*This article was published in 2009. Since then, significant conversation has taken place with regard to museum studies graduate programs, and many have evolved in significant ways. I keep this article live in hopes that these ideas may provide ongoing thought fuel insofar as they may relate to current debates.
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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…
“Restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress.” – Thomas Edison