Why I Left the Museum Field

This topic has been floating around various museum professionals networking circles that I’ve been a part of for about a year or so, and given that I’ve been out of the museum field for at least a couple of years now it’s probably time to give my two cents on the topic.

A recent survey by Alliance Labsย ย reveals the reasons why so many professionals are getting themselves out of the museum field (and why they enter the field in the first place). Like many of the answers in the Alliance Labs poll mention, I initially wanted to work in museums because I respected them as valuable cultural institutions and I wanted to share the histories held within them with local communities and visitors from all over the world.

When I first changed my major to History in college and became interested in the museum field, my first career goal of choice became a curator. As time went on and it became clear that this job title was unattainable without an MA and years of experience and more likely even a Ph.D, I began to shift towards collections management. When I graduated with my BA (and with collections experience I might add), the goal began to change more towards “collections assistant… archives assistant… literally anything that would involve handling and cataloguing artifacts… err visitor services it is I guess…)

Many requirements of museum work serve primarily as barriers to who would otherwise be strong applicants. For instance, I can’t afford to pay to go back to school for an MA out of pocket, but I would not be opposed to taking out more loans and financial aid if I felt confident that I would ultimately find a job that would make doing so worth it. I’m not confident that would be the case, and as a result I don’t feel comfortable risking so much financially to help gain this requirement.

Another requirement is giving your time and labor for free. I worked for free in volunteer experiences and unpaid internships at museums while I was in college. I most certainly could not afford to work for free now, but to be honest I really couldn’t afford it then either. While completing my unpaid internships, I worked three other part-time jobs to make ends meet (four if you count my work study at school that was only a couple of hours a week, and at five if you count all of my freelancing as one single ‘job’).

The preference for employers to favor applicants with unique experiences (that are often unpaid) works as a barrier to those who cannot afford to work for free. It’s one of the reasons why so many emerging museum professionals are beginning to feel like you need to be independently wealthy to really make a career in this field work.

Another post on the subject from The Female Gaze describes leaving the museum field as a brave move, which is something I can’t agree with more. It takes a lot of courage to take all of your hard work and the goals you’ve been working towards and trade them in for something entirely new. It takes even more bravery however to realize you’re worth more than what you’re getting out of your career. I can sit here all day and talk about how there are plenty of jobs that you don’t do for the money, but ultimately the money needs to be enough to live on for the job to work at all.

I came to the realization that it was time for me to leave the museum field when I found myself putting all of my efforts towards attaining yet another visitor services job. Even with all my previous experience and education, I never found myself moving up in the field. Instead I only really moved from one visitor services job to the next, with no pay increases, no benefits, no promise of full time hours, and nothing working directly with a collection save for an unpaid internship while I was in college.

Even when I knew it was time to leave the field, the decision still wasn’t an easy one. I had worked towards a Bachelor of Arts in History thinking I would eventually settle into a career in the museum field. Nearly all of my work experience except for my first job or so focused on museum work, and even while in the realm of visitor services or very basic museum education jobs I had grown a deep love and respect for the field that was difficult to shake.

I’m not writing this post to encourage you to do the same if you are also struggling with the museum field. I would actually encourage you to try to stay and fight for your worth in the field you’ve always wanted to work in if you feel you are able to do so. I have the utmost respect for the people who can work an admissions desk day in and day out while sitting on their MAs waiting for their day to come. It isn’t an easy field, and they don’t get the credit or recognition that they deserve.

If you can’t bring yourself to leave, I encourage you to make your feelings known. Meet other museum professionals (which is easy to do on LinkedIn and Facebook since it is such a small field) and work together to either figure out solutions for these problems, or at the very least feel a sense of community with others who are going through the same thing.

And if you do decide to leave, do not feel shame in your decision to do so. There is nothing shameful about wanting to be paid what you’re worth for your time, or having some kind of work/life balance, or even a career path where new opportunities will open up for you where they’re due.

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