"Wormholes to Other Worlds." Part 2
“It’s not a museum. It’s not a place of artifacts; it’s a place of ideas “
– Jeanie Kahnke
So, where was I...ah yes, not giving up, looking at grad schools.
Yet again, I had no idea where to go to continue my quest to get a museum job.
I did not grow up in an urban area, so it had not even occurred to me to go down to the big city museum and say, "Hey! How do I get a job here?" "Can I volunteer?" I may be book smart, but sometimes I lack common sense.
Pro tip #1: if you want to work in a certain industry, talk to people who are in that industry. If you don't know anyone...go find them, or visit the place where you want to work, and meet someone. Also, if it's a non-profit type industry...ask to volunteer (if you are old enough).
Without the help of advisors at college, I continued to look into programs that would get my foot into the back door of the museum world. This was still well before the internet. So there were a lot of trips to the library to look up programs the old fashioned way...catalogs from the multitude of colleges and universities. There were New York City, phone book sized catalogs of the different schools out there and their programs. I still had not heard the phrase, "museum studies."
But I had found a program at Colorado State University that concentrated on Historic Preservation and Archival Science. That made sense. Museums preserve artifacts and in some cases buildings. They also usually have archives. That will get me into a museum. Plus, it was in Colorado. My Aunt and Uncle had just moved there. I had gone skiing there during Spring Break with the family back in high school. I was liking this idea.
I took a year off from school, moved in with my Aunt, Uncle and their three kids (and dragged my fiance along--unbeknownst to them. I'm still sorry about that.) and got a job in a chocolate store at the local ski resort. They gave me the opportunity to check out the school, gain my in state residency, (helping out with the cost of school) and earn some money to put toward tuition.
Side note: don't take advantage of your family. Seriously. It is not a good idea. Thank you Aunt Jane. I hope you have forgiven me.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at CSU. I got married. I worked hard at my courses. I was given a Teaching Assistant position, worked part time at the public library and I was a manager at a local pizza shop. Crazy busy, but rewarding in so many ways. Except that I still couldn't find a job in a museum.
As much as we loved Colorado, we couldn't afford to live in Colorado. I couldn't find a job in a museum. My husband passed the Certified Public Accountant exams, but couldn't find a job in an accounting firm. And I had graduated, which meant we needed to leave our married student housing apartment. Now what?
Back to Pro Tip #1. Talk to people in the field you want to work in.
One of my professors had worked for the National Park Service. Even though he taught Historic Preservation, I picked his brain about how to get a job in the museum field. He was partial to the Park Service, but understood that not everyone can work for the NPS, plus there are a lot of other museums and historical societies. He encouraged me to apply for an internship with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission that could provide some valuable experience, and it was paid!
Pro Tip #2: look into internships and volunteer opportunities during the summer and school vacations. This is when these places are the busiest, and can use the help. Most won't be paid, but you will gain some valuable experience.
We loaded up all our possessions that were housed in the 525 sq. foot apartment, and left Colorado. I headed to Pennsylvania; my husband back home to Michigan for the summer. Even though I would not be working in a museum, I would put my education to use. I would research and document a small town that had been partially destroyed, first by a 100 year flood, but then by flood control measures. The manuscript was used by the town to publish its history.
After my internship was complete, my brother-in-law invited us to spend some time in Connecticut with them. It was perfect timing, since I was asked to speak at the annual conference of the American Association for State and Local History about my internship that fall. The conference was in Saratoga Springs, so close enough to Connecticut. Maybe things were looking up.
Pro Tip #3: Go to conferences and seminars. In the museum community, there are several national organizations, but the big two are: AAM (The American Alliance of Museums), and AASLH (American Association for State and Local History). There are also regional and even state organizations. There may even be smaller organizations too! And don't forget International! Hunt them down, and go to them! These associations oftentimes have job boards and internship opportunities. Not only will you start meeting people, and networking, but you can also learn new ideas and techniques. They are great resources!
The time in Connecticut was well spent. My husband found a job at one of the many insurance companies, where he could put his business degree to work. I was encouraged to look into graduate programs, but this time a doctorate degree. I enjoyed my time researching and documenting and thought that this may be the life for me. Maybe the museum dream was over. We moved to Connecticut.
Unfortunately, I was not accepted into a doctorate program. I to study the History of Women in Sports. One of my professors at Colorado State had put the idea in my head: no one had really looked at this topic, it would be perfect for me. I loved history, I loved sports, and I was a women! Trifecta! It was 1995, and unfortunately, I was ahead of my time. I remember the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics were promoted as "the summer of women" since several sports were debuting for women, like soccer and softball. Those same women were winning! It stung a little.
But again, one door closes, a window opens.
I answered an ad in the newspaper for a docent at the Mark Twain House in Hartford. I had no idea that Sam Clemens wrote his most famous novels during the 17 years he lived in Hartford. I didn't know he LIVED in Hartford. I would be giving tours of Twain's eclectic Victorian house. I learned about his life, his family, his travels, and of course his many, many literary works. I was finally working in a museum!
I made sure this time that I introduced myself to the curators and asked as many questions as they'd let me. After a few months working part time as a docent, the curators asked me to help with small projects. I don't know if they were sick of all my questions, and took pity on me, or were genuinely trying to help me, but I started with projects that I could work on while sitting at the front desk. They weren't sexy--like going through the historic landscape plan that was scanned into a computer, and fixing all the scanning mistakes. Big fun!
But that led to other projects, like staying late to help with small exhibitions, move collections items, and work with the photo archivist. I was in a very happy place.
The chief curator pulled me aside one day, and asked me about grad school--would I go back if I could? The idea of going back to school was not an appealing one, but if it would get me a "real" job in the museum, I'd definitely do it.
