So You Want to Work in a Museum? Confessions of an Art History Major

By Greg Aukerman

From AAM

This article was published in Museum News March/April 2007.

Step 1: Graduate

You’ve graduated college! You’re hopelessly in debt! That was a big first step. With a degree in art history, the world is your oyster. Museum directors are already lining up outside your door. In their hands are contracts and vouchers to cancel all student loans. Stop reading now and answer the door.

What, no knock on the door? No offers? Welcome to reality, also known as the spiraling abyss. Before we embark on the journey to museumemployment, there are a few things the would-be museum employee needs to understand:

  1. No one works in a museum to get rich. There will be several hundred people a day going through the museum who are rich. You will not be one of them.
  2. Museums have many shiny, sparkly, priceless things in them. Unless you are very lucky, you will never touch any of them. You will ogle the objects in their protective, sealed, bomb-proof housings, but you will not touch them.

If the above conditions suit you and you feel that museums are your calling, I wish you the best of luck.

Step 2: Get Organized

Before you get too excited about the endless opportunities that await you, think back to the day of your graduation. You received your diploma and walked down the steps. After checking to see that you weren’t being watched, you allowed yourself a big, toothy smile, opened the cheap plastic folder and read:

  • Congratulations on your supposed BFA in Art History.
  • Diplomas will be mailed once the university confirms that all graduation requirements have been met.
  • Return your library books.
  • Pay your fees.

This was your first clue.

With this illustrious send-off in mind, I’ll impart one piece of financial advice: Invest in stamps. You will need them.

After graduation you must navigate the nervous breakdowns and sessions of self-loathing every college graduate falls victim to, and you must find help. Perhaps it will be religion, a hobby or alcohol. Just remember: You are a survivor. You have made it this far, and you can start to visualize your goal.

Now would be a good time to look for a part-time job. (You didn’t really think you would leave college and go straight to the National Gallery, did you?) Your parents, if you are lucky enough to have them, will not support you forever. I would suggest a grocery store or a movie rental kiosk. Find any occupation that allows you time to think about your curriculum vitae. (That’s graduate talk for résumé, which is high school talk for application.)

Before you write your c.v. you should choose which museum job you are qualified for, based on your interests (what you like), education (what you paid for) and experience (umm . . . right). The following is a list of basic museum positions and a typical day’s activities:

  • Director/Assistant Director: (Moving on . . .)
  • Development: Begging old people for money.
  • Marketing: Enticing people to come to the museum.
  • Human Resources: Enticing people to work in the museum.
  • Payroll: Procrastinating.
  • Curator: Boasting about postgraduate degrees.
  • Conservator: Fighting the onslaught of Time.
  • Registrar: Knowing where everything is. . . and yelling.
  • Design: Maintaining the illusion of control.
  • Preparator: Installing galleries, receiving yelling.
  • Security Staff: Growling “No touching, or I’ll throw my dentures at you!”
  • Education: Speaking in short, declarative sentences and decorating bulletin boards.
  • Building Maintenance: Keeping the peace. (These are the true rulers of the roost.)

Once you have decided which position matches your interests and skill set, it is time to write that curriculum vitae.

Step 3: Apply

Work tirelessly on your c.v. Write an original, proofread it, rewrite it, proofread it, add all of those clubs and groups you joined to look good, proofread it, get others to read it, proofread it, read it upside down while practicing yoga and, finally, proofread it. When you are absolutely sure that there is no way a museum would look at your creation without saying, “Egads! We simply must hire her!” (unless you’re a him), you are ready to start your mailings.

When I say mailings, I mean mailing letters in quantities that would make advertising companies blush. (I said you would need stamps.) Your goal: make the U.S. Postal Service think it’s Christmas. Send a cover letter, curriculum vitae and a reference sheet (you do have references, right?) to every museum you’ve ever heard of, at least 30 to museums you had no idea existed and five to museums that you are fairly certain are outside of the country (just pick foreign-sounding names).

