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

Now, if only I could get a job here…

So the last two posts in this series have covered a lot of ground. The first one discussed museum trends, and the second covered some factors many museum professionals had in varying degrees as identified by Dr. Paul F. Marty. This last post describes ways in which a student interested in entering the museum field can get their footing. Most of these are common sense, but it never hurts to start dabbling too early in one’s college career.

When I was a senior in high school (all those four years ago!), I knew I wanted to get into the history field. But it was not until the end of my freshman year at Carroll that I decided that I wanted to work in a museum. It was in those early months that I decided to explore the field. My first steps took me down to the local museum where I began to volunteer as a greeter. This was a great way to see what the museum was all about and to become familiar with the staff and building itself.

Another thing I did that summer was to begin looking at graduate schools near Carroll (which is a short drive from Milwaukee) which may have offered a museum studies program. Interestingly, the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee offered a joint degree in history and museum studies (which has since dropped to a certificate program). What fascinated me about this particular program was that most of the coursework was taught at the Milwaukee Public Museum rather than at UWM. I visited the program head down at the museum for further information. It was a great way to gain some valuable information to know if this was a potential career path for me to take. And since then, I have gleaned some valuable insight from personal experiences and professional contacts. Here is a list of some ways to get involved to take if you are interested in pursuing the museum field:

1. Volunteer

Stop down at a local historical society, museum, library, archives, etc. and begin to volunteer. You can work in collections, conduct research, help out with a special program, give tours, etc. Not only are you building up your resume, you are also gaining important connections and insight (see below).

2. Network(!)

This is probably the most important step of them all. The old cliché rings true. It is not what you know, it’s who you know. Over the past four years, I’ve gained connections in the greater Milwaukee area museum community from smaller institutions like the Waukesha County Museum and the Kenosha Museums to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Milwaukee County Historical Society, and the Pabst Mansion. That’s not counting my academic connections as well. Often these professionals are in a better position to give advice, mentor a student, and help with job hunting beyond what a student can do on his or her own.

3. Visit different museums.

Do this to learn about the different types of museums out there. Each one has its own individual mission statement. Museums aren’t just the large public museums to which most of us are accustomed. There are also county historical societies, specialized architecturally-based ones (like historical mansions, buildings, etc.), themed museums, and many others. This may aid in narrowing down what type of museum one would be comfortable working in.

4. Research.

Look at trends. See how the field is developing, its growth projections in the short-term and long-term futures, what difficulties one may encounter, the education needed to obtain a certain job description, things like that. The museum field is a very narrow and limited one where graduates far outnumber available positions. But at the same time, knowing one’s options make this realization a little less scary.

5. Intern.

There is nothing better than immersing oneself in a short-term (or maybe even long-term) opportunity to do some unique or in-depth in a part of the field one is interested in. Personally, I’ve developed programs for those with Alzheimer’s as part of a regional endeavor to make this type of programming available. Also, I’ve done a more general collections/exhibit one at my local museum, but I still learned a lot about how museums function. Along with my volunteering experiences, I feel I’ve solidified my decision to enter the museum field.

6. Keep a blog or some other online professional profile.

This may sound silly, but it helps. A lot. For instance, this blog has opened me up to some valuable and interesting contacts who have offered a lot of advice and conversation which has given me insights into the history  field as a whole. My LinkedIn profile is my virtual representation of my resume and an overall view of myself as a professional. Consider it an online portfolio of sorts.

7. Educate yourself.

I’m talking actual academic education. When you’re looking at degrees, consider a history, art history, museology (if possible), or something similar. These will help one to obtain necessary communication, research, writing, and critically thinking skills. Although others believe graphic communications, computer science, business, non-profit management, and other related courses are also necessary, the action to take those is purely the judgement of the individual student. Make sure to get as much background as you can. When graduate school comes around, that is another story and a route I am researching right now.

Overall, if you are even remotely interested in the museum field, get involved early on, whether it is physical, academic, or intellectual involvement. As I mentioned before, it’s a tough field to get into, but if you are proactive, then I cannot foresee any reason to not be successful in the long run if you are truly committed and flexible throughout the entire process.

And there ends my little mini-series about my own experiences, research, and some common sense tips to enter the museum field. Next up? I’m not sure, but it will be history-based. I have an inkling it will be ten useless Carroll facts I’ve learned in my archival research experience over the last three years.

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