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 fourth 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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Close up of Sarah Olivo, sitting in front of her bookshelf, colorful leather bound books above her head and a variety around her. She has dark brown eyes and long brown hair, dyed a light rose color on the ends. She is smiling with her mouth closed, wearing a sand colored sweatshirt, and gold necklace with a moon and small moonstone in the middle.

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

From the beginning with internships to recent positions and career changes, I’ve worked in museums since 2008. Starting in my undergraduate on-campus gallery, organizing senior shows to interning at the Asheville Art Museum in Development and working in various education and communication roles over the last decade. With work in mission-driven nonprofits and academic consortiums in between, my passion for museums and the joy they brought me remained a constant, so I went to graduate school at the University of Washington for Museology. Since then, I’ve worked in development at a contemporary art gallery, positions at cultural museums in education, exhibition, and front-of-house coordination. I managed an exhibition dedicated to glass, moved into zoo membership, and now I currently work outside the museum field in a nonprofit in an annual giving role. My innate skills are all related to creative collaboration, which has guided me to support multiple institutions in a variety of roles. 

Q2. Why did you decide to leave?

I didn’t decide, I was laid off in March due to the pandemic. This ended up being exactly what my career needed and my mental and physical health was begging me to listen. At the beginning of 2020, I was experiencing burn out that I never had or even imagined I would feel. I was considering career change options, arguing back and forth with myself daily whether I should leave my current job and head out into the unknown or stick it out until something else comes along. I truly think without being laid off, I don’t know that I would have ever left the field on my own. My career and museums in general, have felt all-encompassing and it has sometimes been hard to see past them. I have chronic pain and over the years it has only been perpetuated by my dedication to the institution. Which in some ways felt like my own form of addiction on many days. When I was finally laid off from my last extremely toxic organization and the dust settled, my pain and anxiety subsided for the first time in four years. I was able to reimagine what I see myself doing and had the time to plan how to get there. 

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

As Annual Giving Manager for Seattle Parks Foundation, the skills needed to complete this work are very similar to what I’ve done throughout my career. As a creative person and thoughtful communicator, I bring those experiences from my roles in development, membership, communication, education, and exhibition to my approach to annual giving. This organization fiscally sponsors community-led organizations throughout Seattle to promote awareness and procure support for their causes and projects. I was drawn to the idea of being a fundraiser for community-led volunteer projects around public green space and accessible opportunity. I get to learn from those working directly on an issue and strategize ways to amplify their message to create support. 

My museum career, research, and writing have gone down a similar path where sharing authentic stories and finding ways to include them all relies on thorough relationships and active listening. My museum journey has taught me how to quickly pivot and change direction. It’s also taught me that equity should be at the core of everything, but often it is not. My new position enables me to address some of those environmental inequities and connect them to social implications and injustices as a result. The museum can provide very intersectional work, my life experience and career has given me a wide lens for perspective, and a desire to continuously expand. The many facets of museum work are exchangeable. For me, it has been incredibly beneficial to lean into widening that lens outside of my long relationships with museums.

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

I have become braver and more likely to advocate for myself. Before 2020 I would often choose my position over my physical health and well-being, including many missed occasions with friends and family. After over a decade of dedication, I now understand what I have to show for it – my experiences and relationships. The pay and sometimes toxic leadership affected me so negatively, I would feel a great deal of anger and resentment toward my one-time life’s passion. Now it feels good to look back at all of the unique things I’ve been able to experience, from blowing glass to holding baby Komodo dragons, I’m thankful for my time in each organization. Having those feelings of remorse transform into appreciation has helped me see and know my worth. It may never be easy but unlike before, I will advocate not only for my organization’s mission but also remember to do so for myself.

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

Yes, I don’t think they will ever not be present in some way, shape, or form in my life. I have great relationships with friends and colleagues all over the country, all connections made in museums. That is a benefit that I cherish. The relationships I’ve gained along my museum path have been immense to my growth and happiness. 

I had decided I was taking a break from museums, but in July I was approached about an opportunity that I couldn’t resist and was honored to join. A group of 30, mostly BIPOC identified museum professionals, have joined together to create the Family Race Exhibit Collective. This is a grassroots anti-racist collective dedicated to inspiring social change through inclusive and engaging experiences both within our collective and in our exhibition projects. A large part of our reason to join together and reimagine the museum model was to remove hierarchy, decenter whiteness, and value experience as expertise. Our goal is to create non-traditional traveling exhibition experiences that will spark conversation with interactive and adaptable messages to advance and encourage education and equity. We are currently fundraising to invest in our members and compensate them for the time and effort being put into this project. You can support our collective and upcoming projects through our GoFundMe here and follow us on Instagram at @FRE_Collective, like us on Facebook, add us on LinkedIn at Family Race Exhibit Collective (FREC), and follow along or tag us on Twitter at @FRECollective

This project has rejuvenated my love for museums and reinvigorated my expectations as to what they can be. At this time, we appreciate any support in the form of donations, likes, or shares – the response of colleagues has been supportive and has encouraged us to continue this work that feels quite revolutionary.  

Q6. Anything else you want to tell us! 

I’ll never not love museums, I’ll always think about, write about, talk about and read about them. There would be a huge missing piece to my puzzle if I didn’t. I love museums. They are a part of every step in my path, from first visits in grade school to the Western North Carolina Nature Center and family vacations to Salvador Dali’s museum, to memories of walking in with pride as a staff member and walking out in tears. I love museums. They have given me so much joy, wonderful friendships, and unique experiences. I am grateful I followed passion when entering adulthood, and thankful that my innate desire to learn, create, and be curious has never wavered. 

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