(& what that says about the evolution of our field.)
A couple weeks ago, I read a post on Coexist called “Eight New Jobs People will have in 2025,” projecting openings for Digital Death Managers, Un-Schooling Counselors, Digital Detox Specialists and Microbial Balancers.
While slightly tongue in cheek, this article is built on solid trends analysis, and reflects many of the forces of change we have been tracking in CFM’s TrendsWatch report. It takes a great approach to forecasting—making potential futures specific and personal by thinking about how they will change our day-to-day lives (not to mention job prospects).
The article prompted me to look in the other direction—backwards—to chart the emergence of museum positions that didn’t exist a decade ago. Some of these may just be catchy new labels for traditional functions (is Jeff Byers, “Storyteller” at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, simply an interpreter in 21stcentury guise?) Some emerge from the need to wrap our collective heads around the consequences of new technologies (like the Smithsonian’s Director of Web and New Media Strategies, a position filled by the fabulous Michael Peter Edson, or Cincinnati Museum Center’s Informatics Champion, Shawn Mummert).
Many of these new positions, whether or not they are grounded in new technologies, reflect deeper changes in organizational focus and culture. When the Victoria & Albert Museum appoints Sophia George as their first Game Designer in Residence, it acknowledges that gaming has become a new literacy through which people can connect with museum content. (You can hear Sophia talking about her new job in Episode 5 of the Museopunks podcast.) When the Worcester Art Museum hires Adam Rozan as Director of Audience Engagementand the Oakland Museum of California engages Lisa Sasaki as Director of Audience and Civic Engagement, it signals a subtle but profound shift in organizational focus.
Here’s a closer look at two “21st Century museum positions,” with some observations about how they reflect deeper underlying changes in their organizations.
Thanksgiving Point Institute in Utah consists of a working farm, a natural history museum and extensive formal estate gardens. (Next spring they’ll open yet another site, the Museum of Natural Curiosity, a family/children’s museum, which you can get a peek at during the WMA conference this October.) Earlier this year Thanksgiving Point restructured, eliminating directors of the separate venues and creating roles that cut across operations. One of these new positions, Curator of Curiosity and Inquiry, is filled by Lorie Millward. Lorie explains that she is “charged with ensuring that each venue is an environment where curiosity and inquiry are fostered in meaningful ways for visitors. The Curator actively procures, develops, and evaluates experiences that promote curiosity and critical thinking. That has implications for exhibitry, programming, guest interactions, staff development, partnerships, evaluation, and daily operations.” Lorie sees this reorganization as part of a trend towards dismantling the traditional hierarchical structure of museums, in favor of assigning strategic realms of responsibility to individuals or teams. (Which certainly describes what director Lori Fogarty has done with the Oakland Museum of California’s new org chart.)
My second mini-interview was with Emily Graslie, whose title—Chief Curiosity Officer at the Field Museum of Natural History—was the second inspiration for this post. Emily’s journey to the Field Museum illustrates what I think is the best strategy for landing a job in the museum of the future—get out there and do real work (even before anyone is willing to pay you) and trust that the resulting attention will open doors. Or in this case, create a door, since the position the Field Museum offered her didn’t already exist. Emily caught the attention of the Field Museum with The Brain Scoop, a video series she made while volunteering at the University of Montana Zoological Museum. The videos take an irreverent and engaging look at work behind the scenes in a natural history museum, like gutting a wolf and explaining basic such as the difference between horns and antlers (the first Brain Scoop video I stumbled upon, which hooked me on Emily’s work):
Emily explains that she is basically a communications specialist, bringing new skills to a team comprised of staff in marketing, PR and IT (including a social media strategist). “As Chief Curiosity Correspondent my primary goal is to continue making The Brain Scoop with my producer, Michael Aranda… Our focus is creating online, free and easily accessible educational content that reflects the ongoing research and behind-the-scenes work of natural history museums. I’m also responsible for designing and implementing interactive floor programs, conducting tours to interest groups, and otherwise creating outreach opportunities in order to engage our audience.”
Here’s Emily bringing the Brain Scoop vibe to her new digs (and introducing viewers to director Richard Lariviere’s cool hat):
Of course, museums don’t enjoy unlimited growth. New positions often supplant, rather than supplementing, traditional roles. Sometimes this reflects changes in technology (e.g., 3-D printing specialists as successors to model makers who worked marvels in glass, or wax). But sometimes it reflects the economics and business model of museums. As noted in an article in the Chicago Tribune, the Field Museum created the position of “Chief Curiosity Correspondent” at the same time that it is downsizing its staff in collections and research. Chris Norris argued on this blog (in the post No Future) that when faced with constricting resources, museums should double down on collecting, preserving collections, and creating new knowledge rather than “outreach.” But (my commentary, now) we, as a field, have done a lousy job over the last century telling the public about the hidden things we do, such as collections and research, much less cultivating a consensus in society that these functions are vital, and worthy of public support. It’s a chicken/egg dilemma—without collections & research, what is our core value to society? If we don’t put resources into disseminating that content in compelling & addictive ways, why should anyone support our work? Or, in the context of this post, in the current economic climate which comes first, the curator or the vlogger?
Me, I sadly observe that we’ve given the “curator first” approach a good run for over a century, and in far too many cases it hasn’t resulted in sufficient levels of love and support. Maybe Emily and Lorie (and Jeff, Michael, Sophia, Adam and Lisa) are the key to a future in which museums can afford to sustain collecting, preserving and creating knowledge by pulling back the curtain and ensuring that the public shares our boundless enthusiasm for museums.
I will use future posts to interview Adam, Emily and others in more depth about their 21st century jobs. Please us the comments section, below, to nominate other people who are figuring out how to fill museum roles that have only recently emerged.