, , , , ,

The Artist in His Museum by Charles Wilson Peale. 1822. Coutesy Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

I read this blog post hoping to find some insights that might help me as I figure out what comes next. I found myself irked instead.

Be Prepared to Struggle.

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.

What is hidden between those lines? Be prepared for your life to be subservient to the needs of the museum? Be prepared to give everything– but document all you do because you’ll need to prove your value, no matter how much you sacrifice?

Saint Catherine, by Bernardino Luini. State Museum of Azerbaijan. (c) Stourhead; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. You will not achieve sainthood by sacrificing your sanity to a job.

Why would you put your work ahead of your life? (YES, I KNOW that’s not exactly what that post is suggesting, but that’s how it often ends up.) Encouraging people to work hard is good, but telling them they should expect to, and will, suffer isn’t good. That feeds the beast that chews up and spits out eager, idealistic young people on a routine basis. The museum is definitely not going to tell you it loves you, or visit you in the hospital. You need the time to build your own life, a circle of friends or family, interests of your own to feed your soul. And that means you will need boundaries, and need to have some “evenings, weekends, and holidays” when work is not required or expected– though I know that those hours are required and that people have to work them because they need the money.

Sculpture Hall, after 1913 installation of ceiling lights and before 1928 installation of fountain, c.1920. St. Louis Art Museum

Museum education staff are on the front lines– certainly more so than the curatorial, research, or exhibition design staff– and their work is immediately recognized and experienced by visitors. Museum education staff include a wide range of folks, depending on the organization. Costumed interpreters, gallery guides, program managers and assistants to develop and run fun but educational activities for all ages, curriculum developers who work with teachers to ensure that museu visits and activities for school groups meet the local or common core standards, and lots more. Sometimes the education staff are paid less than the curatorial and collections staff– and they’re pretty underpaid to begin with. Education staff are, to a larger degree than collections staff, expected to work evenings, weekends, and holidays, often without holiday differential pay, and receiving “comp” time instead of overtime.

Now, all that said, the blog post also contains these points

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.

Victoria and Albert Museum, interior view (South Court), late 19th century (V&A PH.1156-1905)

Guess what? Budgeting IS part of your intended field. Sure, educational methods for reaching kids is directly related, but there is hardly a museum job in the world that doesn’t need to deal with money to some degree. The better you understand the way a budget works, the way grant budgets work and what you need to account for, the better you will understand the place you work and why things are the way they are. (Translation: the better you will understand how you are being rewarded– or not.


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.

Be nice. As a woman, I often hate hearing that. I’d rephrase this one to “Do the best work you can without killing or compromising yourself, and be generous to the people who help you.” Develop the radar that lets you know when your colleague is using you– and someone will, trust me. Eventually someone will take credit for your work (ask me how I know), or betray a confidence, or a boss will keep moving the goalposts for a promotion, raise, or title change.

The North Court in the late 19th century. Museum no. E.1101-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Museums aren’t easy to work in– there’s no field that’s always easy to work in– but we accept far too much because we love what we do. We are charmed, seduced, by the beauty of the objects, the mystery of the concepts, the scale of reach. But like a bad lover, museum administrators and boards can exploit our passion and use it against us. Don’t think they won’t.

If you don’t work in a museum, substitute your position title and/or field for the museum-specific words in this post. I believe everyone should be paid a fair wage, have decent working conditions, and the ability to have a robust and satisfying personal life as well as a job they find meaningful.