She love museum mile
May 11, 2010 6:16 AM   Subscribe

Museum mavens! How do I get back into museum work - specifically interpretation - after a two-year hiatus?

I've been a creative web content manager for 10 years and my dream was always to work in an interpretation role within a big cultural institute.

I managed to score a year's contract in the big city for a major museum website three years ago. It turned out to be stressful in some ways (pay not great, lack of clarity, entrenched Byzantine systems etc) but I absolutely loved the environment, the people and the content and when the project ended I had offers for two other museums doing similar contracts.

However, after years of non-profit contracting I also needed some stability both cash and lifewise and, scared by the looming recession, I interviewed for a senior editorial role with a big wage increase in a legal organisation. I knew the job wasn't a good fit from the start, but many people advised security over passion and it seemed to make practical sense to take this job over the other contracts.

Now, after two years of major cognitive dissonance I know I'm happier in the cultural sector and I want to return to museums, focussing on interpretation and producing content rather than just managing it. I've been applying for vacancies for the last six months but it's a massively competitive market and I'm much less of a catch than last time round - my current job is totally unrelated, none of the work I've done in the last two years is comparable to the museum project and it's difficult to justify the move on my CV to potential employers.

I have however managed to accumulate a good chunk of savings (aside from pension) so in order to demonstrate commitment and gain experience my options seem to be either:

1. Tap museum contacts for intern positions in current big city and suck up the costs of living here without pay for up to six months (circa £8k)


2. Use all savings to complete a one-year full-time MA in Museum studies/Interpretation in another, much cheaper city. (circa £20k costs)

Obviously neither route guarantees a job but as I have no debt or dependants I'm willing to gamble. I just have no clue which is the best approach, or if either is even viable in the current economy.

Does anyone have any thoughts? Are there any other options? Many thanks! (Anonymous for work reasons).
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Having just completed a Museum Studies masters in a city full of other Museum Studies graduates, the networking that opens up afterward is kind of astonishing. "Oh, you're a grad of the program too? Me too! Don't we rule at stuff?" Many people have told me that if they're in a hiring position, they prefer to hire other grads, or at least grads of a similar program. Just a point to consider, I guess.

The interpretive planners that I know of (working in large institutions) definitely have degrees, usually museum studies or education. They focus on the overarching pedagogical aspects of exhibits--the tone and flow of information, language, the particular learning styles targeted, etc. Depending on the institutional hierarchy, the curator would be developing content and the interpretive planners would just be managing and molding it for their target audience. What step in the process are you interested in? There are also positions that can bridge the curatorial and the interpretive, and they might not require a specialized degree to accomplish.

I suppose I don't really have a concrete answer for you, but a combination of your two options could open many doors, and give you a leg up on the competition (and I feel you on how tough it can be). Even a short internship can be valuable. In your position, I would likely be looking for a short-ish school program that also includes an internship component. There may also be diploma-type programs that are not as pricey as an MA.

If school isn't an option at some point, I'd say just keep applying and play up your IT-based skills to prospective employers--this can be a huge asset in the increasingly multi-media interpretive planning world. I'm not just talking about websites, but physical, in-house exhibits with interactive components and website-like interpretive vehicles. You're a hot commodity!

Good luck! Memail me if you ever want to talk shop/yell about your museum-related frustrations.
posted by 1UP at 7:06 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't mean to spam your question, but something else just occurred to me:

Smaller-scale institutions often won't have a dedicated interpretation team or interpretive planner. This role often falls to another position, like exhibit designer, curator, all-encompassing staffer, or sometimes even collections manager. Depending on what kind of museum you're interested in working for, having a good general knowledge of museum operations can get you into a position where you're taking on interpretive tasks even if that's not your dedicated job.

I guess that's a point toward getting museum experience any way you can.
posted by 1UP at 7:21 AM on May 11, 2010

While I haven't worked in museums in a decade so my experience and information may be out of date, I'd be more inclined to do option 2, while making sure to get into a program that requires you take at least one internship, and volunteering at museums additionally. That way you'll get at least some of your paying-your-dues time out of the way while you're in school, and you'll be making contacts while still in school.

When I was getting my degree in anthro and museum studies, my adviser always told us to get as much experience as we could, as wide-ranging as possible, because that makes us more employable - there are more positions open in smaller museums and collections than larger ones, and smaller museums have smaller staff and need them to be able to do multiple jobs. I'd think a career plan of school -> small collection where you include your interests as part of your job -> larger museum where you focus on your interests might not be a bad career path. But as I said, I've been out of the field for a decade (got shunted into libraries) so I may not have a good view of what it's like nowadays.
posted by telophase at 9:07 AM on May 11, 2010

The masters in Museum Studies is never, ever going to actually hurt you. I would do that - hell, I wish I had done that years ago when it was still an option for me - and network, network, network. I am assuming that you are spending a lot of time on the AAM job seekers website and, if there's any way you can swing it, I'd very highly recommend attending their annual meeting in LA.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:09 AM on May 11, 2010

There are numerous consulting firms that provide interpretation services to institutions throughout the country. Many will be in LA at the AAM conference mygothlaundry recommends. Memail me your location and I might have some suggestions.
posted by carmicha at 2:44 PM on May 11, 2010

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