When you worked at a museum

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 + 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!

Note: This post is the second of the “When you worked at a museum“ series. You can read the first post in the series, and an extended introduction, by following this link.)

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“This photo was taken at the Getty Center, at the first AAM Annual Meeting that I attended in Los Angeles in 2010. I am a Filipino-American male with a light tan complexion. In the image, I am wearing orange sunglasses and a blue fedora – I am smiling and I am exuding happiness and excitement at being in LA and at a glorious museum environment.” – Virgil Talaid, NYC Public School teacher. Photo Courtesy Virgil Talaid.

Q. How long were you in the museum field and what did you do there?

A. I worked in the museum and culturals industry for almost thirty years! I’m including my start, working through high school as a horticulturist in a botanical garden. My work was primarily within education in botanical gardens, a children’s museum and a history museum. But like all work in museum education, I had a hand in all manners of museum operations and planning in addition to the education work. In addition to my salaried work, I volunteered on the boards of local and national museum networks to help advance museum education careers and advocate for equity in museum practice. I really did love the work and the people and am genuinely grateful for sustaining a career in the field and connecting to a wonderful community of professionals for such a long a time.

Q. Why did you decide to leave?

A. The biggest reason I decided to leave was that I needed a career that would be more agreeable to raising a family. The work schedule and salary afforded by my museum work was not going to cut it, especially when I learned that my wife and I were expecting a second child. 

I also wasn’t progressing in my role in my museum work. After having worked in a position for over fifteen years, the lack of advancement was very frustrating and was becoming debilitating. I was passed over for promotions, and I believe that inequitable processes had a lot to do with this. 

Although I was striving for advancement, I became disenchanted with the idea that career growth (and more significantly, salary growth) in museum education had to be in the form of more and larger management roles. I loved museum work for being able to do creative, innovative educational work with direct impact, and the charge towards leadership and management felt like a bit of a remove for me. Everyone needs to grow their role and their salaries, but sometimes that need for museum professionals to have to be in management roles to advance their careers and salaries, it isn’t always the best strategy. Not all of those people are the best suited to be managers of people and projects. 

I’m usually like the barnacle that clings to the rock for too long. But I think the implicit template of the museum career is to attach, release and circulate across the industry. That template really wasn’t for me. Not the biggest risk-taker/rock-jumper here. I think I was conditioned to believe that it’s the honorable thing to do when you stay dedicated to a specific kind of work and workplace for a long period of time. Leaving that hive, leaving behind the accomplishments, leaving that familiarity and sense of expertise was hard. 

I used to tell my staff that the jobs we had did not belong to us. We were to do the best work we could do until it was time to hand it over to the next person. We’re kind of placeholders that way. I think the whole idea of being “lucky” to work in that industry was so off-putting to me. We’re lucky to have any job, but setting up that vague entitlement is misleading and at worst is exploitative. I think museum work should be re-coded as service work – service to a mission, a collection, to a community – and that a museum job is not a seat at some exclusive club.

Q. How has your skill set – and what you learned from working in a museum – translated in your new workplace?

A. I’ve always been in education, so it’s not a radical departure. I really believe that my previous education degree, my commitment to my industry and my years of work in museums made me an excellent candidate for my new work as a school teacher. Barnacles are hirable!

While I’ve always considered myself to be someone who works creatively and divergently, I think working in museums really conditions you to think outside the box and work cooperatively. These are important assets as a teacher, because classroom work can be grinding and monotonous – innovation and differentiation really needs to shine through, and museum education is such great preparation for these qualities.

I also feel that working in museums forces you to be an advocate for others, especially those whose voices are diminished or extinguished. I work in a challenging school in a marginalized community, and the instinct to fight for what works and what’s best comes from the fight for equity that is often at the heart of museum work. 

I promote the opinion among my peers that achievement in student testing is important, but that we need to provide connection to the lifelong skills and aptitudes for arts, music, culture and ideas. This is necessary museum talk outside of the museum world!

Q. What’s different now – how have you grown/changed?

A. I’m very happy to have made the career shift. I needed a change, and to a degree, my old job probably needed change from me, too!

But my quality of life has improved a lot. The schedule of a school teacher allows me to better care for my children and affords me weekend time with my wife and kids that I did not have before, working weekends.

I feel that my school teaching career is a good extension of my previous museum education work, and I take only pride and good ideas and connections from my old work into my new work. My previous job was my longest relationship with a place for a long time, but that level of commitment has given me the commitment to stick it out for the long haul in my future endeavors.

I think I like visiting museums more now that I am no longer an employee!  But I’m still critical of and very interested in museum practice, so I can’t help scrutinizing when I visit museums these days.

Q. Do you continue to stay connected to museums/the museums you worked with? 

A. I’m taking a little bit of a break from my old work and colleagues for a bit. I only left last year, and I still have some separation sadness. The pains of saying goodbye to close colleagues and a whole way of thinking and working are still very much there. Just need a little more distance before I can come back and connect with that last job. 

In fact, I haven’t been going to other museums at the pace I had when I was employed by a museum. Part of this is that I have little time with caring for two kids, getting a second Masters degree and putting my all into first-year schoolteacher work. But it’s inevitable, I live in New York City, museums are everywhere, my children love museums and my students are going to be taking field trips in museums.

Q. Anything else you want to tell us!

A. I should emphasize how grateful I am for the career I had in museums. It was always interesting to be around ideas, innovation and people that enjoy nerding out about ideas. 

There’s always the possibility that working in the public school system awakens new possibilities for returning to the museum field – who can ever really forecast how our work zags and zigs? 

Because my museum work was within the government, it was an easy decision to continue working in a public sector position in the city’s school system – all of my career contributions carried over into my new job. So the public sector salary and benefits really sustained me for a long time and transferred nicely into a new public sector job that does provide union representation and advancement that better allows me to grow, support a family and eventually retire comfortably. So my museum employment and transition is unique, and certainly makes me lucky among the career changers.

I feel even more fortunate during this pandemic to have a union-represented position in the public sector, with the work and stability this affords. I am always looking over my shoulder to check on the culturals and museums industry, to see how my former colleagues and workplaces are holding up, with all the work stoppage, turmoil and gear shifting for exhibitions, programs and audience strategies. It’s not schadenfreude – I care about my friends in the field, but I still think there’s so much inequity and arrogance that still needs to be undone in these places and the pandemic is really exposing these holes now. As I mentioned, I encountered racial bias/preference obstacles in my museum career for too long, and now I think there’s a real reckoning in the field. I’ve watched Change the Museum and Death to Museums really give a more powerful voice to current and former museum professionals. Broadly and loudly calling out inequities is really what must be done now, I really believe that.

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