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, 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!

Note: This post is the third 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.)

***

Close-up of a smiling woman (interviewee,
Danielle Carter) in a denim dress, standing in front of bookshelves.

Q1. How long were you in the museum field and what did you do there?

I worked in the museum field for about eight years, from 2011 to the end of 2018, mainly as an educator and docent. My first job was as a tour guide and seasonal camp teacher at a local art and science museum in Tallahassee, Florida (which happened to close permanently while I was working there); my last job was as a freelance museum docent for an international cultural guiding organization, for which I led tours at the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. 

Q2. Why did you decide to leave?

Leaving museums was not an easy decision; I had spent several years—during my entire college career, during my Master’s, and the years following—pursuing a museum career, specifically in museum education, and an academic career in museum studies. My identity was very much tied up in my work (as I think is the case for many museum workers).

Eventually, my body and mind forced me to leave museums. I had begun to work four days per week (which is somewhat standard in the Netherlands), but by the end of 2018, I could barely drag myself through a few hours of work each week. I felt as if there was no place for me in the museum or academic world; I felt as though all the hard work I had poured into the museum field had gone ignored and unappreciated.

In the end, I found I had several major reasons for leaving. As I was not employed by a museum directly, I felt very isolated from the institutions in which I led tours; I was working in museums but not with or for the museums. I wanted to have more impact. Although leading tours was fun, I didn’t feel as though I was making the impact—innovating within the institutions, connecting with the community—that I had dreamed of, but there was no clear path forward. 

Fresh out of five years of studying (I went straight from my Bachelor’s into my Master’s) and because I was living abroad, I needed more guidance than I had as a freelance museum docent. I didn’t know how to turn a job as a museum docent into a more sustainable and dynamic career in museum education, and I realized that I didn’t have the right personality to lead tours as my bread and butter. I loved leading tours, but after leading a two-and-a-half-hour tour, I would be completely exhausted for the rest of the day. My introverted self had always dreamed of working behind the scenes on educational programs and materials for museums, but I felt like I was making no progress toward that career. Leading tours was unsustainable for me.  

I had begun copyediting for an academic press on the side, and I realized that editorial work didn’t drain me in the same way that leading tours did, so I decided to pursue that path instead.

Q3. How has your skill set – and what you learned from working in a museum – translated in your new workplace?

My communication skills and my background knowledge in the arts and humanities have been the biggest boons to my career switch. But I think I most value my understanding of conflicting ideas and viewpoints and what I’ve learned about inclusion during my museum studies and career.

As a copyeditor, it’s my job to question language and try to make sure that everything is as clear as possible. I think these analytical skills were well developed during my time as an arts and museum educator (e.g. What will these artworks mean to which audiences? How can I tell certain stories? What stories are most important to tell? And how can these most clearly be told?). 

Part of my job is also to ensure more inclusive, non-biased language, and I think I’ve learned a lot about inclusivity from my studies in museums. This is especially important for my work with multilingual writers, who aren’t always familiar with these nuances in English. 

Q4. What’s different now – how have you grown/changed?

I’ve learned so much both from working in museums in general but perhaps even more from my experience choosing to leave the museum field. One of the main reasons that I wanted to work in museums in the first place was because I love to learn; I learned a lot about several different subjects throughout my career at different institutions and throughout various exhibitions, and I know that learning and growing is still valuable to me, so I’ve chosen a career that allows me to learn and grow but a bit more on my own terms.

Mainly, I’ve learned how to prioritize, how to pivot, how to guide and trust in myself, and to value my own skills and to trust in my ability to learn new things on the job.

Q5. Do you continue to stay connected to museums/the museums you worked with?

I’m still taking some distance from museums; it almost feels like I broke up with someone that I really loved, and the breakup itself wasn’t terrible, but we still need some space to recover. Besides, I want to wait until the number of coronavirus cases has decreased in Amsterdam/the Netherlands before I make more indoor visits anyway. I’m trying to put the distance to good use and figure out what museums mean to me now and how I want them to fit into my life…  

am working on a few museum-related initiatives with colleagues. One project, with a colleague who also used to work in museums but now works in the heritage sector, would help to promote the voices of practitioners in the arts, cultural, and heritage sectors. With a translator colleague, I am working on reaching out to museums to provide targeted language services (translation and copyediting). 

I’m hoping that approaching museums (and similar institutions and sectors) from a different angle will help me to reconcile with them.

Q6. Anything else you want to tell us!

People in museums are brilliant and lovely people, but I see museum colleagues shifting around from temporary job to temporary job all around the Netherlands, and I feel so sad for them. I wish they could be valued more. I think the people who work at museums are the strength of so many of those institutions—rather than the collections and the artworks—and that these people are underutilized, underappreciated, and underpaid. 

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