There’s plenty of places to look for commiseration and information if you’re looking to leave the museum field for good, or looking for a community to enforce your instincts that maybe museums themselves need to be overhauled completely.
We’re in the business of considering how to make museums feel more welcoming. Perhaps we should think about how to not make it feel like working in them is an all-or-nothing life sentence. There are plenty of us who aren’t necessarily interested in dipping on the field for good, but the concept of leaving is spOOOOOOOky as hell because we’re made to believe that we won’t be able to get back in. I feel like an angsty teen in a FreeForm Channel melodrama. “If you walk out that door, don’t expect to come back!”
On some level, I get it. Having lived through a ton of turnover, I understand that hiring managers are more likely to pull the most relevant recent experience to the top of the pile. It can be hard to justify reacclimating someone to the unique challenges of museum work. In my current position, the majority of our staff are not “museum” people – in that they’ve never worked at another museum – and it certainly has its pros and cons.
Museums certainly aren’t the only career that suffers from this dilemma. Educators and those in other helping professions – social work, nursing, counseling – also find themselves wishing for an opportunity to step away, yet grapple with their commitment to their work.
From a non-existential perspective, training for a specific career takes significant resources of time, money, sacrificing other areas in your life, and emotional energy. We’re not wired to walk away after making that type of an investment in something.
Aside from the understandable logistics and overlap with other professions, there are some aspects particular to museum culture that make it extra scary to step away briefly. First and foremost being the pervasive cultural norm that we should feel “lucky” to even have a job in a museum. Even when we know this is absolute bs, it can ring in our ears when we consider making a career change or express displeasure with our jobs. This is underscored whenever the field is affected by a major event that results in budget cuts and layoffs – and many (most?) of us working in the field now have lived through two such events in barely over 10 years, between the Great Recession and the Covid pandemic. Again, this is something that everyone deals with on some level (you should be grateful you have a job) but museums have a unique air of “take it or leave it.”
Another element particular to the museum field is the tendency to close ranks around the dysfunctional parts of the work. (What dysfunction, you might ask? Feel free to refer to any prior Museum Drip posts, Museum Workers Speak, Change the Museum, etc., etc.) I love the way this tendency is explained by Kathleen Lawther on Acid Free Blog:
There is also a tendency towards a sense of self that is bound up in one’s career. To be prepared to give up the higher salary you could make in a similar role in another sector, you have to convince yourself you really, really love your job, that is it part of who you are. This makes it particularly difficult for ‘museum people’ to accept criticism of museums.http://acidfreeblog.com/curation/the-psychology-of-museum-people/
As I said earlier, there are in fact instances in which specific museum experience is going to make working through a problem easier. But I’m thinking about taking a temporary break from the museum field, not entering it with no experience in museums at all. Why do so many struggle to see the value of some outside experience to create a more well-rounded museum professional? And how much would it help the ever-present issue of “not knowing what non-museum people want” if we were more accepting more-well rounded museum employees?
Additionally, this is a way in which we perpetuate the cycle of making museums unwelcoming for emerging professionals. An in turn, translates to less-than-welcoming visitor experience because the status quo is protected. It reminds me of this recent post by Leadership Matters. Joan Baldwin articulates what to do in the scenario in which a new person suggests an idea that the museum has tried, and not found successful, in the past. She lays out a potential checklist for handling the situation with an awareness that being that person “who blathers about a) the way we’ve always done it is probably safest, most efficient, best (pick an adjective) or b) who explains why something won’t work because they tried it” fails to advance the conversation. It’s the same with folks who venture outside of the museum world. There’s a balance between saying, “let’s make sure that idea fits with our mission and objectives as a museum,” and “this is a museum, not a….” and in that balance, we can stay true to our museum’s identity without stagnating.
Here’s an ugly truth that comes with the idea of vocation vs. helping people and the way museum people tend to close ranks around the field’s dysfunction: leaving for better pay and work/life balance feels like “selling out.” I myself have frequently questioned the number of consultants vs. those with jobs in museums that I see presenting at the conferences I attend. I think, “well, must be nice to get to do this work without being in the trenches.” It’s kind of akin to my personal feelings about private & charter schools vs investing in public schools – if those families with enough privilege pull their kids out of public school, who is investing in the future of public school? If everyone who cares about making things better leaves museums, who is left to invest in making museums better? (The whole charter/magnet vs regular public school thing is personal so maybe this is more of a thing for me to work through on my own…shoutout my decades-old bitterness towards HALs Academy…)
Similarly, there’s a sense (optimistically, I’d say a subconscious sense) that hiring younger folks who are fresh out of school and full of hope are easier to hire because they haven’t had a taste of a different industry where they might escape some of the dysfunction. There is a ton of competition for museums jobs, but shouldn’t honing specific skills make you a more appealing candidate? Yet the #1 answer among the people who responded to what is scary about taking a break from the museum world was the fear of not being able to get back in. People in museums tend to start young and work their way up. You didn’t hear it from me, but you know what that makes young people easier to promote? They are easier to exploit.
In a very appropriate horror-movie sense, working through all the things that make considering taking a break from the museum field so scary has helped them to seem a little less sinister. By confronting the collective fears, we can take away some of the power of the domineering culture of the museum world and take some of the positive advice from people who have actually made the successful jump in and out:
At the end of the day, most of us fear losing our place in a field that we feel makes a difference. And that’s a good thing! The good news is, if we care about making a difference, we’ll find a way to do it.
I could write a thousand posts about the way that we’re taught to intertwine our sense of self with our work, and analyzing the damage of the advice that “if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Navigating work that feels bigger than a paycheck while protecting your own needs and boundaries isn’t something we’re taught in school. We’re not taught it at work, either, because work will always suggest you choose work over yourself. No matter how well-meaning the mission.
In a vocation where the pay ceiling is low, opportunities for advancement are complicated, and the service nature of the work is often undersold while the opportunities for personal achievement is oversold, we participate in mental gymnastics to convince ourselves why we want to stay. It’s scary to give up on something that we care about. It’s scary to imagine we’ll never get back in. But what benefit would it have on the field if we accepted different points of view achieved by different backgrounds? What would visitors gain? What effect would it have on the obsession with pedigree at museum convenings?
I hope you face your fears in honor of this spooky szn, whether that’s exploring other what opportunities your skills may transfer to, or braving your museum’s disgusting basement alone.