Dear Future Museum Educators: Three Things I Wish I Knew 10 Years Ago

museum educator

This is the first of several posts on the museum job hunt. Our guest blogger this week is Allison Clark (and, no, that’s not Allison in the photo).

When I first entered the museum field, I was a bright-eyed undergraduate whose opportunities seemed limited only by time. My college campus was nestled next to Houston’s Museum District, enabling me to bounce from institution to institution, department to department, trying my hands at everything from curation to collections management to interpretation. Through both paid and unpaid internships, I caught the museum bug: I wanted to share my enthusiasm for visual art with anyone and everyone. My supervisors became my cheerleaders, and with their encouragement, I earned my graduate degree in art education. As I was frequently reminded, this expensive piece of paper would add a coveted edge to my career. And, for a while, it did. I racked up fellowships and scholarships in graduate school, teaching visitors of all ages and presenting at conferences during the few moments when I wasn’t trying to make ends meet financially.

As graduation neared, I began haphazardly applying to entry-level positions across the United States. By some miracle, I interviewed for thirty minutes with a big-name museum in Los Angeles for one of their graduate internships. A few weeks later, I received the phone call I had dreamt about: I was invited to join their team, albeit without benefits and less-than motivating pay. Yet, all I could think was, “THIS IS IT – I MADE IT!!!”

A year later with the graduate internship under my belt, I was far less convinced. What no one explicitly told me as I worked my way up the museum education ladder was that full-time gigs were few and far between. Even in Los Angeles. Even for people with the experience and education to back it up. I applied to over 50 full-time museum education jobs across the country in the span of five months, and I was called back for four. And those initial call backs? They led to multiple rounds of interviews, teaching samples, and strategic planning presentations. At the end, only one job offer provided a living full-time wage with benefits – two things most people need to live on their own.

Now, I am aware that I am one of the lucky ones. I can go to urgent care without panicking about how I will be able to pay, and most days I get to do what I love. Unfortunately, this simply is not the case for many museum educators, who are all too often undervalued and still searching for their “break” into full-time employment with opportunities for career advancement.

So, let me provide the advice I wish I could have told myself ten years ago:

  1. Gain skills outside of your intended field.

Learn how to budget. Like, really budget. What would you do with $2,000? How about $250,000? Know the numbers, and know how to speak business. If this isn’t your comfort zone, join the club. Take free online courses (edX is my go-to), and expand your skillset to include some productive surprises.

      2.  Work hard, be nice.

One of the best things to do when you’re starting out (or moving up) is to do excellent work and share it with your peers, supervisors, friends, and anyone who can provide constructive feedback. The museum world is a teeny-tiny place, so be nice to everyone you meet.

       3.  Be prepared to struggle.

The museum education field is not for the faint of heart, or people who want a 9-5 job. One of my mentors advised me that the days are long, but the years are short. The hours will hurt, you will get tired of the near-constant balancing act, and you might even question if you’re making an impact. Hang in there. Find your network (local, regional, or national). Share your vulnerabilities with people you trust. Delegate if you can. Most of all, document your successes and create a portfolio that illustrates why your efforts matter.

Since joining the Bruin family in May 2017 as the Education Manager at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, Allison Clark has welcomed hundreds of students to the Fowler, produced a three-day Teacher Institute for K-12 educators, and designed over 20 family programs for both kids and kids-at-heart. Currently, her work highlights the intersections of visitor-driven interpretation, inclusive storytelling, and professional development for the K-12 community and intergenerational audiences. Allison also serves on the Board of Directors for the Museum Educators of Southern California (MESC) in addition to committee appointments with the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the National Art Education Association (NAEA). Allison received her M.A in Art Education from the University of Texas at Austin and her B.A. in Art History and Anthropology from Rice University.


8 Comments on “Dear Future Museum Educators: Three Things I Wish I Knew 10 Years Ago”

  1. Michael Panhorst, Auburn, Alabama says:

    This is a well-written and insightful essay that offers encouragement and a reality check for all of us in the museum industry. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on motivation, hard work, and persistence. And congratulations on your success in finding and doing the work you love.

