The Museum Leadership Pipeline

job_stressThis week I was inspired by Michelle Zupan’s blog posting titled “What They Don’t Teach You in Graduate School”. I love its direct, frank tone. What Zupan glosses over though is how many graduate students with dreams of working with collections and “doing history” end up as museum leaders.

If you use the Smithsonian’s list of Museum Studies Programs–and there are others–there are now 71 programs that offer a master’s level degree in public history or museum studies. I am not delusional and I understand that universities are not in the business of altruism. They open programs to make money, but it seems to me that if you unleash bright, enthusiastic students into the museum world every 18 or 24 months, you have an obligation to prepare them for that world.

I also understand that some graduate programs may do an excellent job at the things Zupan found wanting in her own preparation, and that it’s dangerous to condemn everyone for the mistakes and omissions of a few, but we all bear the brunt of those omissions. So every spring new graduates are hired at museums believing their new job will resemble a graduate school practicum or their internship until it isn’t. Some take jobs and then find themselves catapulted into leadership positions. Others zoom right to leadership because of its allure, and then, as Zupan points out, realize that not only do they get to do everything, they HAVE to do everything. She says that an understanding of HVAC 101 might be helpful while pointing out that new hires might also need a basic plumbing class along with Quickbooks and Excel under their belts. Not only is it stressful for the newly hired, it’s also wasteful. Museums can’t move forward when leadership is constantly learning and re-learning the basic tools of running an organization. It is why, we suspect, some museums and historical organizations hire one beginning director after another. They leave because the job has been enough of a learning experience to launch them to the next rung on the ladder. Or they leave because they can’t learn fast enough and frustrations mount up.

So for all of you out there heading toward your first pay check in the museum world, here’s the Leadership Matters list of skills/knowledge you might want ahead of time.

If you haven’t accepted a position:

  1. Understand what comparable salaries are in the city or region before accepting a position.
  2. Explore the local housing market: Can you afford to live near your job?
  3. Be willing to negotiate if #1 and 2 don’t seem right.
  4. Is there a ready-made network of museum professionals and colleagues in the area? How about other arts organizations and non-profits?

If you find yourself suddenly on the road to leadership, you might use:

  1. A healthy dose of self-awareness.
  2. Courage and a great sense of humor.
  3. Clarity when you speak and write.
  4. The ability to craft a budget and a spreadsheet and a sense of humor if you mess either one up.
  5. The ability to listen without interrupting either in your head or in conversation.
  6. A mentor or boss who sees you as someone to invest in, as someone whose personal and professional growth is important, not just to your new organization, but to the field as a whole. And who will also be someone who will support you when there’s an ice storm and your museum loses power for a week.

Joan Baldwin


12 Comments on “The Museum Leadership Pipeline”

  1. Kathleen Powell says:

    Thanks for the great article!

    I would add one thing that has become my mantra over the years: learn to choose your battles. There is no possible way that anyone can possibly handle the stress of trying to achieve too much too soon. Things move slowly in the halls of management and knowing which battles are the most important for that particular time and place will go a long way to reducing stress and improving enjoyment of the process all around.

  2. Thank you so much for this, Joan. To other emerging museum professionals like myself- I have found Glassdoor ( to be an extremely useful tool for assessing appropriate salaries and understanding the overall morale (or leadership red flags…) in an institution.

  3. Karen W. says:

    Although I like your comments in this blog, I think one important idea is missing. The reality that 7f programs produce way to many potential job seekers for jobs that do not exist or a two few in number to accomodat

  4. Karen W. says:

    We try again: Although I like your comments in this blog for they resonate with anyone looking to move into a leadership role. However, I think one important issue is not being addressed here or anywhere else in an open way. The reality that 71 programs produce too many potential job seekers for jobs that do not exist in enough numbers to accommodate not only the graduates of these programs, but also the baby boomers who insist on staying in their jobs rather than retiring and Generation Xers who have always been in the position of asking: What about me? Does anyone care about us hardworking folks? I remember during one of my first volunteer experiences back in 1985 when I was a freshman, I was told then I could volunteer and intern and still not get a job. It was that competitive then with only a handful of museum studies programs. I graduated from the GWU program in 1994 and was stunned to see that within two years of my graduation both the University of Nebraska and the University of Oklahoma had started programs at their universities. I asked openly, “Where are the students going to go? There are not enough positions available as is.” I am still asking that question and wonder when the whole system is going to crash in on itself. I feel sorry for the students in these programs for many of them will end up not working in the field. We seem to be making promises we cannot keep.

