It’s Brave to Quit the Museum Field: Part 2

 

It’s been three weeks since we last discussed the insanity that is the museum world. Last time was just an introduction into the subject that it is in fact brave to leave the Museum World. Most of us have been conditioned to buy into the idea that silence is preferred to an honest and real critique of what we go through in the pursuit of the ever elusive full time job. This discussion will be very heavily framed by the fact that I was a white, private college educated, upper-middle class, straight woman trying to make it in the art museum world. I had it relatively easy. So today, I want to be uncomfortably frank in focusing on the educational requirements and the barriers that presents for the vast majority of people.

The problem is that we have a problem of a pipeline of privilege: those who can get into the best colleges, afford to do unpaid internships, graduate with low enough debt to do very underpaid or unpaid work , get into the better graduate schools end up with full time salaried benefited jobs. They then take their own experiences as a baseline for future decision making. It requires either a ton of privilege, a ton of luck or a serious stomach for poverty. Usually it’s some combination of all three.

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Trying the hardest, but for so little impact.  (PC: Jacob Riis, Little Katie from the West 52nd Street Industrial School)

Our field demands graduate degrees. Of course, there are those who do not get them. Yet again, they tend to be open to those who grew up rich in large cities. It often demands graduate degrees from the “right” schools, which are usually reserved for those who had enough support to get into the “right” undergraduate institutions. It was not uncommon in my private college to insinuate that those attending state funded universities were inferior in some way. And sadly, in some ways, they were right about the trend that we were more employable. Many people who attend those East Coast colleges do end up making it in the field. They have the connections, the illusion of greater intelligence and awareness of the finer things in life. They can connect with the rich who make it all seem easy.

I hope it’s obvious to you, dear reader, that much of the world’s educational system is problematic. I hope that if you live in the United States, that you’ve heard that the cost of college is in fact insane and increasing at a break neck pace. We are drowning in student debt. So when graduate degrees are required for an entry level job, what these institutions are really saying is, “We sincerely you got lucky enough to get an undergraduate degree with minimal debt, garnered at least 2-3 internships there, and then got into a prestigious graduate school also with minimal debt. We hope you’ve been able to afford to give your labor away for free, because graduate degrees alone will not be enough. Only then will you beat the competition to work at our institution.”

It’s 100% not ok.

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I feel like we are all this woman, just going, WHAT THE HECK? (PC: Carl Hubner, the Timid Suitor, via The Toast.)

 

We train ourselves to think it is acceptable to have this as our entry level bar, because it “eliminates those who can’t cut it.” We then take it as some weird badge of honor that we as individuals made it, or we dismiss our hard work that made it happen. If you’re like me, and you are healing from emotional abuse, you will recognize this as a form of self-gaslighting. We either minimize how bad it was to succeed, or we pretend we didn’t have serious privilege to get where we are.

What we should be focusing on is not the individual success but the systematic barriers for all people to enter this field. It continues to be an intellectual circle jerk, where the same people talk at each other. Where are the people of color, women, LGBTQ*, and low income people in positions of power? The fact that those who make the decisions are by and large are white, highly educated and straight should be screaming out at us. If you want to talk about accessibility, then you need to be accessible to people entering the field who are marginalized. They should be checking themselves whenever they say a $33,000/year contract curatorial job requires a masters.

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If only it was this easy, standing on top of a museum on a sunny day.

So if you’ve left the field, I’d hesitate blaming yourself. It’s because we have so many barriers and so many people defending a terrible system that barred your entry.  And you need to talk about it. You need to tell your professors that told you to pursue the field that their advice was no good. If you do have a job in the field, you need to be actively questioning why most job listings only go to those with Masters, or require it. While you’re at it, also ask why job listings never have a salary listed.

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9 comments on “It’s Brave to Quit the Museum Field: Part 2

  1. Thank you for your articles on this! I fit right into this category, and have decided enough is enough. I’ll be attending an MBA program in the fall, hoping desperately to find a job that pays a living wage. And while I’m excited at the prospect of becoming financially stable, I’m also heartbroken to leave the museum world.

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  2. Three weeks ago you started this discussion online and I can’t thank you enough. I’m currently looking for work (after being laid off from a social services nonprofit). You couldn’t be more on point.

    Just this week a museum executive director listing was posted in my community. The role, which requires college and experience, is listed at 25 hours per week, no benefits, and no salary. I’ve had people suggest that I apply, but really, who is this job really appealing for. Does the job even pay enough for a person to get by with living expenses, let alone pay back a loan?

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  3. I know this is a mainly US discussion but I don’t see people mentioning the unions. If you are lucky enough to get a job in the sector you could join and build the union as your way to support those coming behind you. Not all volunteering (UK for interning) is exploitative but in some UK museums the unions get a say on which roles can be offered for volunteers.