Pro Tip #4: If someone takes you under their wing...go with it! Even though this person was a graduate of one program, she gave me the names of other programs out there. In fact, the assistant curator was a graduate of a rival program. If they truly want you to succeed, they will encourage you to find the program that will fit you best.
The Curator was a graduate of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. This program was associated with the State University of New York at Oneonta and the New York State Historical Association (now just the Fenimore Art Museum). The program was unique in that it was very small, and was a "generalist" program; you learned about all aspects of musuems--collections care, education, exhibitions, and administration. You could even take a course in conservation! And they had a very active alumni association, helping graduates find jobs. This sounded to good to be true.
I called the school, and went to visit. I sat in on a class, toured the small building the program shared with a biological field station (it has since be renovated and expanded--they may have even kicked out the biologists), and wandered around the small town.
It was perfect. Now I just needed to get in.
Not only did I need to fill out the application, but if they liked what they saw, I would then be invited to "Interview Weekend" in March. Yes, March, in upstate New York.
Interview weekend is very stressful, but having gone through it, very important. Since you will be living and working with 12-25 people, the program wants to make sure that not only do you have the academic capability for the rigorous curriculum, they also want to make sure you are able to live in the middle of no where.
I passed the first test, and was asked to come to Interview Weekend. The two days flew by. There were several "interviews" with the professors, but when not interviewing, the current students gave us tours of the town, the 3 museums (including the Baseball Hall of Fame), and fed us! I was so nervous, but I thought I did well. I loved the town--I could do middle of nowhere--but did I have the museum "chops" that they were looking for?
Having a former graduate write a letter of recommendation probably helped, as well as already having a Master's degree. After a couple of weeks, I was informed that I would be one of 12 students in the Class of 2000.
My two years in Cooperstown were difficult, but rewarding. My husband stayed in Connecticut. He had a job in a CPA firm, and although he looked for a position in Albany, he decided to stay in CT. We visited each other on the weekends, and I had a part time job in one of the museums gift shops.
The courses were tough, not only did we learn all the museums studies stuff, but we also took courses in "Social History". Every week was a different topic, and each student read a book, then gave a report about what they learned. I now have several 3-ring binders with the most extensive bibliography you can imagine...at least through 2000. We went on several field trips also. We visited various museums, where alumni would talk to us about what to expect after graduation. We went to Boston and Maine. We visited Toronto. We drove down to Pennsylvania and Delaware. We also went to museum conferences in Baltimore and Cleveland. Day trips to Albany, New York City, Syracuse and Rochester. We were immersed in the world of museums! I was even fortunate enough to win a prestigious scholarship to attends the Colonial Williamsburg Annual Antiques Forum. I never wanted it to end!
We also had to work as a team, something that was difficult at times. We watched as the class before us disintegrated before our eyes. The director brought in a "team builder" to make sure it didn't happen to us. We learned how to work together--an not take it personally. For some reason our class got along well, and we joked around a lot. We started calling ourselves, "The Class of Y2K". We joked that, "Late, plus a good story, equals on time." We would be ok.
Our final task would be our thesis. Once that was finished, we would receive our diploma. None of us were finished by "graduation", but we did technically have 5 years to finish. I was lucky, I used my summer internship between my first and second year as the basis of my thesis. I wrote an educational program for a local historical society in Connecticut. That program was then used in the schools to help 4th graders learn about their town. My 50 page paper needed to show how I went about this research, the testing, and implementation of the program. This paper was harder than coming up with the program. I finished in the fall of 2000, and it was accepted. I was the first to finish.
I had the degree...now I needed to find a job. And I did.
Pro Tip #4: Use the internet!!! I did not have the luxury of the internet when I was going through this trip. But today, there is so much information out there, it may be overwhelming. And, there are more museum studies programs out there than ever before, so be selective. Use the alumni associations! These people are proud of their programs, and want to see people get into their field.
I recently Googled, "Museum Studies Graduate Programs". There were 96 million hits. I selected one which took me to GradSchools.com. They gave a brief description of what is a museum studies degree, and listed degree programs. These were "sponsored" programs, so I'm not sure if that meant they paid money to be listed, or not.
The list was not alphabetical. There are 5 pages of 15 schools each. Some of the schools are in England. Cooperstown was on the second page.
When I was applying to CGP, I had heard of 4 programs: Cooperstown, Winterthur, Tufts, and Bank Street. Each program was very different: Winterthur focused on collections; Tufts was general, but new and only offered a certificate, not a Masters (that has changed), Bank Street was education focused. Winterthur was founded in the 1950s. Cooperstown in 1964. They've been around a while. So definitely do your research, and ask questions. In those questions don't just ask about the academics, but also the social side. What is there to do when not in class or studying? Cooperstown is very rural, with not a lot to do, unless you like baseball or solitude. This is super important.
For those at all interested in museum studies, I hope this helps. At the bottom of this post, I have listed a bunch of national, and regional organizations that you can look into.
In the end, I figured out that I actually am a teacher...I just teach in a totally different way. I use objects, images and stories to teach people the history of an event, person, building, or object. And it was a lot more fun than in a classroom.
And in the COVID world we are currently living in...it is really coming in handy. Especially since I'm trying to keep my boys off the screens as much as possible.
Oh, and I did get to see King Tut. In Egypt, at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, after a month working on an archaeological dig in Israel. The best graduation present ever!!!
Museum associations, taken from Museummarket.org
International Museum Associations:
International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience
National Museum Organizations:
Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM)
Regional Museum Associations:
Museummarket.org also lists state organizations as well as jobs, conferences, museum studies programs, books and articles. It is a great resource to get started!