Seeking preliminary info: museum collections/registrars, preservation
January 21, 2014 12:07 PM   Subscribe

What can you tell me about the field(s) of museum/historical society registrars/collections, preservation, and digital preservation? In a few years, I want to go back to work in a new career, and these have recently crossed my radar.

I've combined all of these areas into one question because I'm not sure how much overlap there is. This MLIS/MA art history program at Pratt seems to suggest that the areas sometimes commingle. Anyway, if you know something about one or more of these areas, I would love to know:

How robust is the profession, in terms of finding and keeping work?
What is the pay range?
What is the climate of work -- is it typically family friendly (weekends off, home by dinnertime)?

My background is in art/photography/video, but I have a natural affinity for databases and research. I would be in my late-40s, and I'm in the NYC area, so I have access to many museums and historical societies.
posted by xo to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I worked in a major contemporary arts museum for the better part of a decade. I was responsible for the installation of audio, video and digital work, and as such worked closely with our registration department. Our framing department handled basic mounting, framing and archival prep but most of our preservation/conservation was contracted out to specialist consultants.

I cannot comment in detail on the pay range except that it is commensurate with the prestige of the institution, with compensation quickly falling off when you get outside of the major institutions. This is probably likewise true with regards to finding and keeping work. The museum community, particularly the modern art museum world, is a surprisingly small one. Networking is critical, it's all about who you have worked with and what biennial you go to, at least at the senior levels.

The climate is very polished and professional, and is a mix of office work and white-glove hands-on work. I think our registrations people had weekends off and were home by 6pm, with the major exception of deadlines around the installation of a major exhibit. There was a fair amount of national and international travel for our registrars, as they often would accompany traveling exhibits. There's some pressure there too - the registrar is responsible for packing and arranging travel for millions of dollars worth of art, and if something is broken or missing they're in the hot seat.

The most successful personality trait I saw in those areas was attention to detail, almost on an OCD level. A "completionist" personality does well.

It also requires someone who can deal with exceptionally difficult people. Art world personalities can be amazing, creative and inspirational but they are also often a heady mix of flightiness, obliviousness, entitlement and psychopathy.
posted by werkzeuger at 12:31 PM on January 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I worked in museum collections for quite a while at a combination of art and historical museums. I've drifted out of the field since 2011, but I think a lot of my experience is still fairly current and relevant. So:

How robust is the profession, in terms of finding and keeping work?
You're heading out onto a career limb with this kind of specialization; in any given city, there'll only be a set number of places where you can use your skills. On the other hand, there will be a fairly small pool of competitors with those skills. If you're in NYC this is less of a concern than it would be if you were in, say, Omaha.

Every museum needs people who can do this, so there's always some demand.

What is the pay range?
Managing a collections database and overseeing an art digitization project in Minneapolis, I made a little over $50k. I was probably a bit underpaid, but didn't realize it at the time. Senior registrars are usually pretty well-paid, but every place I've seen has had some lower-paying "pay your dues" positions in registrarial depts that you need to hold for a while before you move up.

What is the climate of work -- is it typically family friendly (weekends off, home by dinnertime)?
This is going to vary pretty widely by institution, of course, but my experience has been that museums in general are pretty friendly places to work by those terms unless you're a workaholic who wants to dive in.

The converse there is that all of the museums I've worked in have been intensely political places, with turmoil and blocs of upset staff. I don't know if that's a museum thing or a nonprofit thing or just a "I worked at the wrong place at the wrong time" thing.

It's an interesting field to get into, and you sound like you're pretty well-positioned. If you're tech-savvy, that'll help a lot. Digital preservation in particular is a field that's going to need a lot of good work done pretty much from now until forever.
posted by COBRA! at 12:34 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I see COBRA! and I worked in the same market/region; I agree with everything they said.
posted by werkzeuger at 12:40 PM on January 21, 2014

The answers to your questions depend on the institution. I'm familiar with the climate in the collections side of natural history museums (as opposed to the exhibitions side). I know nothing about the world of art museums, and it seems like it might be quite different.

In my experience, the roles/departments you mentioned (registrar, physical collections, digital collections) are considered to be separate, with some overlap in the general outlook but not specific skills. There's a big push for digitization of collections and data right now, so maybe that works in your favor.

Even so, I think that it can be hard to find jobs because so many people want to work in a museum. The barrier for entry has gotten higher since I started paying attention to the field. Keeping work seems to be easier, maybe because people accumulate very specific expertise.

The pay range is on the low side, generally. Larger and better-funded institutions tend to pay better, but even then not as well as in the corporate world.

Weekends off, home by dinnertime: yes and yes, in my experience. But someone else's mileage may have varied.

Your affinity for databases sounds like an asset. Even better would be some coursework (museum studies and/or something computer-related) and maybe a successful php/MySQL project or something like that. All of the above plus a killer cover letter would get you some interviews, I would think.
posted by sleevener at 12:43 PM on January 21, 2014

One thing to think about if you're getting into this kind of specialized field is that you often won't have much choice (or indeed *any* choice) about where to work. Like, there will only be one or two jobs available at any given time, even in a large city. I considered getting into a similar field (I'd done some part-time work) but realized that there were only a handful of institutions where I could do the work I was interested in, and that the internal politics/organizational culture of the institutions I knew were... difficult.
posted by mskyle at 1:25 PM on January 21, 2014

The not-having-much/any-choice-about-where-to-work thing is real. I have an MSLS and work as an archivist in a museum; my archivist cohorts from library school are flung all over the place--Oklahoma, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina--anywhere they could get hired.

I was fortunate to get hired at an institution I love in a town that I adore. The downside is that, if I were to leave my current position, I'd have to uproot everything else and move--probably to another state entirely. The stakes seem to grow as I increase my institutional and regional knowledge, making me a more valuable employee in my current role but also sending me farther out on the branch of specialization.

If I had to look for another job at this point, I'd have to do something pretty dramatic to make myself marketable outside of my region. That's daunting.

But there is the upside of relatively stable employment, and the fact that, in this field, many people will stay at one position for years and years. In my experience, archivists and museum folks aren't particularly cutthroat careerists but desire simply to work in a field they enjoy, be home by dinnertime, and pay the bills. I'll never be rich, but I genuinely enjoy my work. That feels like a luxury.
posted by magdalemon at 11:05 AM on January 22, 2014

I have a degree in museum studies and ended up working in academic libraries. My experience was that an MA in museum studies plus a couple of internships was very good at getting me low-paying jobs with no benefits until I'd built up about 5 years of experience, at which point I got enough money that I had a very tiny shot at starting to pay back my student loans (i.e., I went from earning $8.00 an hour with no benefits to getting $22,000 a year salary with benefits, and that took 5 years).

If you have paid your dues in volunteer work, internships, and/or jobs before that point, it's much easier--my friend who got a living-wage job right out of grad school had worked her way through grad school as a curator at a small city museum, and got that because she'd worked at a smaller museum before grad school.

I would suggest starting now by volunteering at museums that have functions and collections in the areas you're interested in--they're usually thrilled to get volunteers who are willing to do the scut work. You can get your dues-paying under your belt, and start making contacts with people who will be giving you information and job opportunities later.

Also, join professional associations in the field and start attending conferences. You can usually find small region or state-level associations and conferences that have a reasonable registration fee.
posted by telophase at 2:34 PM on January 22, 2014

Forgot to add: I ended up in libraries because I chose to go to library school to widen my career options: that way I could look in both libraries and museums.
posted by telophase at 2:37 PM on January 22, 2014

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