Thoughts on How to Get A Museum Job, Revisited

About four years ago I wrote a post called Thoughts on How to Get a Museum Job.  It’s time for an update.  The post four years ago was in response to concerns, particularly among emerging museum professionals, about the lack of jobs in the Museum field.  At that time, I noted that although the employment picture was not rosy, there were steps job applicants could take to enhance their possibility for employment. Given that the discussion continues four years later, revisiting the subject is worthwhile.  In the original post, I also noted the following caveat and repeat today:

I am aware that there are many individuals who have taken all the steps I list below and remain unemployed.  I accept that as true not just for museums but for many other industries.  My intent in this post is simply to offer examples of what has worked for some folks, not to discount or dismiss the very real concerns of those seeking employment.  Today, I add that addressing discriminatory practices in hiring of emerging museum professionals of color urgently requires the attention and action of all cultural heritage institutions.

2018 Revisit

First, why do I have anything of value to say on this subject?  I have taught graduate students in Museum Studies at the University of Memphis for the past 10 years.  During that time I also served as a museum director.  I watched dozens of graduates of our program make their way into the work world.  I have seen what works and what does not work in that process.  Between the time of my original post on this subject in 2013 and my retirement two years ago, of the 10 graduate students whose committees I chaired, all are currently employed in the cultural heritage sector full-time and one is enrolled in a PhD program.  Based on my experience, I offer the following points and observations.

Preparing for a Career

Based on student request, my experience with graduate students, and comments from other museum professionals, in the Fall Semester of 2017 for my Museum Practices course, one class session and one student project were devoted entirely to career development.  Readings for the class included some of those listed in my 2013 blog post.  The project involved submitting a cover letter and resume for a real-time job currently advertised that the student could envision applying for upon graduation.  The students also submitted essays justifying the content and style of their résumé and cover letter.  Here are some of the results of that exercise:

  • Of the 8 graduate students in the class, none previously had their résumé or cover letter critiqued by a professor or museum professional.  This fact was obvious in the violations of basic norms contained on the submitted drafts.  I add, such violations are typical in most applications I have reviewed for museum positions I hired for over the years.
  • At the start of the class, none of the students subscribed to Listservs (e.g., Museum-L, AAMG-L) that routinely post job announcements.
  • Initially several students objected to my critique of the content and style of their résumés and cover letters arguing for the unique needs of their fields.  This pushback was largely or completely eliminated in discussion, particularly after an online Q & A session with five senior museum professionals from throughout the Southeast US and a second session with a group of alumni of our Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Programs.  The Q & A guests related their direct experiences as both employers and employees in museum hiring processes.
  •  Students found the professional development sessions, readings, and project to be a very (the most?) valuable part of the Museum Practices class.  Although I am not certain what that says about the other 14 weeks of class, clearly emerging museum professionals recognize the need to be prepared to apply for the jobs they will seek upon graduation.

Responding to Industry Needs

Here are some data on the current employment in museums.    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median salary for the category of “Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers” is $47,230 per year with an anticipated growth rate of over 13% through 2026.  My point here is not to quibble over the nuance of the data, but rather to show that the cultural heritage sector in general is growing at a higher rate, than my previous occupation as a machinist, a career decimated by automation over the past 30 years, with a projected decline of -3.1% in the coming year.

I have spent equal amounts of my life in both museums and as a machinist in heavy industry.  I confidently state that both careers require a highly skilled workforce.  The relevance of this comparison has to do with responding to the industry’s needs.  Had the bottom not fallen out of the machinist/tool and die maker profession, I likely would not have gone back to school, earned a PhD, and gone on in academia and museums.  I LOVED the challenge and skill involved in working as a machinist.  However, in 1984 the writing was on the wall that the industry was dying.  I spent my last ten years in heavy industry either laid off or running CNC (computerized) equipment where all I did was a push a button and watch the machine run.  Had I not made a career change, despite my skills and interests, I would have faced continued unemployment and unfulfilled career aspirations.

Here are some relevant points on job availability:

  • With a longstanding interest bolstered in 2000 by the introduction of the CSI television series forensic anthropology programs skyrocketed.  But despite the interest and increased enrollment in the academic programs, only a limited number of positions existed for forensic anthropologists.  My friend and colleague Elizabeth Murray, a board certified forensic anthropologist, was an on-camera scientific consultant for the National Geographic Channel’s Skeleton Crew/Buried Secrets and the Discovery Health Channel’s Skeleton Stories.  In a recent conversation Beth noted that she has tempered her discouragement of students to even consider enrolling in forensic anthropology programs.  However, she notes the limited employment possibilities and the need to diversify when considering the field.  The American Board of Forensic Anthropology notes:  “the highly specialized nature of the field means that there has never been a high demand for the services of a forensic anthropologist. To be competitive, a student interested in forensic anthropology should consider obtaining a broad education in physical/biological anthropology or related fields.”
  • Conservators in museums are analagous to the forensic anthropologists discussed above.  The AAM’s 2012 National Museum Salary Study recorded the responses for 40 conservators, 191 registrars, 432 educators, and 443 curators. Assuming an equal rate of response across all museums jobs that means for every conservator working in museums today there are 5 registrars, 10 educators, and 10 curators.  The number of conservators working in different museums is likely quite a bit less when considering, that large museums such as the Getty have approximately “25 conservators and support staff.”  In other words, like forensic anthropologists, despite a student’s interest in the field, they should have alternative plans prior to becoming an emerging museum professional and seeking employment.

