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museum studies

Museum Accessibility: Are Museum Professionals Sending the Right Signals?

Getting this post via e-mail? Click here to see the video.

Check out this video above, which I discovered thanks to Jennifer Souers of MuseoBlogger. Whether you work in a museum or not, it’s sure to bring a little smile to your face– not a warm and cuddly, feel-good smile– but a it’s-funny-because-it’s-true kind of smile. But this little video gives museum professionals something interesting to think about as well.

Sometimes it takes somebody outside of our niche to show us how our tribe/institution/industry is perceived, and this video can provide some insight for folks working in museums and cultural nonprofit organizations. For better or worse, this video shows us how museums and museum professionals are perceived. We must ask ourselves: is this how we want our professions and institutions to be viewed?

Below are some red-flags that emerged for me while watching the video. I’ll call them ‘misconceptions,’ though it could be argued by some that these are not misconceptions at all. If museums are increasingly becoming places for community, let’s make it clear.  If we want folks to be sure these things are misconceptions of museum professionals then let’s do what we can to prove it.

 

Misconception #1: Museum professionals are nothing like normal people. Kim the cat says, “Chances are, the museum people who decide what gets to be put in the museum probably don’t have anything in common with you.” I laughed at this because museum professionals (administrators, scientists, exhibit designers, researchers) often try hard to be accessible to the public, despite their often-vast knowledge of very particular subjects. (High levels of education is what Kim seems to identify as the leading barrier between museum staff and visitor). It’s a funny statement, but it also means that museum professionals, despite their efforts, aren’t doing their jobs right because their professional backgrounds can create a disconnect. Building upon the growing sense of community that museums are currently nursing may improve this, as well as incorporating accessible and engaging on-site professionals that can tell a personal story or two. Lesson: If museum professionals want their displays to exhibit accessibility, then museum professionals must be accessible themselves.

 

Misconception #2: Museum professionals think visitors can’t handle context. Kim says,”Blank walls are good so that the visitors won’t have to deal with too much context or history.” There are some valid reasons why museum professionals keep the walls blank. For instance, to draw attention to the formal elements of the art. However, when a visitor comes across an object and little context is provided, it can produce a negative effect. As the video hints, one effect is the notion that museum professionals draw academic boundaries to make themselves and the objects they display inaccessible. Moreover, in the video Kim points out that museums tell the community what to think.  In this era of new technologies and social media, some museums are aiming to allow visitors to be their own curators. Lesson: In order to increase accessibility, museum professionals should provide enough context that visitors may draw their own conclusions and connect to the object in a meaningful way on their own.

 

Misconception #3: Museum professionals fuzzy up concepts such as value and importance in order to appear authoritative. The video does more than hint that it’s unclear how museum professionals determine importance and value in regard to museum exhibits (namely, deciding what goes into the museum and what stays out). Perhaps professionals are fuzzy in communicating this process because cultural gatekeeping isn’t completely understood on the whole. Kim simply advises museum professionals to use tidy and sharp labels, and only use language that sounds academic, “otherwise, the authority effect won’t be so convincing.” By including enough context, making scientists and historians personally accessible, and allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions in regard to objects, only some of this misconception could be corrected. Lesson: Museum professionals must be communicative in regards to the exhibit design and creation process by explaining decisions that affect how the ‘story’ is presented.

 

Misconception #4: The work of museum professionals is about the objects. This video talks a lot about object-worship, and introduces the museum as a place that houses important things. In some ways, this is true– but museums tend to be fueled by ideas, theories, symbols, and a greater notion of sparking and expanding education, rather than objects themselves. This misconception makes sense: museums take great care to preserve and display objects because of what the objects represent. To call a museum a place of things is right- but also wrong. Museums’ missions are most often about ideas, and the objects are meaningful symbols of important stories. Lesson: Museum professionals must emphasize the stories and lessons that objects symbolize or represent– rather than focus on the object itself, as that appears irrelevant (because it’s missing context).

