Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Talkin' Museum Studies Blues

There's been a lot of talk about museum studies lately on the blogs I read lately. The first three links are articles suggesting ways to make the museum field more diverse, mellow, and profitable. Straight up? I don't like any of them. Newcurator suggests having a job guarantee from programs, more or less. Elizabeth Merritt suggests that museums cut it out with the museum studies grads and work with local schools and programs to cultivate talent. I'm not so much against this, and Nina Simon points out that there are places where this has been a successful model. Phil Katz's post, while meant to be contentious, hit me in the gut. My initial reaction is the same as the first commentator's. Katz asserts that the way to solve the problem of the underpaid, unhappy women in the museum field is easy: Hire more men! Because men get paid more, so they'll bring up the pay for the women. And, sure, some men get paid a lot for museum work. But that's no solution, even if it worked.

So: The first three links at the top think that we should quit hiring museum studies grads, quit hiring women, and that museum studies programs shouldn't train everyone who wants training (if I may simplify and cherry pick each entry, which I will).

The fourth link, from koko500 (who I've only just discovered), begins with a personal reflection on the above conversations and asserts that what's important is generating PASSIONATE museum professionals. The final link up top is a post by Leslie Madsen-Brook takes up an angle from the conversation: How do you get "professional development" when your institution can't afford to send you to fancy conferences and you're not paid enough to fund yourself? One answer: Social Media.

And I bet you there are other voices and opinions out there to find on this topic. But let's talk museum studies for the moment. Let me, as I am wont to do, shoot from the hip on this one.

Let me, like Koko, explain my experiences with museum studies: I began my program in 2005. The only real museum experience I'd had before that was working in the gift shops of a couple of art museums. I thought I wanted to do into exhibits and education. Knowing I would need money, I contacted the archy collections department at the Burke Museum (since I had a degree in archy) to see if they hired students. They did. I started the first week of school. I'm not sure I had ever been behind the scenes in a museum before that. So there's my baseline. I went in pretty much blind.

After two years working in the archy department, completing a couple of internships, and gaining a wide breadth of knowledge through my coursework - oh, and writing that pesky little thesis that spurred this blog - I left my museum studies program feeling like I could do just about anything. And, through the network of contacts that came built in with the program, I found the job I have now. In fact, I graduated June of 2007 and was offered the job in July. The fact that this job is precisely the kind of job I wanted, but had not expected to get, made it even more spectacular. And it's not what I thought I wanted back in September of 2005.

For me, going through a graduate program was the right thing to do. Others have had to work harder to find a job. Others have found that the museum field is not what is going to make them happy in life.

My program was mostly female. It was mostly white. It was mostly women under 30. The program was in the throes of expansion. Two or three years before my class, the program had about 8 students each year. My year was 25. And the number of applications has only increased since then, and the program has begun to adapt to the larger classes. Only half of my class finished their degree within the two years of the program. Some still haven't completed the thesis portion of the degree. Some have museum jobs despite that.

It's a competitive field. We know that. We know that the money's not great. Or anyone who bothers to think about what they're investing in when pursuing a degree will know that. But lots of fields are competitive now. And lots of qualified people are fighting tooth and nail to find a job. So, yeah, the picking might seem slim. But it's been that way for a while, hasn't it?

So what's my point? Well, that's the trouble with this blog, is the whole shooting from the hip aspect.

I guess what I wonder is: If the problem is with diversity in museum staff, is the problem with the museum studies program? Or is the problem with our society's tendency to put barriers to museums? Limited hours, hard to get to, high admission prices. Not in all cases, of course, but many. And those barriers turning away some people who might like to attend otherwise. And then there's the less tangible barriers of places not being comfortable for people in all walks of life - being very quiet, or white walled, or having more security guards than patron.

If the problem is with salaries, is it the fault of a glutted job market where we'll take what we're offered because we love the field anyway, or is it the fault of the chronic underfunding of cultural institutions?

Me, I don't know the answers. I'm not sure I have a suggestion. But here's what I think:

- I don't believe that museum studies programs should limit admission based on the job outlook in their area. Admission is based on merit and what the program can serve.

- I don't believe the way to increase staff for museum employees is to hire more men because the men will get paid more and increase the averages.

- I do believe that there are many paths to the museum world, for people of all different backgrounds, of all different educational levels.

- But I also believe some of those paths are harder than others.

- And, yes, I believe that museums could do more to facilitate progress along those paths.

- I believe that the museum job market will always be competitive.

- I believe that it's a good thing that the job market will be competitive because it means that people love museums and that museums will get the best employees they can find.

- I believe that, for me, I took the best path I knew how and it was the right one for me. Even if I am a white, female, underpaid museum employee with less access to professional development than I would like.

Here's a cookie for making it to the end.