    • Hi, Karen.
      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I absolutely agree with you, however, I don’t think the museum field has any control over what big universities do and the programs they launch, which is why, apart from acknowledging that I don’t believe many of the programs prepare graduates to be leaders, I left the problem of too many programs and too many graduates alone. On the other hand, I believe that AAM and AASLH lag way behind an organization like ALA. Its Wellness Survey, its Allied Professional Organization, its Human Utilization Policy Statement and the information it offers folks interested in the library field from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, provides a huge resource for wanna-be librarians that I think is missing for many museum folks. Last, I would point out that there are many reasons people choose not to retire. Perhaps in some cases it’s pure stubbornness that ties someone to a job they don’t want to leave, but for many folks it may speak to the fact that we work in a chronically underfunded and poorly paid field, meaning that you need to work longer to make retirement viable.
      Thanks for reading
      Joan Baldwin

      • Nathan Richie says:

        Joan, I too, feel passionate about this topic. I agree that there is very little we can do to control the universities. They are businesses and as long as they see a demand, new programs will pop up all the time. But, one thing I think that could possibly help was if there was some independent body that would create a ranking system for these programs. If I wanted to pursue a degree in engineering or business, I could easily find a host of different rankings based upon curriculum quality, job placement, academic rigor, etc. I am totally unaware of any publication or museum alliance that ranks programs. As a result, any place can create a program and for all prospective students know, all programs are created equal. Longevity of a program is about the only qualifier that I can think of.


      • Great idea, Nathan, and something else for AAM’s to-do list.

  5. […] Source: The Museum Leadership Pipeline […]

  6. Art Wolf says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful article, Joan. Your six requirements to prep for leadership are right on. From personal experience I can say that number six is very important, and that students should be bold about seeking mentors even as undergrads. The path becomes more visible if others are helping to shine the light on it.
    Students should also know that they may well have to move around a bit if they ever want to make a decent living in museums – and that if they excel in their first positions, someone will come and find them. Your first four considerations are also good advice. Related to number four is the notion of institutional reputation and connections. Thinking back to my first position right out of grad school, I recognize that had I chosen door number one instead of number two I would have spent 20 years in a basement before ascending to more influential museum positions.
    Another thing to keep in mind is that while mastery of museum studies pedagogy is important for graduation, there is still no substitute for a solid undergrad experience in a discipline related to museums combined with a liberal arts education. For example, humanities disciplines like anthropology have come to understand that only a small percentage of graduate students will ever be tenured faculty, and that there are multiple opportunities for rewarding careers in a diverse set of industries using that anthro knowledge.

  7. Seasaidh78 says:

    Ahhh, I was one of those. I shot up the museum career ladder to become an ED at a young age…I was successful, moved to a larger museum, was on top of the world! And then I burnt out. Crashed. DONE. I was sick of all the fundraising, the kissing up to donors, the meetings, the constant evening events to try and get a check out of someone or some organization, board members calling me at all hours…I had no life. I was no longer working with the history I loved…I tried to justify it by saying I was raising the funds to employ the people who got to share the history, but I was so removed from why I started in the field to begin with. So I quit. I walked away. I now teach. Yes, I make a small fraction of what I used to, but I love what I do and I get to share history with kids every day. So be careful what you wish for…that top of the museum world is nothing like you might think it will be.

  8. […] Baldwin, “The Museum Leadership Pipeline,” Leadership Matters, January 19, […]

  9. robertlfs says:

    So, I know that I have very unpopular position on this. Here is my standard caveat whenever I reply to such a post:

    “Please note, 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.”

    So, having said all of that . . . I teach in a Museum Studies Program and am the director of a small museum. Over the past 8 or so years I have had about 20 or so Graduate Assistants as half time staff members at the Museum while completing their MA programs. With one exception, every one of them was employed in a museum or other cultural heritage institution within one year of graduation – or went on to a PhD program.

    I don’t want to even begin to discuss whether there are too many graduates for too few jobs. Here is a blog post I wrote several years ago that touches on that subject:

    Whenever I have students ask me about what degrees they need to get a job in a museum, I always encourage them to post their query to Museum-L and ask the question to that audience. That is where their future employer probably is. Do not ask your academic advisor whose job it is to increase enrollment in their academic program. They will not hire you when you graduate. Following that advice, invariably, the response the student gets is that experience trumps degrees.

    However, for the past two full-time jobs I have hired for, in both instances there were applicants who had graduated from Museum Studies programs. In both instances I hired folks who had not graduated from Museum Studies programs. Why? Because other folks were simply more qualified. According to the AAM 2012, something like half of all museum employees have a BA or less.

    So why do I boast such a high employment rate for my students on graduation? We spend one hell-uva lot of time on their professional development. I meet with all of my graduate assistants as a group at least once per month for professional development workshop where we discuss everything from cover letters, resumes, and their ability to communicate. All of my advisees have at least one publication by the time they graduate. That is they demonstrate that they can write – the number one complaint of employers from a focus group I attended. All of my advisees also have a personal website with a digital portfolio.

    Our museum will fund a graduate assistant up to 500.00 per year to attend a professional meeting IF they apply for all available scholarships and don’t get them. Based on that, our little museum on the outskirts of Memphis TN has had two GA students awarded Fellowships to attend AAM meetings in the past three years. Routinely they receive scholarships for regional and other conferences. Our same backwater museum has had students win prestigious Muse summer internships at the Met and several at the Smithsonian too.

    I write all of the above not as a finger wagging exercise. Rather, I think more important than the degree, or even the experience – I know atrocious folks who have worked at the Smithsonian who I would never consider hiring – a student must be prepared the first day on the job to function as a professional the first day on the job.

    In sum, yes, the employment picture is not super positive these days. But I am also know that for the last job hire I did for a 40k position, I received a total of three applications of folks who had any museum experience. When I hired for a similar position about three years ago, the same results.

    Just my .02 – flame away!

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