 

Misconception #5: Museum professionals only care about the wealthy. If this isn’t a misconception, then it should be. Kim the cat says, “At first I thought there must be some law against having poor people on a museum’s Board of Trustees, but then later I found out that actually there isn’t any law like this. This is just the way they like to do it.” What’s missing here is an explanation: the Board often secures significant funding, and the wealthy attract other wealthy folks who can give to the museum and help keep its doors open. But with or without the explanation, it’s still a telling and jarringly true statement. Many museums are placing more focus on diversity, and are arguably gearing themselves away from a white, upper-middle class visitor and donor base. There’s a lot of work to be done (3 of 17 of the top 25 most visited museums in the US are run by men. Over half have PhDs indicating that many have similar academic backgrounds). Lesson: In order for museums to connect to communities, it may help to have a Board and staff that match the community demographic. Or rather, having an all-wealthy and homogeneous Board can be off-putting for visitors who do not fit that bill.

 

Misconception #6: Museum professionals are magical masters of time-freeze and corps display. Do museum people fight nature every day, as Kim states in the video? Maybe– and it’s probably not a terrible misconception either. Museum professionals certainly go above and beyond to preserve objects that tell important stories about culture and the world around us. However, this time-freezing becomes wrapped up in Kim’s little paper, “An illustration of how everything in a museum is something like a corpse.” Museums are certainly doing a great many things to remain relevant and to shatter the notion that museums are merely houses for old, irrelevant things. However, the old stereotype lives on. Lesson: Old habits die hard, and despite recent efforts, it will take a lot of collaboration, forward-thinking, and community engagement for museums to break away from past reputations.

But it will be well worth the effort.

Posted on by colleendilen in Uncategorized 3 Comments

Where are Museum Studies Graduate Programs Going Wrong?

Photo from success.co.il

Photo from success.co.il

Recently, I’ve come across several interesting blog posts about museology/museum studies graduate programs and everything that is going wrong or working against these graduates: they aren’t getting hired, the field is changing, and museum professionals feel like they are working for too little money. You might be thinking that these are problems that many graduates in the country are facing right now, regardless of industry. That’s what I’m thinking, too. But here’s what I find interesting: for one reason or another, significant blame is being placed on the museum studies programs themselves.

And maybe it is a problem with the current programs. After all, this post about the future of museums, by (none other than) the Center for the Future of Museums, even goes so far as to suggest an interesting and alarming solution for current problems facing the museum industry right now: Stop hiring museum studies graduates.

What’s the basis of this disconnect between museum studies programs and museums? How can these graduate programs be changed to improve the attitudes of graduates and help set more realistic expectations? Admittedly, reading up on the field does leave a museum professional (albeit not enrolled in a Museum Studies graduate program) agreeing that some things may need to be changed.

I’ve fallen madly in love with the thought-provoking ideas brought up in this post by New Curator wherein Pete (the author) serves as a strong advocate fighting for the success of recent museum studies graduates. The post contains a lot of great ideas, and triggered dialogue which has spun off into even more great ideas about ways to improve programs. I think the post is most interesting, though, because it offers a peek into the mindset of these none-too-pleased (and apparently none-too-employed) museum studies graduates.

I want join this discussion by throwing a few more ideas into the mix:

  • Perhaps a degree in Museum Studies is something in between a professional and an academic degree, and museum professionals have trouble measuring it against other areas of study

There seems to be some confusion about a master’s degree in museum studies being considered an academic degree or a professional degree– that is, does the degree provide knowledge on academic topics, or is it a degree of the professional development sort? New Curator makes it clear that a master’s degree in museum studies was—and perhaps still is– considered a professional degree by those who chose/choose to enroll in these programs.. and  it appears that in museum environments, professional and academic degree recipients are competing for the same jobs. Pete writes, “I’ve read a few things about the skepticism around academia as work training. My Christ, who let in all these Art History and Archaeology PHDs? They’re practically *running* the place and now there’s the hint that a Museum Studies qualification is unnecessary?” I cannot tell if this means that PhDs are running the museum studies programs or running the museums… but the statement, either way, indicates that PhDs are doing something that is valued by the museums.

Maybe the degree is something strangely in between an academic PhD in Art History and a professional M.B.A/ M.P.A.  Perhaps Pete is onto something when he writes, “The one thing these people [students in museum studies] are being trained in are now possibly not trained? Or not trained enough, as I notice in another comment that museums are made up of too many specialisms.” This could be the problem, in a sense. Museum studies programs may be both too specialized and not specialized enough. These graduates are competing for museum jobs with other program graduates whose degrees are undoubtedly academic/specialized (anthropology, art history, paleontology) and undoubtedly professional (business management, public policy). While academic degrees prepare candidates for curating positions, professional degrees prepare candidates for museum management. Then the question becomes does museology study the management or the content of museums? The degree’s position in the middle of these worlds can be seen as either awkward or as advantageous. Museum studies programs should play this as an advantage. It won’t be easy (there seem to be far more graduates with degrees on ends of the spectrum), but it may be worth it… and it may create a positive change for program graduates.

