Sunday, November 07, 2010

How I Got Here

Last week marked four years for the Museum 2.0 blog, and it got me thinking about how and why I first started doing this. People--especially young folks looking to break into the museum business--often ask me how I got here. This seems like an appropriate time to share the story. It's a long post, and you might not be interested. This is for those who ask for it again and again.

Ed Rodley recently wrote a blog post about museum jobs entitled "Getting Hired: It's Who You Know and Who Knows You." My story is more a case of "Getting Hired: It's What You Want, How Aggressive You Are, and What Ideas You Can Offer."

Part 1: It's What You Want

In 2002, I was finishing a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at WPI, a hands-on, technical university in Worcester, Massachusetts. I'd always believed in engineering as a creative path to changing the world, and my professors encouraged that mindset. But internship after internship didn't live up to those expectations. I met lovely people in engineering, but I found the work to be too detail-oriented and microscopic in scope to satisfy me. I had a healthy second life as a slam poet, and I loved the world of artists and performance. I'd always joked that my dream job was to design pinball machines--a technical problem wrapped in creativity and pleasure. There's not a lot of work in pinball, and I had a deep secondary interest in unschooling and free-choice learning. So when I finished my bachelor's degree, I traded engineering opportunities for science center internships and was instantly hooked.

I never pursued or wanted to pursue a graduate degree. I've always been good at school but suspicious of the gold stars. I wanted to be in the real world as soon as possible. And while my parents were a bit nervous about me turning away from engineering, they trusted me. I've always had confidence that I can make the life that I want, and I credit them for empowering me with that perspective.

Part 2: It's How Aggressive You Are

My first year in museums, I tried to get as much broad experience as possible. I went to two science centers, one huge (Museum of Science Boston) and one tiny (Acton Science Discovery Museum), and told them: "I'll work for you for free for three months, and then let's talk about whether you are going to pay me." I stayed at both for about 8 months, making about $7/hour by the end. I believe that setting that expectation at the outset made a big difference both in my eventual pay and the responsibilities offered to me.

At the tiny science center, I got to do everything from leading programs to building exhibits to managing volunteers to cleaning snot off of plexiglass. At the big one, I worked on a small project with teens to design science exhibits for community centers in their own neighborhoods. I learned to appreciate the audience reach of a big institution while vastly preferring the diversity of work and lack of bureaucracy of a small one.

I also learned that the best money in museums for someone who's starting out is in art modeling. After a long day running around a science center, I would show up at the Worcester Art Museum in the evening and make $20 just to stand around and listen to a painting instructor talk about art. It was like getting paid to process the day in a lovely setting. I survived the first half of 2003 financially on art modeling and poetry gigs.

By the spring of 2003 I felt I'd learned what I could in Boston and tried to figure out where to go next. I applied to work for This American Life (rejected) and in the meantime fell in love with someone who lived in Washington D.C. So I packed up and moved down the East Coast. In DC, I worked half-time for NASA as an electrical engineer and half-time for the Capital Children's Museum (now defunct) as a science educator. I made $26/hour at NASA and $7.25/hour at the Museum. While I'd often grit my teeth and think "one hour doing math in a peaceful room equals three hours running like crazy around this museum," I loved the museum work more. I wrote puppet shows about science and ran a "stump the mathematician" booth. I designed electricity workshops for families. Every time a kid said, "I never knew science could be like this!" I got hooked all over again.

In the spring of 2004, I quit both my jobs and decided to try to get a full-time position in a museum. My goal was to find an incredible professional to work for in an institution that was small enough that I could actually make a contribution. I didn't really care what kind of museum I went to as long as I could work for a rock star. After being rejected for a job at the Institute of Learning Innovation (founded by one of my heroes, John Falk), I discovered that person in Anna Slafer. Anna had been the founding Curator of Education at the National Building Museum, led the Rolling Rainforest project, and was a real innovator in developing in-depth participatory design experiences with community members (though I wouldn't have used those words at the time). In 2004, Anna was the Director of Exhibitions and Programs at the International Spy Museum. I wrote her a letter expressing my admiration for her and what I thought I could contribute to her department, and then I pestered her and her staff for weeks until they'd talk to me.

Eventually, they had an opening for "Exhibits and Programs Associate"--a low-level jack of all trades position supporting the department. I didn't have the graduate degree they wanted, but I tried to differentiate myself by really demonstrating the specific ways I could enhance their work. For the second interview, I even built a little lie detector and brought it in. I made it clear that I could do the job and was thoughtful about what they were trying to achieve.

The Spy Museum was a dream place for me. The reach is huge--at the time, about 800,000 visitors per year--but the staff is tiny. We had only eight people doing everything related to content and programming at the museum. In my first six months, I got to help research and install a temporary exhibition, manage youth and adult programs, start a podcasting program, and learn how to run department budgets. I tried to master the administrative work as quickly as possible so I could keep volunteering for other creative projects.

Six months in, the Museum committed to creating a highly interactive, separate ticket "you be the spy" experience (now open and named Operation Spy). It was going to be developed by contractors and overseen by Anna. I went to Anna and argued that we should have someone internally who could lead the creative development and manage the process under her--someone without all the other responsibilities that Anna had as a department head. I promised to commit to stay through the opening if she'd let me take on this role, and I suggested that she could keep me at my (low) salary instead of hiring an expensive project coordinator. I also told her if I couldn't work on this project, I'd likely move to the West Coast within six months.

Anna accepted my proposal. I stayed on for three exhilarating years, during which I got to develop story, game, and scenic elements for the project, prototype the experience, manage contracts and contractors, and be intimately involved in every aspect of a huge and complex project. I learned about game design, theme park design, video production, script-writing, show programming, and air compressors, working with cranks and fire marshals and brilliant folks of all kinds. It was exhausting, stressful work, and I loved it.

