By: Leslie Madsen-Brooks
Since my arrival in the History department at Boise State University, a steady stream of history majors has passed through my office expressing an interest in museum work. Some are graduate students who already have committed to our Master of Applied Historical Research program (our public history degree), but most are upper-division undergraduates surveying their career options.
Many of them tell me they love visiting museums and would like to create exhibits or “take care of” artifacts. Most haven’t yet undertaken sufficient research to understand how larger museums are structured into departments, each with its own functions that relate to others: registration, conservation, research and curation, education and public programs, administration, marketing and visitor communications, development, and more.
We discuss internship placements and the potential for local job openings in the near future. Almost all these students are shocked to learn local museums have so few people on staff. I’m always surprised by how unperturbed students are by the low salaries I quote them, but then again, Idaho’s median income per capita currently hovers under $23,000, so even entry-level museum salaries seem reasonable here.
There are not any museum studies or certificate programs in Idaho, and at this moment I don’t think Idaho could sustain such a program, even though such programs seem to be proliferating elsewhere. Why not? Successful museum studies programs require:
Highly trained professionals who are aware of best practices in the field. Idaho, and Boise in particular, has several of these, but such professionals are underrepresented in the Intermountain West relative to the West Coast, both because there aren’t many well-supported museums here and because there are few training opportunities for museum professionals. The professionals Idaho does manage to attract and retain tend to work at museums constrained by diminishing budgets.
Sufficient funding to apply best practices. In itself, this lack of state funding and private support for collections management, changing exhibitions, and programming would be worrisome for the future of museums. The situation is made even more problematic when we consider there are few places in the state where students can get their hands on the materials and other resources necessary to learn some foundational museum skills.
Museums with the space and time to accommodate interns. As elsewhere, museum professionals here are not only underfunded; they’re overextended as well. While taking on an intern can pay off in the long run—bright, motivated, well-trained interns can shoulder a good deal of some museum departments’ workloads—the initial training of interns is time-consuming and requires a good deal of oversight, particularly in museums where interns will be handling high-value artifacts or interacting with donors or the public.
A local, or at least regional, job market that can absorb most of the program’s graduates. I have never seen an Idaho museum job advertised through AAM or WMA; I’m sure it has happened, but I assure you openings for professional positions (those that require, say, at least a B.A. and some museum training) are rare. I tell students who want to craft a career for themselves in museums that they likely will need to relocate to a more museum-rich region such as the Bay Area, Los Angeles, or San Diego—but then they’ll be competing with museum studies graduates from that region who already have been interning and networking in that museum community.
A large cohort of engaged students who serve as each other’s initial professional network and who maintain contact long after graduation. Without the criteria above, it’s difficult and, I argue, irresponsible to attract sufficiently large cohorts of students to sustain an academic program in museum studies.
Solutions and work-arounds
So. . . what do I advise local students to do?
Volunteer before committing to graduate work. I usually tell students who are set on a museum career that they need to volunteer for several months in at least two museums to get a sense of nonprofit culture and the various responsibilities of museum professionals.
Once they have decided this is the work they’d like to pursue and determined that graduate study is the best way for them to further explore it, I encourage them to seek out graduate programs in urban areas saturated with museums and cultural institutions.
Unfortunately, relocation isn’t an option for many of my students who aspire to museum work. Boise State’s student demographics skew older than average; my students frequently have spouses, children, or aging parents to care for, so they’re tethered to southwestern Idaho for the present. Others have fewer obligations but no desire to leave Boise. Some of these students, if they acquired sufficient experience and professional skills, could be leaders of the next generation of museums in Idaho. In short, they’re mature, bright, imaginative, and motivated, but they’re geographically isolated from in-museum training.
If students cannot relocate, I try to place them into quality internships in local museums, but I have more than a dozen students seeking internships in museums annually and perhaps only five or six placements available in museums that have the resources and staffing levels to introduce interns to current best practices in the field. (There are many museums willing to take students on as docents or receptionists or general laborers, but not necessarily to train them for the profession.)
I suggest students pursue alternative internships that might provide adjacent experience and transferable skills. I often divert students into archival work or into other public history internships, such as with the state historic preservation office, in municipal departments that promote local history, or a federal lands agency. (The National Park Service, for example, hires many historians, and many of its sites in the West have strong interpretive programs, and in Idaho some NPS sites maintain cultural and natural history collections and sites—albeit, it appears, in sometimes less-than-ideal conditions that might not lend themselves to representing to students best practices in cultural resource management.) While such placements offer skills that may be transferable to museums, they aren’t ideal for students trying to figure out if museums represent a reasonable career option or for students who are committed to museums but want more hands-on experience with, say, artifact collections or creating K-12 educational programming.
Go digital. I teach a course on digital history that introduces students to the theory and practice of the digital humanities, and I cover topics of use to museum professionals, including the use and misuse of metadata, databases, visualization, image permissions, website development, and more. I require undergraduates to build a small digital project, such as an augmented-reality tour of an historic district. I invite select students to collaborate with me on my own digital projects, and I encourage them to consider building a digital project of some sort for their Master’s project.
Fortunately, the Arts and Humanities Institute at Boise State recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant to support a new digital humanities initiative, so my students are increasingly able to take advantage of local knowledge, infrastructure, and opportunities to think critically about new technologies and learn key digital skills. Advertisements for open positions in museums increasingly allude to digital fluency, and students with an advanced understanding of how to deploy digital technologies to organize and visualize collections, connect with audiences via social media, and create meaningful learning experiences for on-site and virtual visitors will be increasingly in demand.
Rethink a museum career altogether. There are plenty of opportunities to use the kinds of historical knowledge and research and interpretive skills useful in a museum career outside the walls of museum buildings. Take a look, for example, at the work being done by the Colorado State University Public Lands History Center, at other universities, and at university presses and in the textbook publishing industry. One of my students who was initially interested in more conventional public history interpretation has decided to parlay her skills in research and writing into a well-paid career in grantwriting or donor cultivation.
The bigger context
Alexandra Lord recently lamented that too often history faculty create or reform graduate programs without a sense of what’s going on in the field. This is a pitfall I try to avoid by speaking regularly with, and whenever possible collaborating with, professionals in the field. (I’m fortunate I can also draw on my own museum education, exhibition development, and program evaluation experience.) For the most part, students emerge from our Master’s program with an intellectual toolkit that will serve them well in their chosen public history fields—we work intensively with individual students to be sure each gets the knowledge and professional development she needs—but the dearth of museum-specific, hands-on training, particularly in artifact conservation, program development, and top-notch exhibition design, makes me uneasy.
I know my students share this challenge with emerging museum professionals in the more geographically isolated cities and towns of the western U.S. Last October, we discussed this very issue of student preparation and emerging professional development at a panel at the WMA’s annual conference in Palm Springs. (We also considered the opposite problem—how urban-trained museum professionals might make the transition to leadership positions in more geographically remote areas, but that’s a topic for another post.) The panel came up with few satisfying answers.
I’m looking, therefore, for advice. How would you recommend my students get the experience they need to land a good entry-level job upon graduation? If they can leave the area to pursue a summer internship in a more metropolitan museum, how do you recommend they approach the museum so that they are persuasive enough to secure a good placement? If they need to stay here, what kind of pitch should they be making to potential mentors who might feel too overburdened or underresourced to take on an intern?
Leslie Madsen-Brooks is an assistant professor of history at Boise State University. She blogs occasionally at Museum Blogging.