  • Unemployment is not unique to museum studies graduates right now, and placing graduates in full-time jobs is a difficulty that graduate programs of all varieties are facing

Museum studies graduates seem to be frustrated about their inability to get museum jobs, despite the fact that their education has groomed them to take on valuable roles within these environments. Pete writes, “The bitter taste in the museum student’s mouth was that what they thought was professional development is now considered almost useless to their future compared to the gamble of the job market or the gamble of obtaining a useful contact.” He goes onto say, “Of course, it’s criminal to take their money, hand them a piece of paper and wish them luck with a handshake. Too many graduates from the full taxonomy of museum studies courses are having to compete in the job market lottery. And it is a lottery. The most basic entry-level positions into the museum world are now getting TONS of applicants. This is a sad state of affairs.”

But this is happening everywhere. Some nonprofit organizations have seen a 1600% jump in applicants in this year alone because of the economy.  Financial firms have even spotted increased occurrences of applicants spouting lies on their resume in order to stand out from the still-growing crowd. It’s rough out there right now; it’s rough for all of us.

Moreover, shouldn’t a well qualified and passionate museum studies grad/museum job candidate be excited that more people are looking to spread the missions of museums? Don’t we evolve by integrating new people and new ideas? Though I’m specializing in nonprofit management, I’m always thrilled to learn of corporate leaders making the switch to the nonprofit world!  As museums are more and more becoming places for community engagement, doesn’t the argument that museums should only be hiring those with formal training in museum studies seem unnecessarily polarizing between the academic world and the public sphere? Museums need to be able to relate to the community; they need to employ diversity. The Center for the Future of Museums has a good bit about it in the previously mentioned article.

“You want to have an excellent Museum Studies program? Guarantee jobs.” Yes. If every graduate is guaranteed a job, then that program is producing exceptionally creative industry leaders, and everyone might consider enrolling in this miracle program, perhaps even making all other graduate and professional degrees obsolete. I agree with The Center for the Future of Museums in their most recent post: this kind of thinking is less about museum studies programs specifically, and more about a certain conception of or assumption about the U.S. Education system.

Many people might let out a laugh if someone claimed that it was the duty of the institution to make all business degree recipients into CEOs. While that may be the ultimate goal of someone getting their M.B.A. is it the responsibility of the institution to take them all the way there? No. The candidate must display ambition, creative thinking, and nurture experience. Getting a food handler’s permit gives you the opportunity to handle food– not the right to handle it. Degrees do not entitle you to anything. You have to do some work to get there. I like this post on the topic. And a typical museum studies graduate doesn’t seem so angry.

I am delighted by the creative ideas that have come from this discussion. New Curator has great ideas for recruitment, such as turning museum studies programs into headhunters and establishing a “museum milkround.” Some are even talking about museum workers unionizing.

  • Maybe the answer involves evolving to meet the changing needs of the community.

This argument traces to the basis for the Center for the Future of Museum’s potential solution to stop hiring museum studies grads. The article begins by discussing the need for diversity within museum studies programs. The post goes on to say, “We are entering an age in which people don’t just want to be lectured to by experts, they want to contribute and curate their own content. In this environment, curators may evolve from being lecturers and authors to being moderators of discussions and editors of content. This requires a different set of soft skills, and calls for a different set of training. Is this something that can be provided at the graduate level in an academic environment, or is it best learned (and consciously taught) on the job?

These are great thoughts. From focusing on soft skills, incorporating social media in the professional development of museum studies students, and creating/ maintaining strong partnerships with institutions, these programs should be preparing for the future and living in the now.

  • Consider wages in regard to the nonprofit environment in which you are working.

I’m not sure how closely museum studies graduates study other kinds of nonprofit and community organizations/ institutions, but the notion that museum studies grads are surprised to learn that they might not be paid much shocked me. I don’t buy it. And if it is true that there’s significant surprise here, I think a simple and positive change-of-mentality might be a solution: Don’t work in a museum for the money. Work in a museum for the mission.