The Need for Flexibility

  • In considering the career of a conservator, I suspect that employment will be more readily found in private industry than in a public or nonprofit museum.  A cursory examination of the website for the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works suggests that many museums today contract directly with independent conservators for their needs.  Engagement with the Institute’s Emerging Conservation Professional’s webpage could clarify this point.  Further, given that according to the AAM survey data the median age of museum conservator’s is over 55 with a median length of employment of 10 years, these data suggest that most museum conservator positions are not entry level and considerable experience, possibly obtained outside the museum is required.
  • Seventy-Five percent of museums in North America are considered “small” museums.  A 2007 survey by the American Association of State and Local History noted several criteria by which small museums are defined.  Chances are that for many emerging museum professionals, a small museum where they will wear multiple hats will be their initial employment.  The same multiple hats may be true at larger museums where an emerging professional is able to get their foot in the door, not necessarily in their chosen speciality, but with an opportunity to ultimately rise through the ranks.  (Anecdotally, I note that despite my years of experience as a machinist, like all other factory employees at the GE Jet Engine plant in Cincinnati, Ohio, I was hired in as “service and support” with my first job assignment cleaning offices before ultimately bidding onto the lucrative machinist positions.

A Career is a Process and not an Event

I recently received an email from a former student who half-apologized that they were no longer working in a museum and now employed in IT development at an architectural firm.  Of course, I was pleased that she was expanding her skill set in her career process.  I worked with the student over a four-year period at the museum I directed and chaired her M.A. Graduate Committee.  When we first met, convinced that forensic anthropology was her future, she chose to start out as an intern inventorying human skeletal material  in our collections where she quickly got her fill of rote osteology work.  As a graduate assistant she took on the task of developing a nature trail and creating brochures for our museum.  She then took on advocacy work, attended two AAM Museum Advocacy Days in Washington DC, presented at several national conferences on same and wrote her Masters Thesis on museum advocacy.  Within a few months of graduating she landed a job as the Development Officer of a medium-sized museum on the East Coast.  And now, she is moving to IT!

As someone with a long and varied job history, I know first-hand the value of multiple experiences along the career path.  An exercise I now have students complete is to list their 10 ideal jobs as they envision them today.  We then discuss how those jobs can often morph into a single position if one views their career as an evolving process.  For myself, I spent the last 10 years prior to retirement in a job that required me to direct a museum, teach on the graduate and undergraduate level, mentor students and other youth, work with archaeological collections, lead in creating a vibrant community outreach program, coordinate new programing and exhibitions at a museum, and participate in a robust professional life with my peers in publishing several edited volumes on museums and communities co-creating together, both in the U.S. and most recently in Peru.  I could not have written a better job description!

The Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, offers an insight that is suitable to end this post:

Acceptance, it must be pointed out, is the opposite of resignation and defeat.  The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama are two of the most tireless activists for creating a better world for all of its inhabitants, but their activism comes from a deep acceptance of what is.  The Archbishop did not accept the inevitability of apartheid, but he did accept its reality.  (pp. 224)

In the same way, cultural heritage professionals must accept that now is a time of proposed and actual devastating funding cuts by federal, state, and local agencies to cultural heritage preservation and presentation.  Through a range of networks these attacks must be fought.  Further, the exciting role that the emerging museum professionals can play in the future of cultural heritage venues is to recognize and replace the limiting and outmoded systems under which we have operated for the past 100 years.  I believe there are two caveats to this mandate.  First, cultural heritage venues did not get into the dire straits they currently face overnight, and will necessitate a long-term commitment to resolve.  Second, on the 101st Anniversary of the publication of John Cotton Dana’s seminal work The New Museum, we will do well do respond to his mandate to “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs” (1917: 38).  All museums rely on tax dollars, in one form or another, for their very existence as stewards of the public’s cultural heritage.

I am convinced that the future of museums holds many exciting possibilities.  In the same way that the modern public museum replaced the private curiosity cabinets of 19th century antiquities collectors, today pop-up museums, co-creative projects, and virtual presentations provide new opportunities to engage the public in their cultural heritage.  The emerging museum professionals of today are the folks who will drive through this work.  Best wishes on your important work!


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Museums, Anthropology, Bicycles, Recovery, Cancer, Retired

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on How to Get A Museum Job, Revisited”

  1. Thank you, Robert. Enlightening and interesting. I will share with D’s young niece who works in an art museum.

  2. Among the many issues I see with students (and even more experienced professionals) are the resumes. I just helped one of my students with one this week and not only was it not very well organized graphically (concentrating on less important details like dates), she shared with me that her college job center had told her some pretty terrible info about the number of bullet points per job…then there’s the old one-page resume trope.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I too have found that college job centers are similar to college writing centers – might be good for the very, very basics, but the individual disciplines need to take responsibility for educating their students on career development and process. Short of that, fortunately, there are quite a few good resources specific to museums, most recently the AAM’s publication “A Life in Museums” with a lot of excellent information.

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