When I Grow Up, I Want To Be a Museum Professional

By Adrienne Barnett

Okay…let’s face it the phrase, “when I grow up, I want to be a museum professional,” is not spoken with much frequency (if any) by most children.  In fact, even those of us in the field would be hard pressed to exactly define a “museum professional.”  Is it someone that teaches summer camps, builds exhibits, writes grants, and tracks budgets (sometimes all within the same well over 8-hour workday)?  Is it someone that is a database whiz with talent for cultivating donors?  Is it someone that comes to the field as a second career bringing with them experience and knowledge from other sectors?  Or, is it is someone who studied the field and holds a master in museum studies?

The fact is that unlike other careers (such as doctors, lawyers, or scientists) the skills, experience, and academic qualifications for a “museum professional” are amorphous and inconsistent.  So, what does it take to gain mastery in this field?  And, what can the field do to further professionalize itself? Additionally, what can the field do to appeal to and retain its top emerging talent?

At the 2011 WMA conference in Honolulu, I had the opportunity to explore these questions as part of a session titled The Charm and Challenge of Gaining Mastery in the Field.  The session was lead by Susan Spero, museum studies professor at John F. Kennedy University.  Tim Hecox from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Angela Hudson of the Tacoma Art Museum, and myself, Adrienne Barnett from the Exploratorium, were panelists in a session where we shared our experiences establishing careers within the museum field.

(Pictured at the table “The Charm and Challenge of Gaining Mastery in the Field” panelists: (left to right) Tim Hecox, Angela Hudson, and Adrienne Barnett. Also pictured WMA attendee Lauren Seyda and the amazing restaurant owner!)

As we told our stories, it was clear that there is no such thing as a “clear career path” within the museum field. This news probably comes as no surprise to anyone working in the field.  The varied backgrounds and passions of museum professionals is one of the things that make museums desirable places to work.  However, the lack of defined career tracks in museums is also what makes them frustrating and challenging to commit to in the long-term.

Although I have worked in museums for over ten years, committing to a career in the field is a decision that I myself have struggled with.  In fact, for my museum journey I started in the box office selling tickets.  Since then, I have held approximately nine different jobs with different titles, survived three rounds of layoffs, and worked at two science centers. I have grappled with the idea of pursuing a career in a field that is notorious for providing low pay. Ultimately, my passion for science and science education, and the ability to continually push myself and learn new skills has kept me going. Yet, I still question, does having a career in the science center/museum field have to feel like such a struggle?

It was this nagging question that led me to explore in my 2011 museum studies and business administration graduate thesis “Catch Them If You Can: Building Career Pathways for Millennials in Science Center/Museums,” the potential obstacles and pathways to career advancement of young museum professionals.  What I found in my research was startling.  While museums easily attract bright, young talent, under the current workplace conditions of nonprofit science centers/museums, retaining this talent will be challenging in the coming decade.  In fact, 85% of the young museum professionals surveyed in my thesis are considering leaving the profession. The top reasons expressed by young museum professionals surveyed for questioning their commitment to the field are low compensation concerns, structural limitations with too few available positions, and unclear career pathways to advancement.

So, what can museums do to address this impending loss of their most talented emerging staff members to other sectors?  My research shows that young museums professionals do desire careers in the field and that museums are doing some things well to attract and engage young workers.  For instance, museums should continue to provide opportunities for young museum professionals early on in their careers to be creative, use their knowledge, build their skills, have autonomy, and work with like-minded individuals. Additionally, young museum professionals enjoy performing work that is worthwhile to society. However, young museum professionals desire higher compensation, graduate education reimbursement, and more professional development opportunities.

Professional development came up as a major aspect in engaging young museum professionals.  Three forms ranking the highest importance to them were mentoring, internally-led professional development, and opportunities to attend conferences.

Attending conferences can often be challenging for emerging museum professionals when the budget for professional development is already slim in most museums. I have had the good fortune of being able to attend both the Western Museums Association and the Associations of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) conferences on scholarships/fellowships.  This year I was awarded the Wanda Chin Scholarship which made it possible for me to attend WMA and the ASTC Diversity and Leadership Development Fellowship  to attend the ASTC conference.  I cannot overemphasize the value and importance of scholarship programs such as these.  Not only do they have a huge impact on the professional lives of the recipients, but they make it possible for a wider and more diverse range of attendees.  I highly encourage supporting programs such as these in any way that you can.

For me personally, attending conferences has given me the opportunity to push myself to present in front of colleagues across the world, to broaden my understanding of the field as a whole by attending sessions, to network with brilliant minds, and to make friends in the field from across the country.  In all honesty, when I am at work, going through my day-to-day routine, I rarely take time to reflect on my role as it relates to the museum field at large. However, in those moments at conferences when I’m sharing my passion or listening to others share theirs that is when I realize that I truly am and want to continue be a “museum professional.”

Adrienne Barnett is the Assistant Administrative Director at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, CA.  She has worked at the Exploratorium, which will be moving to a new location on the Embarcadero at Piers 15 & 17, for two years where she started out as the Project Manager of the Teacher Institute. Prior to that she worked for over 8 years at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, CA. In 2011, Barnett received her master of business administration and master of museum studies from John F. Kennedy University.

3 comments on “When I Grow Up, I Want To Be a Museum Professional

  1. disciullo says:

    “However, young museum professionals desire higher compensation, graduate education reimbursement, and more professional development opportunities.”

    Absolutely! As a young museum professional, I also value the following:
    -Benefits. I am young, but just a little too old to stay on my parents’ health insurance.
    -Consistent hours/job security. This is hard, I know, in a field where visitation fluctuates throughout the year. But being able to count on working certain days every week, for a certain number of hours every week, is important for anyone trying to keep themselves alive, pay back student loans, or save up for the future – let alone start their own family.
    -A voice in the workplace. Those of us who care about the field, and who have an advanced degree and/or lots of experience, want our insights to be welcomed and taken seriously.

    In my area, at least (which is the opposite end of the country from Westmuse’s region), entry-level museum jobs are often part-time, temporary, or both. At the very least, I would like to see the field acknowledge this reality (if they can’t change it) and make it easier for employees to juggle multiple jobs since that’s the only way to make ends meet.

    I love the museum field, but I am under pressure from my family (who have watched me struggle and kindly helped me out) to leave the field for a career path “where the jobs are.” My father basically said that studying museums is one of those things that people might love and then do as a hobby but also have a “real” job. In other words, museum work is like photographing weddings or decorating cupcakes on the side – something many people love but very few can make a living from. He sees something like “starving museum educators” in addition to “starving artists.” (My words, his sentiments.)

  2. Nhi says:

    This is so true… I’ve been working hard to try to find something else but I don’t think there’s any thing else that would make me as happy as being a museum professional. As a marketing student, I’m sure there’s other things I could promote or learn to sell, but it seems empty to me. What’s the point of job security when you don’t love your company?

    I’m used to not having nice things and having to watch what I’m spending, so I’m not scared of low pay so long as I make enough to support myself. I’d rather work a little harder to make ends meet than go to a job I hate every day for the next 40+ years. I just hope when I graduate I have the luxury of making that choice.

  3. […]  When I Grow Up, I Want To Be a Museum Professional […]

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