Many museums are public or independent nonprofit organizations, and nonprofit organizations are actively trying to deal with the issue of low wages– especially in regard to some of the newest grads– members of Generation Y, a generation that values work/life balance and often values time and mission over money.

On the issue of wages, New Curator writes that museum studies grads’ work is “something just above slavery. Work hard for an indeterminate amount of time and maybe the industry will maybe reward you. The current model for improving museums through new blood is the same as parents controlling children with Santa.” But wasn’t all of the old blood new blood at one point? And if you’re doing something you love, isn’t it a little bit more worth it?

I’m glad to see the ongoing dialogue about the profession, the industry, and the programs. I’m thrilled to have this peek into the concerns of recent grads and potential museum studies students. I have no doubt that these conversations will lead to an improvement. After all, according to Thomas Edison:

Restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress.”

Posted on by colleendilen in Arts, Education, Graduate school, Lessons Learned, Museums 26 Comments

7 (Surprisingly Difficult) Things to Consider When Applying to Grad School

visitusc

My graduate school application process is over. The tests are long since taken, applications long since sent out, my program selected, and my financial aid secured. I’ve relocated to my new city and I begin student orientation next week.

It’s no surprise that applying to graduate school is a long process, and it involves a lot of big decisions. Should I go back to school? When? What kind of degree should I pursue? Location, costs, funding, rankings, requirements, curriculum– these are all important things to consider when applying to and choosing a graduate school. For a self-starting individual with a keen sense of her professional needs, though, these should be easy questions to answer, right? Well, no. They weren’t.

Here’s insight into the road I traveled during my graduate school application process–the decisions and ideas that stopped me dead in my tracks, challenged my personal and professional goals, and paved the way into a new chapter in my life.

I’ll begin with possibly the most important decision of all:

1) Decide if you want to go to graduate school or not.

Because I’d long since realized that I’d like to go back to school– and for good reasons– this decision didn’t cause me much strife during the application process. My words of wisdom? Just make sure you aren’t thinking about going back to school for the wrong reasons.

The initial kicker for me, aside from wanting to soak up resourceful ideas and be immersed in this specialized community, was the fact that every single higher-level position opening of interest to me required a masters degree or above. I work in nonprofit organizations– museums, mostly– and these environments value education (though I wouldn’t go as far as to argue that one absolutely needs an advanced degree to be a leader in this industry). Whether or not you decide to pursue an advanced degree is entirely up to you. There are several reasons to go back to school, to wait, or not go back at all.

2) Pick a degree.

The fact that this is a staggeringly obvious step in the application process did not make this decision easier for me. Why wasn’t it easy? Because success doesn’t have only one concrete path (and in my opinion, it’s a good thing it doesn’t or we’d have very several similar and rather boring leaders). I knew what I wanted to do long term, I just wasn’t sure how to get there in terms of a graduate degree.

I picked my degree very shortly after deciding that I wanted to go back to school. I strongly considered degrees in public affairs, museum studies, art administration, or even pursuing an MBA.  Though, admittedly, museum studies and art administration were initially sexier areas of study for me, I picked public affairs for a few (in my opinion) very good reasons which relate to my own professional goals (which I will significantly over-simplify here). First, I know much more about museums and art administration than I do about public affairs, and public affairs– providing specializations in nonprofit management– would provide me with the skills and government knowledge required to lead public institutions- regardless of if they are science museums or art centers. Second, a Master of Public Administration is considered an advanced professional degree rather than an academic masters degree. And according to this article, the type of degree really does make a difference in compensation over a lifetime. It states that an individual earning a professional degree can expect an average of 4.4 million dollars in his or her lifetime, more than any other type of degree (more than a doctorate)! Could an M.P.A. recipient–with that “P” standing for Public (as in, the public sector) really be comparable in income to the degree’s private sector counterpart– the M.B.A recipient (which is considered a similar type of professional degree)?  No. It’s not as comparable as the article suggests. In fact, the average for-profit CEO makes 27 times more money than the average nonprofit CEO.  All the same, the more research I did, the more I realized which program was right for my interest in public institutions.

3) Choose programs that fit your needs and apply.

