I recently contributed to a discussion hosted by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum/Parsons School of Design on the future of museums and what a museum studies program there could do to benefit future museum professionals. I wasn’t able to attend the physical conference in New York on June 22, but I spoke with Sarah Lawrence, director of education at the Cooper Hewitt phone, before and after and read the blog recording the thoughts of attendees. Here are three points that evolved from these discussions:
Start Before the Students Matriculate
What is the responsibility of museums and museum studies programs to shape the composition of the field? Right now, we are about 80 percent Caucasian and 80% female. This creates two unhappy groups: museums as employers who want more diverse staff and complain that they cannot attract ethnically/culturally diverse, qualified candidates and museum studies graduates bearing large amounts of debt from student loans, who are unhappy that they are underpaid compared to the jobs they could get with their level of education.
These parallel problems suggest a potential solution. Stop hiring museum studies graduates. Museums could go instead to their local high school or community college, whose students are more likely to reflect the composition of their community and neighbors, and convince some of the best and brightest students that museums can be a good career choice. They could offer to support the students’ continued education (including specialized museum training) on the job, and if they need other kinds of support (day care, flexible hours, transportation allowances), provide that as well. We may well find a cadre of bright, diverse young adults for whom the salary you offer is competitive with their alternatives, while the work might be a hell of a lot more interesting.
If the norm continues to drift towards a museum studies degree being a prerequisite for museum work (though I am not sure that we are moving in that direction), then I think that museum studies programs bear some responsibility for actively recruiting a diverse student body. Again, this may mean actively courting diverse students on their home turf, providing scholarships, lining up work-study opportunities and convincing these young people that museum jobs (curation, education, registration) are desirable careers.
Mainstream the Students
With the plethora of social media available to connect students to the wider community, why not do so from the beginning of their training? If students are going to be asked to do research, they should be encourage to a) open it up for ruthless peer review of its quality and utility and b) share the results online in an indexed, organized way so that it doesn’t add to the overwhelm body of gray (unpublished) literature that hides in files doing no one any earthly good. Besides, once students are encouraged to reach beyond the boundaries of their program, via the Internet, they could begin their apprenticeships with museums from day one. Pair each student with a small museum that needs help researching collections, maintaining its website, developing marketing material, etc. Or encourage them to enroll as virtual volunteers with larger museums that have the resources to coordinate sophisticated online projects in design, data collection or analysis. A few museum graduate programs – notably the program at Johns Hopkins University – are already moving online.
Reevaluate the Curriculum
I continue to think the most valuable foundation for almost any museum-specific position (registration, curation, education) is a deep grounding in some area of expertise. Any area of expertise, in fact—art, history, the taxonomy of wombats. The drawback is that many people who self-select to delve deeply into, for example, wombat anatomy, are as one friend of mine so gracefully put it, “independent knowledge workers.” They are frequently introverted, work well on their own and have been trained through the process of academic natural selection to fiercely defend their theories and positions and test those of others by ruthlessly questioning. In other words, they may not fit easily into an environment that depends on teamwork, as museum do. This mismatch is compounded by the fact that, as discussed in the CFM report “Museums & Society: Trends and Potential Futures,” 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?
As always, I hope to provoke you to respond. So, you recent museum studies graduates—was the debt worth the degree? What training was the most useful, and what in retrospect do you wish had been included in the curriculum? And museum employers—are you looking to museum studies programs as your primary source of future workers? And if you are actively trying to recruit a more diverse professional workforce, what are your strategies?