The Importance of Being Earnest: Entering the Museum Field, Part One

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Yep, it’s another two- or three-entry post, this time about entering the museum field. I’ve been doing research and gathering information about the museum field and education paths since the end of my freshman year in college. One would think it’s a simple matter of getting a master’s degree in history or museum studies and voilá! one can easily find a job. But that is not the case.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although the field for archivists, curators, and museum technicians is projected to grow in the next decade, the number of qualified job candidates far exceeds the number of jobs available. This is especially the case in areas where a museum studies masters or certificate program is offered.

Case in point: I live in the greater Milwaukee area, and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee offers a certificate program in museum studies to complement any number of history- or anthropology-related graduate degrees. I have enough exposure to the museum field in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties to know that several professionals who work in the museum (and even the library) field received their museum education at UWM. Given that such competition for museum (and for presumably archival and library positions as well) jobs exists, how does one even go about entering the museum field with the aforesaid knowledge of the scarcity of even obtaining a position?

There is currently a trend among the museum, archives, and library curriculum to differentiate between rather than integrate these fields even though they share very similar traits. [1] Therefore, no prescribed education path exists to seek one’s desired end. And this has been a situation I have found difficult to cope with as an aspiring museum studies student. As described in previous posts, I am considering several different options for graduate school, from dual history/library science degrees to dual history/museum studies degrees. My personal experiences reinforce author J. Trant’s emphasis of the divergent nature of historical information sharing.

I have worked in all three fields in either a  volunteer or in a paid capacity, and I constantly find my skills being used across the spectrum, especially when it comes to technology. With increased digitization of collections, museum and library professionals are constantly being tasked to keep up with the latest and greatest innovations. As a soon-to-be-graduate, I find myself taking classes that I think will help me get an edge in the field. My year off will be spend taking computer science classes to become more familiar with web programming and database management systems just because I understand the importance of it. That, and I possess a genuine interest in computers and would like to learn more.

Given the lack of general consent among professionals as to the best education path to take, one has to remain flexible and willing to entertain several possibilities. As mentioned before, there exist dual degrees which offer an extensive variety of programs to choose from (links will be given in a later post). I do not have my heart set on a certain school (partially because I have not researched all possible programs) and would rather get into a program I know I would be happy with rather than risking the chance of disappointment.

Before this gets long-winded, I will end this with the following thoughts. The next post will summarize a fantastic article sent to me by a Carroll professor about the common traits amongst museum professionals and students. This article provides very good advice for those interested in entering the museum field. And the final post will discuss some of the best ways to get one’s foot in the door as an undergraduate. Please note that the aforesaid and following posts are based on personal research of trends and personal experiences, rather than an exact how-to-manual of entering the museum field. Certainly, if one existed, I would have had a much easier time than I have had!!


[1] Trant, J., “Emerging Convergence?: Thoughts on museums, archives, libraries and professional training”, Museum Management and Curatorship, 24, no. 4, (Dec. 2009): 369-386. (accessed 16 January 2012).

For further information, check out Trant’s article and/or the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.


  1. I would have to disagree with you on a few points, Amy dear.
    1) Museum studies degrees are often NOT the right path to take for those who know exactly what they want to do in a museum. I lead you to the American Historical Association
    2) Access, which is one of the main databases taught in database classes is pretty useless for archives. Now, if there were classes in the database system the Smithsonian uses (which I’m blanking on the name) that would be useful.

    • Good points, Ann, but I have to clarify my post a bit more. I never explicitly said that museum studies degrees were the right path for those who want to work in a museum. I only mentioned it as a potential path. Indeed, as I’ll explain in the next couple of posts, many professionals stress the need for library science skills, especially in terms of technology and collections management. The following blogger summarizes a wonderful article I’ll be referencing in my next post which indicates that library skills are not only helpful but almost essential in the museum field. Furthermore, Marty emphasizes that it is extremely difficult and almost ridiculous that students try to obtain experience in both fields. It’s almost impossible.

      I’ve looked over that article on the AHA’s website for a long time and very much agree with what it says. Some students might find that a museum studies degree is helpful. Others might find a better fit going for public history. Although public history is often more useful for those going into the museum field because it opens more windows and offers more flexibility, one also has to have museum experience if he or she are looking at getting into the field.

      As to your second comment, I am not entirely sure that Access is useless as archival software because I am not familiar with all of the different programs out there. But, I have knowledge in Access as well as the database management software that the Carroll library uses, and it is very similar. But I doubt that the Smithsonian uses that type of database management system versus museum software (and yes, there is a difference). Plus, the scale at which the Smithsonian operates is considerably larger than what our small library does. But having the basic knowledge of Access can only help rather than hurt because I’m sure many libraries use it anyways.

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