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The State of the Museum Field in 2020, as Viewed by Students

Category: Alliance Blog
Signage in a museum reading "The museum is temporarily closed. We look forward to welcoming you again soon."
In a challenging time for the field, how do graduates looking to enter it feel about their future? A public history professor asked them to reflect. Photo credit: Patrick Robert Doyle on Unsplash

On a day in April 2020, Richard E. Jones—a recent St. John’s University graduate who grew up with a view of New York City’s famous “Museum Mile” from his Harlem neighborhood—looked down the street toward the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “For the first time in my life,” he remembers, “it was practically empty. Normally, at that time of year, it would be filled with buses of school kids and crowds of tourists. I thought to myself, ‘What in the world is happening?’”

For students like Jones seeking to become gallery, library, archive, and museum professionals, the adverse effects of the global pandemic can hardly be overstated. In order to learn how they were being affected by the public health crisis, as well as adverse economic conditions and the political response to racial justice protests and climate change, I asked first-year students enrolled in public history and library science graduate programs at St. John’s University to conduct telephone interviews with a student who had recently graduated or would soon. Students Daniel Cepeda and Paul Derych compiled excerpts from the interviews into thematic categories identified through class discussion, and knitted them together into the following narrative.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Forces Adjustments

St. John’s University went fully remote in March 2020, around the same time as most colleges and universities in the US. In late August 2020, the fall semester began with a reduced number of in-person classes along with hybrid and remote offerings.

While individual experiences vary, there is consensus among the students that the health crisis and economic conditions are placing their graduate educations at risk and jeopardizing their efforts to start or advance their careers. Access to research facilities for class papers and projects is now largely restricted to libraries and archives with digital collections. Colleen Foley observed that “everything going online has made it harder to study a lot of things.” The transition had made it “a lot harder to get access” to museums for research as a result of “social distancing rules…A lot of my classes have to do with going in person to a museum and it is kind of hard to do because of capacity rules and just getting tickets into it as well.”

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John Blodgett found that his class schedule was not dramatically altered, because library science courses were already offered online prior to the pandemic. “However,” he said, “being unable to physically work in the institutions I’ve interned for is odd and could—to some people—be detrimental, not being in that environment. And I feel it has hurt my experience a little.”

Jeanette Lazo was relieved to be able to retain her on-campus job: “I’m a student worker at St. John’s. I work at the Davis Library at the Manhattan campus, so I’ve been able to retain my work there, even though our [operating] hours have been affected and we’ve had to cut back on hours…It’s a reality check as to what can happen and the fact that things can and are constantly changing due to the pandemic.”

Vanishing Internship and Job Openings

Almost immediately after museums, archives, libraries, and other cultural sites began closing as a result of the pandemic, the results rippled through the internship and job chain. In March 2020, AAM estimated that museums were losing thirty-three million dollars per day, had laid off 20 percent of their staff, and 56 percent were struggling to find the resources to remain open. In a June 2020 AAM survey of 760 museums, 33 percent said they were in jeopardy of permanently closing unless financial aid is provided.

Remote internships that offer more than what one student described as “computer busy work” exist, but are not easy to find or obtain, especially within a timeframe that will allow students to graduate as planned. John Blodgett, who was seeking a remote internship so he could complete the final requirements of his program, observed that the pandemic had slowed down the internship and job screening and placement process. He said: “I was able to secure an internship for the fall semester, but was turned down by several other institutions who were not looking for an intern because of the pandemic.” Blodgett expects the crisis to extend his search for employment. “Obviously the economy has been hit hard during this time and it has not excluded the public history realm, and it seems many institutions are reluctant to hire new people.” He noted that many of the institutions he was involved with as a volunteer or a student intern “do not have a massive amount of resources to endure something like an ongoing pandemic.”

Reba Weatherford saw the possibility of a silver lining for early-career professionals in the retirements and voluntary resignations that have reportedly taken place in museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions. She was familiar with public libraries that are “saturated with people that have been in the same job positions for a very long period of time. This pandemic has created a sort of turnover in that some people are retiring early and it looks like in the next year this could be good for the people who are young and looking for that type of work.”