Part 3: It's What Ideas You Can Offer

I started the Museum 2.0 blog in November of 2006, about halfway through my work on Operation Spy. While now the blog's a big part of my life, at the time, it just felt like an experiment--a place for me to develop my ideas in a public setting.

The blog started with a conference experience. I'd been attending conferences like ASTC for a couple of years and had mostly been incredibly shy. I knew how to be assertive and social in small settings like my museum but not in larger groups. I'd see exhibit people I wanted to learn from, people like Kathleen McLean and Paul Martin and Darcie Fohrman, but I literally didn't know how to talk to them.

When Kathleen starting talking at ASTC in 2006 about the idea of a "wikimuseum" and visitors as users, I realized it was something I wanted to explore further. I started the blog as a personal learning activity, but also for the dorkiest reason in the world: to have something to talk about with my heroes. I had this dream that I would write about a topic they cared about, send them an email about it, and maybe the conversation would go somewhere.

It didn't happen like that, but other things happened instead. First, blogging gave me the confidence and drive to call up people who did cool projects and talk to them. I started meeting people through the blog--both those I interviewed and early readers who commented. I also found that blogging was a great outlet for the side of me that missed my previous life as a poet. Like slam poetry, blogging is writing for an immediate and hopefully vocal audience. Blogging helped me develop my ideas, engage in reflective practice, and pursue a growing passion for visitor participation in museums (and it's funny to look back and realize the first lines of my book came from one of the very first posts).

By summer of 2007, when I left the Spy Museum to move to California, the blog was a big deal. At AAM and ASTC in 2007, people I'd never met, people who would never talk to me the year prior, were eagerly approaching me saying, "Oh, you're Nina Simon!" This phenomenon has grown tremendously over the last few years, but it was never as strange as it was in 2007, when I viscerally felt the difference a year of blogging had made in my career and network of colleagues.

The blog naturally and easily spawned a consulting business, but even more importantly, it connected me with a whole world of inspiring, challenging, thoughtful colleagues. Heroes I admired from afar became friends and mentors. I'll never forget when Elaine Heumann Gurian cold-emailed me in 2007 to ask if I would consider reviewing a new paper she was writing. It was like the God calling to see if I could give my opinion on a new planet. I've been struck again and again by how generous people in this field have been towards me. Instead of seeing me as a threat or a young person not worthy of their attention, experienced members of this field have given me their time, conversation, and guidance.

Now, as a freelancer, my work combines long-term, creatively challenging participatory exhibit projects with lots of little workshops and brainstorming sessions with institutions around the world. I'm associated with a narrow niche (visitor participation and social engagement), so people call me specifically for that, which means I don't have to pitch "my approach" to hesitant potential clients. I'm getting weary of the travel, but I've learned a ton in the past three years and have gotten to do some incredibly cool things. As one of my friends says, "You're lucky. You get paid to go give people ideas." It is lucky. I feel that way every day.

Blogging radically changed my understanding of how you progress in the museum field. Before the blog, I assumed the way you moved up was by taking on bigger jobs and projects over time. I thought I would be judged for new opportunities based on prior work. But as it has turned out, almost none of my consulting clients care about my experience at the Spy Museum or other institutions. They don't care how young I am. They care about the blog. They care about the ideas. And while I'm proud that I have the experience and competence to get the work done, I'm always surprised at how little clients seem to worry about that.

Possibly Transferrable Generalized Lessons

This is the most self-oriented post I think I've ever written. I don't pretend that anyone else can or should follow my path into the field; everyone approaches learning and careers differently. But here are a few things I think worked for me and might work for you:
  • Be aggressive and clear about your intentions. Tell prospective employers or supervisors what exactly you want to do, what you expect to accomplish, and what you want to receive. Bosses are like boyfriends; they're not mind readers. You have to tell them what you want. Lay out your goals so they understand where you're heading and hopefully can help you get there.
  • Articulate what you can do for your organization, not what you can do generally. Many people focus job application cover letters and interview content on what they've done so far. That's fine, but for a prospective employer, it's much more powerful if you can explain specifically how your skills will improve their organization. It's not overreaching to tell an interviewer your ideas for programs or exhibit fixes or even to mock up an example. It's a good way to demonstrate thoughtful intent, and at the same time, to see if your ideas are welcome.
  • Take opportunities to do things you love, even if it means more work. If I had spent all my time at the Spy Museum on the admin part of my job, Anna would have seen me as a great administrative assistant. Instead, I got all the admin work done quickly and well and spent extra time differentiating myself as a creative producer. That made her see me as a creative asset beyond my initial job description.
  • Seek out mentors. I'd rather work for someone brilliant somewhere lousy than vice versa. Even at conferences, I tend to pick sessions 75% based on people, 25% based on content. This may be a personal defect, but I learn more from people who inspire me.
  • Find a starting point for conversation. At those conferences five years ago, I literally didn't even know what I might say to someone like Kathleen McLean. It took blogging and developing a specific interest for me to gain the confidence and voice to know what I wanted to ask. (I'm fundamentally terrible in cocktail party/conference situations, so if you're more naturally shmoozey, you probably don't share this problem of finding something to say.)
  • Share your ideas. I used to say that the Museum 2.0 blog's popularity was a case of "right place, right time." I expected the museum blogosphere to explode in 2007 or 2008. But here we are in 2010 and I can count on my hands the number of frequently-updated blogs by people sharing ideas and experiences in the museum field. There is lots of room for new voices online. If writing isn't the way you like to share your ideas, there's room for video series and podcasts and drawings and photo sets too.
I hope this is helpful for someone. If you have any questions, I'm happy to share more. Thanks for reading, discussing, cheerleading, arguing, and being part of this exploration for four great years.
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