Understandably, the first step in going about this is deciding what your practical needs are and what interests you most about your general degree program. For some people, location is very important because they don’t want to relocate. For others, the ability to have part-time status is important because they’ll be maintaining a full-time job. As a potential full-time student, I cared most about two things: quality of the program and proximity to several high-quality cultural centers.

Identifying these two priorities helped me through the program-weeding and decision-making process, but with so many other factors to consider, they certainly didn’t make the process easy. Remaining true to my desire to attend a high quality program, I studied up on and applied to seven of the top schools on the first page of this list that matched my interests, met my needs, and would be ideal programs for me. I don’t think that rankings are by any means the only important factor in choosing a graduate school. What I mean to say, rather, is that I knew what was important to me and this list provided the framework for who to contact and where to look in order to find an institution that fit my needs. There were several things that contributed to my final decision, but this more specialized list ended up playing a role in the end because I found that after I had narrowed my options to my four favorites, only one of the four was on this list. I choose that school. Lesson: in the end, I reverted back to my initial needs/priorities to make the big decision.

4) Consider location.

Where’s the mecca for your industry, and are you considering relocating to a school in this area? By far the hardest decision that I had to make was choosing between going to graduate school in Washington D.C. or Los Angeles. I was considering L.A. because the programs at USC and UCLA matched my interests and background more closely than similar programs in D.C. So what was the problem? D.C. is a hot-spot of nonprofit activity, and some of my favorite young nonprofit leaders live in this city. Moreover, six of America’s 25 most visited museums– including the top three most visited museums in the country– are in DC.  What’s a concerned applicant to do? Do I choose the higher-ranked program with the connections or the city with the connections? Because the museums in L.A. are simply one-of-a-kind, and there’s no denying that there are several kick-butt institutions in D.C, it was a tough choice.

5) Now think about location again.

I had to think about location twice. Once in the decision-making process and again while preparing to take action on my decision. Regardless of where you choose to go, you’ll have to think about how it’s different than the city in which you currently live. I spent the last two years as an advocate of green practices (read: walking)  in the not-as-diverse-as-L.A. city of Seattle. I didn’t need a car, and my five years of Spanish speaking skills were slipping away. Embarrassingly, it was not until I moved to Los Angeles that I realized the full extent to which I need a mode of transportation and how much more beneficial I can be to the community if I brush up on my Spanish (seeing as I’m interested in community engagement and would like to participate in a hands-on capacity). Though I wouldn’t have done anything differently, these realizations provided interesting, “Oh yeah, that’s right…” moments in my first few weeks in my new city.

6) Understand that your position within the industry will be different when you’re in school.

Even without having started school, I’ve already learned that my position within the industry is different than it was before I left my full-time job. I was scared of losing my career title, too. Perhaps it was just natural human loss aversion at play. All of my networks now read “student” and it’s a strange adjustment. But to be honest, it’s nice to have a time period in my adult career where I can reflect upon the workings of the industry as a whole. I feel like I’ve gone from artist to art critic. Even in this simple mind-adjustment, I’ve learned quite a bit.

7) Decide how you’ll stay involved in your industry while enrolled in your program.

This makes the list because, as an applicant and now a new student, this is always on my mind. Experience is one of the most important things in a job applicant.  Here are ten ways to become a better nonprofit leader, and most of these items can be done by a full-time student in order to remain involved in the industry at large while in school. This is not to mention all of the great communities and organizations that graduate school offers.  I haven’t begun school yet and already I’ve been contacted by several university-run organizations within my field of interest. As a full-time student, I may only have about 30 hours a week to work or volunteer. I refuse to let this fact hinder my involvement with the museum community within Los Angeles. I’ll keep you posted on these developments. Also, I’d love to learn your methods for staying on top of your game while in school.

There are a lot of other interesting things to learn from applying to grad school and in preparing for classes. Relearning math for the GREs, tracking several programs at once, talking to recent program graduates, weighing financial aid packages (heck, just applying for financial aid packages) leaving an incredible full-time job, and moving out of a great city were all formative experiences for me.

I’m curious to know if your experiences are/were similar and what advice you would share with individuals currently taking part in the application process. Despite being hammered into the minds of potential applicants, I think this complicated process of life choices must be different for everyone.

Posted on by colleendilen in Education, Graduate school 6 Comments