Yesterday I got to spend the day in sunny Springfield, MA at the New England Museums Association 2010 Annual conference. I was there to give a half-day workshop on interpretive writing with Cindy Cullen, which was a great learning experience in and of itself. There’s nothing like trying to explain what you know to crystallize your thinking. It was interesting how often the discussion moved from writing to content strategy, since writing is just the last, most visible expression of a much longer, more involved process of figuring out what to do in an exhibition. More on that later…
After the workshop, I was standing around chatting with three former colleagues when of the Executive Director of NEMA came up to us and said, “What are you guys doing in five minutes?” There was the pregnant silence that usually follows an obvious setup question. Finally we all mumbled, “Nothing…” and he brightened and asked us if we’d be willing to fill in for the speaker for their career conversations session, who hadn’t made it to the conference. Strangely enough, I was only there because the original presenter of the writing workshop had canceled two weeks before the conference and Cindy and I had volunteered to fill in. I guess it was my day to helpful. We all agreed and were hustled into a room with a dozen or so attendees, most of whom were trying to start their museum careers, and off we went.
I had no idea what the event was supposed to be, other than a chance for those of us in the profession to share whatever wisdom (?) we had with emerging museum professionals. It was a smallish group, maybe twenty people total. Most of them were at that terrifying stage of life where they’d decided what they wanted to be, but hadn’t yet figured out how to break in. And being intelligent folks, they knew that chances were good that many of them wouldn’t even get the chance to start a museum career. And then there was us, the replacement speakers, two of whom had been laid off in the middle of promising careers, one who’d retired and gone into business, and me, still plugging away at the same institution where I’d first discovered the joy of museums when I was a kid. Sounds like recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? Or at least for a really bleak talk. But it wasn’t. It was a hard discussion at times, especially when people were sharing their pain, but it was exactly the kind of discussion the field needs to have.
Listening to the stories of the presenters, it was interesting to hear the similarities. Every one of us could list the entry-level jobs we’d toiled at when we were starting out, and the meandering paths we took before we’d found our identities as “museum people”. We were all very much shaped by the need to acquire the skills we eventually accumulated and you can see it in our career paths. The rising generation of museum people already get a grounding in all these skills as part of any museum studies program.
For their part, the people trying to start their careers could all rattle off the same litany of obstacles they’d encountered – no way to differentiate themselves, dead-end internships, or worse, long-term volunteer or “intern” positions that seem like sleazy ways to get labor for free from people. And the steady pressure of next year’s crop of museum studies graduates coming into the job market, ready to work more for less to get their foot in the door. I will confess that I have been known to disparage museum studies programs for how well they do (or don’t) prepare students to actually work in museums, but I will say this. I only have the deepest admiration people trying to get into museum work in this dismal economic climate. My hats off to you and good luck! These truly are tough times.
So what could we share?
I was a bit scared we wouldn’t have any useful advice to give. The museum profession looked very different in the 1970s and 80s, before museum studies programs existed. It turned out that we did find some useful things to say.
Personal contact is priceless.
I owe my career to the fact that I able to hound my eventual boss and mentor from my perch at the Information Desk at the Museum. She owed her start to friends of friends. And others could provide similar stories. We were somebody, not just a name or a resume. If anything, personal knowledge counts for even more now than it did in decades past. I can advertise for an intern position and be guaranteed to get a stack (literally) of resumes of people who all possess impeccable credentials and who are probably overqualified. So how am I supposed to decide whom to interview? It’s not easy, but I know that if any of them were known to me or passed along by colleagues, they’d go right into the pile of applicants to consider.
Look for potential mentors, don’t just hope they find you
The session was one of those kinds of intense conversations that kept right on going after the session was over. One situation that came up twice in a row was a newcomer expressing an interest in a particular kind of museum work and the established people saying, “Well, if you’re interested in ______, you should go introduce yourself to ______.” This feeds back in to my first point about personal contact, but it’s more than just that. The field is small enough that you can really find out who’s doing interesting work. Liked that exhibition? Find out who curated it. Does Museum X have a great website? Find out who does their web design. Regardless of your particular area of interest in museums, if you poll a group of twenty established professionals about who they think are the top ten people in their discipline, you’ll be certain to A) have an interesting conversation about the state of the field, and B) hear a few names many times.
Don’t focus your search too narrowly
One young woman spoke very movingly about her quest to break into exhibit graphic design and supporting herself by doing web design and Flash programming. My advice to her was not look at job posting by department, but instead look at jobs she was qualified for, regardless of whether they in design departments. At my museum, interactive exhibits are made by one department, computer-based interactives by another. I know museums where their web developers work in the Marketing department, and places where they work for Education. Museum org charts are very… unique… and it’s better, I think, to find a first job that matches your skills than to wait til you find an open position in the area you want.
Go to conferences, and don’t hang out with friends.
Obviously, this was preaching to the choir, but it can’t be overstated, I think. Even a regional conference like NEMA brings together lots of interesting, committed professionals who are open to new experiences and new people. The grumps tend to stay at work and mutter about what a waste of time conferences are, so there’s little to fear. Many museum conferences offer student rates, scholarships, and opportunities to trade your labor for admission to the conference. It’s a great way to network, and put faces to names you may have heard. And it’s a way to act on the three points above in one fell swoop. With the proliferation of Emerging Professionals special interest groups, you never have to worry about being completely alone with a thousand strangers. When I was at the AAM/NAME Creativity and Collaboration Workshop a couple of years ago, I made a solemn vow I’d eat with different people for every meal, and it was one of the best decisions I made.
POSTSCRIPT: The Universe is often none-too-subtle. Just in case I hadn’t gotten the hint that getting out of the office and engaging more is good for the soul, I got a third reminder at lunch time, when a colleague came in to the office and said, “Ed, I’ve got a bunch of university students who are looking at career paths. Could you come talk to them for 30 seconds about what it skills you need to go into exhibit development? It’ll be quick, I promise! Please?”
“Sure, I’d be happy to.”