As museums look to create more equitable work environments, we are excited to see that museum workers are coming from a variety of backgrounds, majors, and industries. The museum field benefits so much by this diversity of thought, experience and perspective. But we (Priya Frank, Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the Seattle Art Museum + Aletheia Wittman, Incluseum Co-Founder) were curious: How do those who have had careers or jobs in museums then translate those experiences to other spaces, in careers outside of museums? What happens after folx leave the museum field? How do their skill sets transfer? What kind of benefits might they receive? How do (or don’t) they continue to engage with museums?
We rarely have the opportunity to learn about museum work from those not currently working in them, so we wanted to highlight the stories of amazing people who have made the shift from museums to another field…and survived! And thrived!!
Amazingly, this is an idea for a series we started working on pre-COVID-19 pandemic. Our field has been hit hard. We acknowledge the grieving—the loss experienced by museum workers who have been laid off or furloughed, as well as those still working in museums. Work looks completely different. We are all asking ourselves: How do I move through this?
Who are we as a field, when so many of the people who make the field what it is are furloughed or laid off? Museum workers are notoriously passionate, ready to make values-driven investments of their time and effort. More than ever, it feels important to recognize what it looks like to translate those museum-grown skills and experiences, to new pursuits.
Have you been laid off or furloughed? We want to hear from you! Where are YOU at on your journey?
Q. How long were you in the museum field and what did you do there?
A. In total, five years. I was an intern for most of my senior year of college, helping to archive education resources as well as supporting summer educator events. I was in my full-time position for four years which was also in education. In that role I wore many hats but was mainly an administrative support for the education department. I later took on helping to support more of our community programming at the museum, including partnership cultivation, events, and a community gallery space.
Q. Why did you decide to leave the field?
A. I didn’t see a clear opportunity for growth. I had been in my same role for four years, and by year three I could feel myself start to plateau in terms of my growth and skills I was gaining. The growth I saw available to me was taking on more projects on top my already heavy workload while still receiving the same pay.
Also, so much of my work was around making the museum a more inclusive and equitable space a.k.a. dismantling and working against the inherent whiteness of museums (specifically art museums), that eventually it burnt me out.
Q. How has your skill set – and what you learned from working in a museum – translated in your new workplace?
A. I’m currently a recruiter for a national non-profit, and I try to ground and approach my work as community building which was central to my museum work. The biggest element of this for me is seeking to build authentic and reciprocal relationships with people, community partners, etc. – while it may be in a different context, the heart of it to me is the same.
Especially in art museums, a lot of my work was around making relevancy and understanding out of things that on the surface may be abstract. Working in the museum, I learned how to adapt messaging to audiences, how to make thoughtful connections, and the power of centering storytelling, self-expression and dialogue. These are all things I still use in my work as a recruiter where communication is everything and I’m constantly talking with so many different audiences trying to build relevancy.
And of course, creativity! As a recruiter I’m always trying to think creatively and to innovate. Not to mention I’m always looking for an opportunity to make something/have others make things with me.
Q. What’s different now – how have you grown/changed?
A. I know that my experience was very typical of entry-level museum workers: being in the same role for years, taking on more projects rather than being offered a clear growth opportunity, etc. I feel like now I have a stronger sense of my value and worth as both an employee and individual after having left. Now I have a bit more confidence in advocating for myself, and for what I need and feel like I deserve.
This has helped me to not feel so limited in what I can do, be passionate about, and how that might look. And has instead expanded more opportunities for me, given me more chance to explore, and ultimately has granted the space to do more of me.
Q. Do you continue to stay connected to museums/the museums you worked with?
A. Yes, I’m still very much connected! I have many dear friends still working and I of course still love art. A major bonus now is being able to go to programs and events for fun, without having to work. Knowing the people, the scenes as well, I’m hopeful of what they are continuing to build and work towards, so am still a big supporter.
In the current moment however, it’s been very sad and frustrating to hear of the layoffs and furloughs across the museum field that have been happening during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly the majority being frontline, part-time and education staff, all who in my opinion are the heart and life of a museum. To me this only exacerbates the deep structural issues that exist in the field and at these institutions. You say you care about your workers, but who are the ones you really care about and worth investing in and supporting? On the flipside, it’s been encouraging to see mutual aid funds and other folx step in to support colleagues. It also reminds me that you are more than your work (something I’ve been reflecting on a bit since leaving the field). It is your values (and knowing your value) that you carry with you.