Once your mailings have been sent, prepare to be amazed. You are about to be exposed to the kind of silence that is heard only in the deepest reaches of space. Keep your head up. Think of all you have done. And remember, nothing in life worth having will ever come easy. Besides, what’s better than a career where you can’t touch anything, mistakes aren’t tolerated and the pay is substandard?

Step 4: The Call

Trust me—there will be a call. After about 50 “kiss-off” letters in your mailbox, you will strike gold, or at least pyrite. That’s right, one bright morning your phone will ring. Knowing human resources departments, it will be after 10 a.m. (they need coffee) and before noon (after lunch the day is practically over anyway, right?). On that day it is important not to lose your head. Restrain yourself. Do not, under any circumstances, spill tears of joy on the phone. Do not praise the caller. Do not offer to bake a cake. Accept the offer to interview and begin to prepare yourself.

Depending on which museum broke down and decided to meet with you, this could be as easy as hopping a cab across town or as difficult as flying to another continent. Remember these things when you set a date for the interview. If you are in Podunk, W.Va., do not say “Sure thing!” when they ask if you are available at 9 the next morning in Melbourne. Politely negotiate a time that is mutually acceptable for your interview. However, if you have been anesthetized to debt due to student loans and you feel that, “Hey! Melbourne would be a nice place to be tomorrow morning, and I have this extra $5,000 hanging out on my credit card,” then go for it. Good first impressions are worth a lot. Maybe not at 24.9 percent APR interest, but you are your own boss.

Step 5: The Interview

What should you wear to your interview?
I have no idea. You’ll be entering a world of both fabulously wealthy (suit and tie, impeccably pressed) dead and dying hippies (tie-dye required) and young and fabulous artists (imagine the color-blind guy from next door looking disaffected while picking random fabrics and adding piercings where needed). Therefore, attire choices are completely up in the air. I would err on the side of caution and overdress. But I landed my first job in a lurid pink dress shirt, so who knows.

What types of questions will you be asked?
The questions will be of an invasive and personal nature. You will be asked to stand for nude portraits while the staff assesses your personality by pointing out your physical flaws. Kidding! It’s like any other interview, only the things that are surrounding you are, literally, priceless. Museum staff will ask you about your experience, why you want to work there, what you feel you can bring to the job and whether you’re okay with working for less than prodigious amounts of money. Think of good answers to these questions, and don’t lie. Museum types can smell lies. And fear.

Is it important to be on time?
Do you really want me to answer that?

Is it acceptable to ask questions?
Yes! Asking questions is good. It shows that you care about the museum and about getting the job. However, do not make the mistake of negotiating a job offer before you receive one. If they don’t offer benefits or a set salary, it’s okay. You can ask all those questions later on when, for one brief shining moment, you become radiant and powerful before being snuffed out like a tea light.

Step 6: The Offer

Well, now you’ve done it. You have successfully navigated the maze that leads to this point. Your phone rings, and this time it is a job offer. Take it! It will be the only one—ever! But you also want to be calm and enjoy the fact that someone wants you. You can ask about things like salary, benefits, vacation days and the like. If something is not to your liking, you can gently try to persuade your future boss to change things. Appeal to her sense of ego with some simple flattery. “The benefits package you provided looks great. Would it be possible to discuss a few of the finer points?” A few minutes of discussion instead of simply jumping at the offer could save you a giant headache down the road. However, it is important not to play hard to get. Do not make the mistake of thinking you’re already indispensable. Keep in mind that there are several thousand other art history majors out there who would be willing to run over you and an entire playground of children to get your job.

Step 7: The Real Work Starts

This is where I leave you. You have accomplished so much, and I’m proud to welcome you as a colleague. You will thoroughly enjoy this rewarding career, thinking only in weaker moments of your mounting debt and meager apartment decorated in a theme that can only be described as “early poverty.” Now you must be your own guide. Yet, given the crazy shuffle that is museum life, I’m sure our paths will cross one day. I’ll be the guy looking death in the face while moving a 3,000-pound sculpture. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

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