Museum or not
August 22, 2010 9:25 PM   Subscribe

Should I go for a museum studies masters or would a public history masters be a better choice instead?

Background: I have all but completed a history masters, which is (and has been) on the back-burner right now due to financial and other reasons (mainly that it's impossible for me to get to the school, about an hour and a half drive away, now that I'm working full time): I intend to complete this degree at some point but I have no idea when that will be possible. This, btw, was a terminal masters degree program, not a masters to Ph.D one.

Right now I'm working in an educational institution that has a small (read:tiny) museum attached to, which I am responsible for: I keep stats, help people who come to visit and set up/shut down the exhibits (which are mostly interactive computers) each day. However, I don't actually care for the few actual artifacts that we have on display, nor would I have any input into what the exhibits would be if the administration decided to change things. It is a very small museum and is not the main focus of the institution.

My job (which is not just the museum) is reasonable, but boring and low-paid, with absolutely no room for advancement unless my immediate supervisor steps down, and I foresee her maintaining an iron grip on her position for years yet. It is also in a field completely different than the one I trained for and the one I'm interested in.

When I first started my masters, I had a vague idea of either teaching or going into archival studies afterwards, but the program and some deeper research into what exactly was going on in academia and the library field at the time killed that idea pretty quickly. So I switched gears to considering potential museum work, with an eye on curatorial positions, and started to do research on museum studies degrees: I saw that several programs offered online distance programs, which was a plus for me because I'm already under a load of student loan debt from the first masters degree and I'm not willing to take out more loans for another degree, plus I already have time issues from my job.

However, once I started my research, I started to turn up pages like this, this, this and this and it started to give me pause. I'd known and accepted the drawbacks to the field before I started researching the degree, but these articles were starting to make things sound like the museum field is either turning into or already is a retread of the library field and I long ago decided that I wasn't touching that mess with a ten-foot pole. So I looked some more and came along to public history.

From the research I've done on a public history degree, it (obviously) seems to have a wider range of application than a museum studies degree and as much as I'd like to work in a museum, I'm willing to explore other options, which a public history degree seems to offer more scope for. However, far fewer places seems to offer it as a masters program, compared to museum studies and I haven't seen anyone offering it as an online distance degree either. Money, as I mentioned already, is a big concern, and the only (somewhat) nearby school that offers a public history masters is NYU, home of stratospheric tuition and it's not exactly easy or convenient for me to get there either.

So:

1. Does one degree have a clear advantage over the other? As I said, I'd prefer to go into museum work but would adapt to other work if necessary. Public history would allow this, museum studies won't.

2. Would it even be worth getting a degree in public history if I finish my first masters? Would a public history degree possibly be considered redundant in that situation?

3. Museum field: really as bad as advertised or is this a case of unlucky people sounding off and making things out to be worse than they are?

4. From those links, and others I've read, it seems that a lot (but not all) of the people who had museum studies degrees but couldn't find jobs with them had no prior museum experiences other than the degree. Would my work in our tiny museum count as "museum experience" to someone hiring in the field or no?

5. Would an online museum studies degree be considered the same as one done in school? Also, I've read that the University of Leicester has a highly regarded museum studies program, and also offers a distance degree, but would a degree from a British institution be considered equal to one from an American school for someone who intends to work in American museums?

6. I've also come across this program at FIT, which I would totally do if money and time weren't issues, because I adore antique clothing and textiles. However, I'm half assuming that this program would not be considered the equivalent of an actual museum studies degree and would be more along the lines of something aimed at someone who wanted to go into conservation (which sounds like an awesome field but waaaay too difficult to break into successfully from what I've read) and would give graduates a fairly narrow focus that would be useless for institutes that don't have fairly large costume/textile collections. Am I right?
posted by miss sarah thane to Education (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I used to raise money at a grad school with a museum studies program and I can say out of experience that the salaries are really low. I knew nice, educated, committed people who were in their second decade of work and were making less than $40,000 a year in museum jobs at places like the Smithsonian and house museums. It's very much a labor of love for the people who do it. There is a tendency to 'make it work', which may or may not work in your case.