Kyle Brinster found the job situation unsettling: “It’s hard not to look at what’s going on and be a little troubled.” He observed that each person is on their own to figure out “what’s going on and how can I make it work for me?” Jeanette Lazo remarked: “I’m a little wary now… If I get a job, can I continue to do it, or am I going to be laid off?”

COVID-19 Pandemic and Calls for Change

Changing priorities and evolving perceptions challenge museums to revise their exhibits, refocus their messages, and address a public growing increasingly aware of racial, class, ethnic, gender, and other inequities.

Ryan McDonnell anticipates museums will see rising interest in recent history and “things that are relevant to the times,” including the pandemic and racial justice protests. He thinks it’s possible that public history organizations will look for parallels in the past, such as 1960s activism or the Spanish flu epidemic following World War I.

John Blodgett saw the racial protests of the summer of 2020 as a “great” thing for museums, because they will likely “change the narratives of history, and I am excited to work in a new historical environment like that.” For Reba Weatherford, recent events have reinforced her commitment to community-based museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions, especially in underserved rural areas. “Who says that a library has to be what it was fifty years ago?… We need to figure out what it is that people want and give them that… We provide what we think is needed, and I find that problematic.”

The Future of the Museum

The pandemic has revealed not one but numerous digital divides affecting museums. The demand for digitally accessible information about museum collections and other research resources, online exhibits, and support materials for web users and educators is more than many can handle, especially at a time of budgetary crisis. Luke Henke remarked on how “companies, museums, archives, [and] libraries” were “aware now more than ever that their contents, their materials, need to be available in some sort of online platform.” Kyle Brinster anticipated that COVID-19 would “keep pushing” museums towards “more web-accessible, available collections online that people can access remotely… It seems tough to ask large amounts of people to come back…anytime soon.”

The students believe that museums should play a role in facilitating public dialogue and discussion on difficult issues in the nation’s past and present. Luke Henke saw value in each museum seeing itself as a “point of innovation” where staff tried to “be creative with the exhibits they are creating and to kinda think outside of the box from what they were having to do before.”

Feedback to the Field

The seven recent or upcoming graduates interviewed about their career hopes believe that the pandemic, economic downturn, and political response to the Black Lives Matter movement and environmental change may ultimately offer their generation opportunities, but it was hard to see them at present. Museums, as well as local, state, regional, and national professional organizations like AAM, must turn the pandemic into a force for building new or alternative methods of communication and collaboration and augmenting existing professional networks. They must ensure that this moment for change is not squandered. As one student observed: “Our aspirations are dimmed by the realities we now face, but we are not deterred. Many students remain hopeful for their future as well as the future of museums in the US. It may be a while before museums return to pre-COVID attendance rates, but when the visitors are able to return, we need to seize on new ways to connect them with each other through museum collections and interpretation.”

This article was written by students enrolled in Professor Kristin M. Szylvian’s Introduction to Public History course at St. John’s University, Queens, New York City. Interviewers Michael Krasnoff, Gina Rossetti, Amanda DeLisi, Raine Clark, Robert Markolović, Margaret Brady, Grace Cohen, and Timothy Doyle interviewed Ryan McDonnell, John Blodgett, Eric Haviland, Reba Weatherford, Luke Henke, Colleen Foley, Jeanette Lazo, and Kyle Brinster, respectively.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this informative report from people planning museum careers or related work. Having taught museum studies for years and enjoyed working in the field until recently retiring I can only imagine the challenges faced by aspiring students, entry level, employees whose hours have been reduced, and those laid off. It is easy for someone to say “hang in there things will improve” but that does not help met current realities. The mission-issues enumerated in this report are timely and will cause museums to be much more relevant and contemporary, to say the least. This is a development I applaud and have fought for especially from a collection perspective.
    Sadly, however, the real issues all museums face are financial. Until the pandemic is under control and the economy revives, it will take time to regenerate traditional funding for museums. Museums exist in the US because of its democratic idea, the anti-democracy forces in power on a local, state and national level will severely hinder programmatic museum work that they deem inappropriate to their rabid interests. This sad reality will hinder the revival of museums. Happily the forces of inequity will fail because of the demographic changes in the country but it will be a while. In the meantime, museums will largely continue to be very conservative places insofar as how they operate. Token nods to long-overdue inclusion, relevancy, and bringing to public attention issues either ignored or sidelined will happen but fundamental internal mental change will be slow.

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