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  4. Thank you so much for this. I just read both posts consecutively, and they ring so, so true.

    I am a [white] woman and a rural, low-income, first generation college graduate. Museum work to me has always been a way to address educational disparities and overcome cultural differences. However, I fear the cultural differences of my own background have prevented career ascendency.

    I made it through a private undergrad institution on scholarships, Pell grants, a myriad of concurrent jobs, and a shameful amount of federal student loans. I got my first master’s from a respected public research university, and a second master’s in an adjacent specialization from an Ivy League institution. I thought I did everything right, and that my debt would be offset by various federal forgiveness programs. Now that these programs are potentially endangered, I worry that attempting to stay in museums will spell financial ruin for my partner and I.

    Though my current job is AMAZING in terms of intellectual freedom and my personal mission (I direct a rural outreach initiative at an academic art museum), my contract ends next summer and I make a third of the salary I had hoped to make with a decade of experience and two graduate degrees. I’m actually studying to retake the GRE and am planning on applying to PhD programs this fall, despite all evidence that furthering my education is a horrible life decision. I am struggling to find other ways to apply my hard-earned museum skills, and hope future future posts will discuss how others have done so successfully. Thank you!!!

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  5. Thank you so much for this. I just read both posts consecutively, and they ring so, so true.

    I am a rural, low-income first generation college graduate. I’m also a very femme-presenting woman. Museum work to me has always been about equalling the cultural playing field, but my particular background has at times felt like a hindrance to moving beyond entry-level museum positions.

    Despite rurality and low-incomeness, I made it through a private undergrad institution on scholarships, Pell grants, a myriad of concurrent jobs, and a shameful amount of federal student loans. I got my first master’s from a respected public research university, and a second master’s in an adjacent specialization from an Ivy League institution. I thought I did everything right, and that my debt would be offset by various federal forgiveness programs. Now that these programs are potentially endangered, I worry that attempting to stay in museums will spell financial ruin for my partner and I.

    Though my current job is AMAZING in terms of intellectual freedom and my personal mission (I direct a rural outreach initiative at an academic art museum), my contract is bi-annual and I make a third of the salary I had hoped to make with a decade of experience and two graduate degrees. I’m actually studying to retake the GRE and am planning on applying to PhD programs this fall, despite all evidence that furthering my education is a horrible life decision. I am struggling to find other ways to apply my hard-earned museum skills, and hope future future posts will discuss how others have done so successfully. Thank you!!!

    Like

  6. Unions aren’t the answer either. I currently work for a group of museums run by the city government, which is a unionized workplace. Summer students are excluded from the union, so their wages are crap. There are pay equity issues, massive amounts of unpaid overtime for program officers, almost total lack of opportunities for advancement, etc. etc, etc. The only thing that seems better compared to a non-union environment is that the full-time staff have salaries that are less exploitative than usual. All the other problems remain.

    We have had mass resignations over the last few months and the management won’t ever take the time to examine why. They can probably keep their heads in the sand and say it is just people leaving for other opportunities rather than admitting that their “whatever gets paying people to a site and damn historical value or interpretive mission” policy is to blame. Oh, and the lack of resources, mistreatment by management, unpaid overtime, violation of labour laws, blah, blah, blah.

    I recently completed a Master’s degree and I now know that there is no hope for a permanent full time museum job where I live (not mobile due to family). Fortunately, I have been able to get a job as an historical researcher, but much of this field is contract based too, so I may be jumping from the kettle into the fire. It makes me sad that even with my years of experience, my skills and my passion for the work that I just can’t make a proper career out of it.

    Also, while we are talking about privilege, let’s discuss the ways disabled folks are excluded from the museum field. When I was forced to reveal my disability to my museum administrator because the work I had to do that was unrelated to my actual job (see earlier comment about getting people through the door) was too physically demanding, I was immediately assigned administrative monkey work. You need to fit such a narrow band of privilege to be considered suitable employee material, huge swaths of people are cut out at the start.

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  7. “It requires either a ton of privilege, a ton of luck or a serious stomach for poverty. Usually it’s some combination of all three.” Thank you, Claire. You nailed it with this one sentence. I had all that privilege, plenty of luck, and still accepted pitiful wages throughout my career. My children were raised with camp scholarships and second-hand clothes. Now that I have inherited enough money to relax financially, my kids don’t believe me when I say it is okay to buy another pair of shoes, or go out to dinner other than for birthdays. By museum standards, my career is doing well and I am earning more than I ever have before. If I told my friends and relatives in other fields what I earn, they would laugh out loud. I wish I had the power to make a difference, but I don’t. I have several more rungs to climb before I would have any say in salary ranges. Keep speaking up!

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