It sounds like you already have a job at a museum, even if you are not doing curatorial or curricular work. Why drop it? This is good work experience. You can probably make arrangements to complete your MA if you really want it. I recommend that you talk to local museum administrators and get their advice. I think most people, like me, will tell you not to invest in another degree. Also, while the MA may cut out at the school you are at, you can always apply for a PhD somewhere else.
posted by parmanparman at 11:28 PM on August 22, 2010


I'm a graduate if the FIT program you link to. I consider it more or less equivalent to a general museum studies degree, and most of the people interviewing me for jobs that have nothing to do with textiles have seemed to agree. It's not strictly conservation, there's nominally a "curatorial" track and a "conservation" track. The difference is only two or three electives, and you can mix it up. I took all the conservation classes but the capstone class, which means I was in the curatorial track but I got a good sampling of conservation. Only two people in my year were strictly conservation-track. Despite being a specialized subject, the FIT program had a lot of flexibility in that everyone could focus on their own individual interests. Some people were heavy into world textiles, others into 20th century haute couture, others into conservation and preventive collections care. I took the "sampler" route and went for as varied an experience as possible: I wrote papers for symposia, I curated the class capstone exhibition, I did conservation, collection management, and so on. Depending on the job I'm applying for, I can spin my education in a lot of different ways. Plus I learned some interesting anecdotes about 19th-century deodorants that always amuse my interviewers.

I haven't worked in a textile collection or used much of that specialized training since I graduated. At the same time, all the jobs I have had since then have been a direct result of the internships I did as a grad student. That was the most valuable aspect of my education, employment-wise: I did more internships than I was required to do, and would not have been able to get those internships without being a student in a well-respected grad program. That got me experience and connections that got me eventual jobs. It also showed that I was smart and dedicated and could work with people. (I ended up doing The Museum System database maintenance at a few New York museums, and now I'm a contractor doing the same stuff at a private art collection.)

I have kind of a bitter taste in my mouth about grad school and the museum world. Everything you have read about it being non-diverse and underpaid is true, and I have had some serious regrets about spending the time and money on grad school and finding myself with some very limited prospects that paid barely livable wages, especially for NYC. In fact, if you look at my AskMe question history, you'll find some embarrassing for me but perhaps illuminating for you handwringing about "what am I going to do with my life?" I doubt I will stay in this field for the rest of my life if I can avoid it.

If I were you, I would make all the connections I can and make sure they know I'm the bee's knees. Then I'd take my history MA and my museum experience (yes, you have museum experience) and spin the hell out of them. If you want to work in a history museum, you don't need another Masters. If you want to work in an art museum or any other kind, use your history skills and existing experience to get some jobs in history museums, and then use THAT experience and those connections to get the job you really want. I would STRONGLY advise not going into debt for a museum studies degree, especially since you already have student debt. I know many many people who are completely buried in student debt and really struggling on a museum salary. Nonprofits just don't have money to pay people what they're worth.

I would recommend against an online museum studies degree. You won't be making the connections that way, and in my view that's more or less the whole point. Someone else will have to weigh in on the public history MA option.

Sorry for the epic post. These are the midnight ramblings of a woman who shouldn't be on the Internet at this hour. Feel free to MeMail me or ask follow-up questions in this thread.
posted by doift at 12:20 AM on August 23, 2010


From the research I've done on a public history degree, it (obviously) seems to have a wider range of application than a museum studies degree and as much as I'd like to work in a museum, I'm willing to explore other options, which a public history degree seems to offer more scope

I would say this is true. It's more flexible in terms of career options - museum careers in history and culture museums will still be open to you, but you'll also qualify for state jobs where they exist, and can easily teach adjunct or associate all over the country.

2. Would it even be worth getting a degree in public history if I finish my first masters? Would a public history degree possibly be considered redundant in that situation?

Not...really. Academic history and public history are best thought of asdifferent fields dealing with the same content. It's the classic theoretical vs. applied debate that happens in many fields. People with academic history training don't always find the transition to public history easy without specifically public history training added on. Public history has a theory and literature of its own, and its research is most definitely conducted differently. I do know many people who have these parallel degrees.

3. Museum field: really as bad as advertised or is this a case of unlucky people sounding off and making things out to be worse than they are?

Yes and no. One thing that happened is that the museum field has rapidly professionalized over the last two decades, most of that taking place during a good economy. That resulted in the mushrooming of museum studies programs, which is aguably good for museums. However, it has produced a glut of graduates who are, on paper, overqualified. With heads full of museum theory, most don't have enough hands-on career time to have the chops one really needs. And because there are so many of them, hiring is incredibly competitive, and most people have to spend a very long time volunteering/interning to get a foot in the door. First jobs in the field are not what people with a master's in other fields can expect - the below-40K, entry level job is where anyone, no matter how great the program they went to, can expect to begin.

