills like evaluation, grant writing, etc.

    I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you, just hoping for a dialogue on the state of the museum studies programs and how we can improve them so that those who do make that choice are prepared for current and future needs in the museum workplace.

    I will certainly contact you about my current position 🙂

  5. Some of the best colleagues I have come from visual art backgrounds. They understand how objects and images are made, know how to handle them, can use a hammer and install an exhibit, move something large, and solve a lot of problems. For collections work, it's been a good fit. Some combine a background in, say, film, with a mid-career MLS very effectively. And for educators and interpreters, some theatre experience can be good.

  6. A note on recruiting:
    When we post job descriptions, we try to focus very strictly on the skills and assets required for that job and not to fall into asking for standard resume fillers (X years in a museum, Y degree) just because. We then create extensive applications that ask people to demonstrate how they would approach the kind of work involved.

    The result is a LOT of applicants who are not from museum backgrounds, and some really interesting hires. While some do indeed end up having the traditional X or Y, that's not why we want them, and it's not why they get hired.

  7. It's good that museums are having this kind of conversation. My take is that large museums should be hiring an IT director, prefereably someone who understands content strategy as well as systems. Smaller institutions should partners w/firms who have expertise in digital communications. Finally, technological proficiency, and ideally competence in the digital arts, is something that should be desired of all staff.

    Museums need to think digital to stay relevant. They need to do things like take advantage of their large social media followings to bring people to their websites, and create engaging, curated experiences there that lead to: 1) visits from those in close geographical proximity, but also 2) worthwhile experiences for those too far away to visit physically.

  8. It's good that museums are having this kind of conversation. My take is that large museums should be hiring an IT director, prefereably someone who understands content strategy as well as systems. Smaller institutions should partners w/firms who have expertise in digital communications. Finally, technological proficiency, and ideally competence in the digital arts, is something that should be desired of all staff.

    Museums need to think digital to stay relevant. They need to do things like take advantage of their large social media followings to bring people to their websites, and create engaging, curated experiences there that lead to: 1) visits from those in close geographical proximity, but also 2) worthwhile experiences for those too far away to visit physically.

  9. As someone currently enrolled in a museum studies program, but with an undergraduate degree and job experience in accounting, I am the person coming at it from the side. My problem in applying for jobs turns out to be my lack of museum employment experience. Volunteering in museums for over 15 years just isn't the same as having a job in one. I am an experienced manager and former CFO. I don't want to compete with recent college grads for entry-level positions or with music industry stars who don't need a job in the first place. I think that everyone who enters a museum studies program does it for different reasons. For me, it was to make connections, develop a vocabulary, and get some basic museum knowledge that will allow me to interview with ease for a management position in a museum. Will museums take your advice and give me chance?

  10. Interesting points all around! As someone who has been in and hiring in museums for several years, here are my 2 cents about the much debated museums studies program. My experience has been that there are few positions that line up with the skills of these recent graduates.
    Entry level jobs don't pay well and higher level jobs require more experience. I see new graduates applying for $8/hr part time floor staff jobs and high paying Director level positions. As someone hiring it can leave me feeling stuck. As good of a "deal" hiring someone who is way over qualified can seem on paper, it usually doesn't work out. In my experience they want more (hours/pay/responsibility) and you usually can't provide it. This leads to them becoming disenchanted with their position and looking for work elsewhere, which means you are going to have to go through an entirely new hiring and training cycle. Most people who are hiring aren't looking for someone who will be really great for 2 months and then leave. The right people and the right positions don’t always come up at the same time unfortunately.
    And on the other side of things, when hiring for high level positions, you usually aren't looking for someone with no real professional experience. So, this leaves a whole host of manager positions. These come up occasionally, but you are up against any of the aforementioned overqualified internal candidates, and often these jobs still don't pay well enough to justify relocating (which cuts down opportunities significantly).
    Honestly, I think the point of looking outside the field can even be brought down to the argument of “what makes you unique from other people who are applying?” If I have 3 people with Museum Studies degrees applying for an opening, at least 2 of them aren’t getting good news. Any type of customer service sticks out for me, whether that is working retail, a coffee shop or restaurant, or calling alums of your college during pledge drives. The challenge in the resume is proving that you learned something applicable during these experiences.
    Sorry, that didn’t mean to be a rant! I honestly think that “Museums Studies” looks great on a resume (pretty much always gets a call back from me), it’s just not an automatic job I guess is what I’m getting at.

  11. I'm interested in what Carolyn and LS said. As a mid-career professional I feel that there are two main channels of resistance faced by those with graduate degrees in museum studies. First, to echo the earlier comments, is that the programs might not always do a great job of aligning with what is needed in the field. Unfortunately there are many museum studies programs out there that do not have strong enough relationships with museum practitioners. Ironically I think often times this is because the academics who run them have approached museum studies "from the side" of visual arts, art education, communication or some other field.

    The second channel of resistance is that many current museum professionals didn't come from a museum studies background, either because it was not as readily available before or because they themselves approached from the side, and therefore they do not fully understand or value it.

    I think the museum field would benefit from working closely with graduate programs to make sure students are receiving the skills they need and that current museum professionals understand the value of those graduate programs. While I would like to see diversity both in sociological terms and in terms of skills and backgrounds, I think museum studies is a valid academic field and that those specifically trained in it can be very effective in the museum.

  12. This is definitely something that concerns me right now. I am currently a student working towards my BA in Art History and minoring in Museum Studies. As I am looking at graduate programs for working in the museum field I have to worry about whether I am, or will be, over-qualified and under-qualified at the same time for any position I may want to try for in the future. I think that having the outside point of view can always be a benefit, but like Carolyn said there are too many people graduating in the museum studies field and not getting a job. Of course, most people in the US are having the same problem, no matter what field they had planned on going into. I agree that the schools need to be better about fully training their students for what they are going to go into, especially since museum studies as a major is becoming more and more available. If they train us for what museums really need then the museums wouldn't need to go out of the box quite so much. I guess my big concern with this whole thing is where those of us that wanted to go into the museum world originally are going to be left and what we are going to be doing.

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