  2. Samantha B. Kline says:

    Museums Studies programs have proliferated across the United States, creating many more museum professionals than the industry can support. While there is no argument that these programs are responding to a demand, they are also creating a bubble that, I would argue, is already beginning to burst. I really do not wish to demonize Museum Studies programs–We Need Them. However, I have some questions. To what degree are colleges and universities responsible for setting their students up for post-graduate career success? Recent lawsuits over post-graduate joblessness make this question no laughing matter. Do programs have a responsibility to communicate to new students the limited employment opportunities available for recent grads? How can Museum Studies programs better prepare students for the reality of the industry without demoralizing them? A million years ago, I started my undergraduate experience as a theater major. Day one was a serious sit down in which the most experienced members of the department made it clear that very few people would find success in the industry, and those that did would very likely face issues with alcohol, drugs, and unwanted sexual harassment from those in a position to cast them. It was harsh, but honest. If it is not the responsibility of the program to disclose the employment struggles faced by many emerging museum professionals, then how can the industry do a better job of reaching potential students? I ask because it would be nice in the future to not have to read an article that advises merging museum professionals to be prepared to struggle, live off meager wages, and be willing forego medical insurance. No offense to the author of this article, it is well-written, but people with Masters degrees should never have to accept a $30,000/year job with zero benefits just for the privilege of working in the field. I just wish for a time when the article itself is not necessary.

  3. Eva Fina says:

    It’s great to read real stories of how museum professionals get into this exacting, exasperating, and entirely addictive field! I heartily support your implicit advice to try on a bunch of different hats within the museum field by volunteering and interning before choosing a graduate degree, or even before choosing to attend graduate school at all. I started my career before the recent proliferation of Museum Studies programs, but I’ve worked with many interns and employees who went through them. Very few seem to prepare students for the long slog of job hunting, let alone the often-harsh reality of working in a museum, especially a small museum.

  4. [Moderator: I am thinking my signing in caused loss of my original reply? If my original was received, please don’t post this second effort.]

    Samantha: “Bravo!” to the theater programme professors’ first class meeting initiative! This should be a ‘best practice’ for museum studies instructors too. How do we ensure this is implemented?

    Allison: Long hours certainly are expected of museum workers. The late Barry Lord (president of the largest museum consulting firm in the world) once stated in my hearing that,’as information workers, we should expect 15-hour days.’ Really? Isn’t this TWO TIMES longer than the 7.5 hr. we get paid for? Such an expectation is contrary to museum ethics that call on museums to “protect” our human resources [from overwork, stress, & burnout must be included here in my view]. Above & beyond, in many jurisdictions, this also is illegal–even if the worker wants to do it.

    I believe it is long past time to address the over-long hours overwork museum culture. We are continually expected to ‘do more with less’ through ‘everything with nothing.’ Over-long hours are not only dangerous to our physical & mental health, they also demonstrably reduce our actual productivity.

    Anthropologists have studied ‘directed culture change’ & it is possible to direct culture change. By all means, let museum workers be prepared to struggle, but struggle to reduce unethical & illegal overwork first & foremost,.

    • Paul–Just so you know. WordPress only allows you to see comments by clicking the very tiny “Comments” below the post title on the right. Otherwise they don’t appear.
      J. Baldwin

    • Laura says:

      “I believe it is long past time to address the over-long hours overwork museum culture. We are continually expected to ‘do more with less’ through ‘everything with nothing.’ Over-long hours are not only dangerous to our physical & mental health, they also demonstrably reduce our actual productivity.”

      In addition to these concerns, and the question of legality which you also mentioned, I would also add that a) those extra 7.5 hours per day could be turned into a job for another museum professional looking for work and b) if someone is working 15 hours at a day for a job that pays them for 8, and the pay is not enough to live on, they are spending 7 hours per day working for free when they could be working at a second job to supplement their income. It is a problem on so many levels.

  5. […] read this blog post hoping to find some insights that might help me as I figure out what comes next. I found myself […]

  6. […] Leadership Matters – As someone trying to break into the museum field, I found this blog on museum leadership and careers to be very insightful and informative. […]

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