However, is success possible? Yes - if you're willing to play the long game. What happens is that there is some serious attrition to the field once you get beyond those entry-level years. There's a lot of dues-paying. But then, the field winnows out. People who have amassed experience and are willing to take on positions of leadership can find solid positions and, ultimately, do quite well financially. Attrition from staff positions continues as people in their 40s, 50s etc move out of 9 to 5 jobs and into consulting and writing and teaching in museum studies programs. When the Boomers retire, there is going to be a yawning leadership vacuum at the executive level, and so the prospect is pretty good if you look over the whole lifetime of the career right now.

Of course, many will point out that it's the dollars you have to save and invest in your 20s and 30s that matter most to lifetime financial security. So the entry-level years are also, often, the second-job years. But that's the path I took, and I don't reget it. I do think there are far too many people choosing what looks like a "genteel" profession who have little real-world sense about them, and their expectations for what they can be and do early in their careers are way, wayyyy too high, resulting in some of the whining you see. It's true - this field pays less than others. However, I get to work with beautiful and interesting things, am constantly learning and intellectually stimulated, have intelligent colleagues, always have new projects, have health insurance, and my job doesn't make me sweat or make my bones ache or require me to sign over my personal ethics. That's worth a hell of a lot in my book.

4. From those links, and others I've read, it seems that a lot (but not all) of the people who had museum studies degrees but couldn't find jobs with them had no prior museum experiences other than the degree. Would my work in our tiny museum count as "museum experience" to someone hiring in the field or no?

It definitely counts for something, but it's not a lot. It only puts you above people with no museum experience at all - and many of them are good candidates too. Experience is everything in the field. Not only museum experience - for instance, if you have experience from some other area like, say, higher education or speciality area skill or grants management, that all counts for a lot. What we see far too much of are people with very little applicable work experience of any kind, but a lot of education. That makes for a hollow shell of a staffer. What makes a strong applicant is a record of successfully completed projects or successfully delivered programs - something one can really only get by working.

I share your pain - I'm completing a Museum Studies Master's right now, and would actually much prefer a public history or a degree from the emerging field of public humanities. But in terms of priority order, those are going to have to wait while I finish the more expedient museum Master's. Sometimes decisions about training have to be pragmatic. Without a master's in a relevant field, I will have trouble continuing to progress my career; and my institution will finance the museum degree but not a history one. Also, the geographic problem exists for me too - no online version and no nearby public history. I am surprised too that there are no real public history online masters'.

I don't know if this is getting you anywhere in making your decision. A museum studies master's isn't going to kill your career - even if you end up going into public history, you'll use exactly the same skill set. If it's the easier degree to complete right now, then just go for it, would be my advice. Success comes down to the same thing it does anywhere - tenacity, hard work, excellence, and experience. Museum work isn't so diverse (unless you make an effort to get involved in 'museums of conscience' or the many professional associations related to various ethnic and social groups), but niether is public history, so it's really six of one, etc. There are more men in public history, but that has both benefits and drawbacks. MeMail me if you want to talk more!
posted by Miko at 7:13 AM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, gotta chime in. I worked nearly 10 years at a prominent history museum, 5 of which were in a full-time, managerial experience. I loved the mission of the museum and loved making history accessible, fun, and relevant to people who frequently thought it was none of those thing.

This:

...low-paid, with absolutely no room for advancement unless my immediate supervisor steps down, and I foresee her maintaining an iron grip on her position for years yet...

totally describes my museum experience. During my 10 years at this particular, very large, rather successful institution (i.e. not closing its doors or laying people off), there were 2 opportunities for advancement. I got the first one but not the second. I did not want to wait around 5 more years for the next opportunity. This is essentially why I left for a completely different field.

There are next to no jobs out there, and tons of museum studies grads. The jobs are way underpaid, the hours and commitments are grueling, and the field is shrinking all the time. I have friends who interned at the Smithsonian, work at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, living history museums, etc., and they face the same issues.

If you were really, really, really passionate about museums, and wanted to become a more marketable candidate, I would look at business-type degrees. Non-profit management, some type of internship in which you work in fund-raising or grant writing, event management––this will serve you far better at a museum than a general museum studies degree (which will cover these aspects, yes, but not focus on them). Museums need money desperately, which means they're looking for people who can bring in money. Your balance of business and history would make you a very desirable candidate.
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 7:26 AM on August 23, 2010


Depending upon your interests, you might think about working for a firm that designs museum exhibits, interactive tours, installations etc. I've worked as a freelancer on a number of these, and it's been very interesting. I'm in images, but I've met a number of people who work with design, writing, web sites, etc. and most of them were history/art history or design majors.

CERHAS, for example.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:47 AM on August 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


« Older Non-Mac guy w/ Mac problem. GF...   |  Is it possible to use GreaseMo... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.