Friday, July 22, 2022

Beyond the Walls: A Post Museum Career

 I asked my friend, Paul Bowers, to share some of his thoughts about leaving museums. If you have thoughts about leaving museums or why you're staying, reach out. I'd love to share your thoughts here.

This post is so good. Give it a slow read. Or if you're me, tear through it and then read it slowly later. Also note, Paul is a Brit living in Australia. He spells things that way. Allow for the s instead of z. 


Beyond the walls – a post-museum career

There’s a lot of talk about people leaving their museums jobs – if you’re thinking that way, this might help. I did 20 years in museums, then left four years ago, and since then I’ve run a sustainability organisation, consulted for a library, mentored a for-purpose founder and been the Interim COO for a large cemeteries trust. I’ve learnt a few things along the way and while you might not want my destination/s, I hope you’ll find this helpful as you look before leaping.

Caveats of course that my experience is singular, and contains some dimensions of privilege.

Everything everywhere all at once

Museums are complicated. Nowhere else I’ve seen has all the functions of academia, retail, logistics, customer service, volunteers, digital, marketing, specialist facilities, education; and the complexity of external relationships that comes with all of these. Working in this environment makes you super-skilled. I’m not saying you have to have worked in all these departments. But getting anything done in a museum means you have to work with all these departments. 

You’ll have had days where you’ve gone straight from a front of house meeting to a curatorial meeting, you’ll have dealt with some weird thing to do with fire exit routes, then had to help transport a precious object. Oh, and there’s that volunteer upstairs you’re supervising, too. All this means you’re flexible, you work well with others, you can grasp multiple perspectives and be professional with this huge range of people. Very few careers give you that.

And underneath all the practicalities is the complexity of the ‘mission’. Outside museums, the world is often driven by just one or two ‘why?’ questions: Money for shareholders; Save the dolphins. And everything else is a ‘how’. But museums preserve, study, display and educate. Each of those is a distinct purpose, and they sometimes contradict – the balancing act between conservation and display, for example. And that leads to many more complex ‘how’ skills: multiple dimensions of fundraising for example.

And you work within such complex constraints! All the regulatory and legal issues, the politics of Boards and Funders, the ever-changing building regulations, the whims of the geniuses, the egos of the politicians, the sheer complexity of best practice (eg, preserving mixed media artworks).

You’re flexible with time horizons. You can work fast (it opens next week!) and slow (5-year digitisation project, anyone?). You’ve achieved miracles with nearly no money. And you’re flexible with… well… challenging people. That manager, artist, academic, designer, volunteer... You’ve all got stuff done despite that insufferable someone.

So again: you’re skilled in working with a complexity of purpose, of professional areas, of limitations, of time, of difficult people, with balancing multiple demands. That’s uncommon.

Now you can’t just say all this and walk into a cool new job in a new sector. But you need to hold close to your heart that you are skilled, you are valuable. You will be a fabulous employee for someone else. You need to resist the urge to think that you’re ‘just’ a museum worker, that your skills are so specific. 

Example. I’m working in a huge cemetery trust right now. Information control (of bodies, or rights of internment) is pretty much identical to the governance of object provenance and transport. I feel like a duck that’s waddled lost across concrete and suddenly discovered a completely different pond. This is so familiar, I can just jump in, paddle my feet and I’m a useful employee somewhere else.

Identity is all

Identity can feel permanent, fixed and immutable. And when it’s been built around museums (after investing decades of study, volunteering and insecure contract work) it can feel impossible to break: I’ve worked so hard for this, so it’s who I am.

After two decades in museums, it had become such a strong part of my identity that when I left I didn’t know who I was – professionally and personally. I hadn’t known this would happen and I felt uprooted, lost and confused. 

Then I learnt. A good friend pushed me towards Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identities, and recently I discovered this Invisibilia podcast – I commend them both to you (though some caveats over little-explored privilege in the book). To simplify, the idea of personality as a stable construct is a myth. We are what we do, a product of actions and environment. When we change that environment, we change our selves. 

Ibarra’s central idea is to experiment with new working lives. Try them on for size, see how they fit. Do you like the reflection in the mirror? Ibarra recommends you don’t buy the whole outfit at once. Just try the shoes, or the shirt. Let it settle on you – let the personality shifts catch up.

She suggests you volunteer on the weekend, or spin out a craft hobby for a bit. Even getting an internal secondment to an unexpected part of the museum might give some clues. Remember, one person’s beautiful ballgown is another person’s double denim. But whether you like the dress or the jeans, go forth proudly.

You’ll also have to confront the perceptions of others. Their identity is partly built around having this version of you in their lives. If you feel weirdness, reflect on whether they’re here for you, or for their version of you. Those who truly care will cheer you on. Some others might need to get relegated lower down the friends-and-family rankings. 

And your self image is important here. How flexible are you allowing yourself to be? A rising museum pro once told me she’d be perfectly fine scrubbing a kitchen floor if it meant she could provide for her family. And that inner strength – no self-definition by title or employer prestige – gave her the confidence to risk challenging the career narrative and she made a change. She’s doing very well now, six years on.

Get help

There’s two kinds of help you need. First, those cheerleaders can give you more than encouragement. Ask them for advice. Ask them to describe you. They’ll see some things you don’t – qualities, skills, memories of a what if? conversation at the karaoke bar. If they’ve moved sector, all the better.

But remember – beyond their insights, those closest to you are the least practical help in actually moving on. You need to reach people on the edge of your network – simply because they’re further away. Ask for introductions. Have coffees with people. First off, describing yourself to others helps you find your story. Second, you never know who, in a few month’s time, will need some help and will remember that person with relevant skills who was so interesting at that café months ago…

Also, get help from professionals who aren’t in your friendship circles, framing it within a methodology. (It’s not a coffee, it’s a ‘self-coaching exercise’, very pro.) For example, you can ask current peers to do a Johari’s Window exercise with you (this is a good how-to). 

I was fortunate enough to be able to work with a career coach. Kate Richardson was extremely helpful for me, and her website has great resources too. As you’d expect, she brought all the career coaching skills but in addition she brought two things I didn’t know I needed. Her process included structure – it held me to account for making progress, and also forced me to consider discrete elements in sequence, rather than tackle everything at once in a terrifying blancmange of panic: considering values separate from strengths, for example. But most importantly, my questioning, insecurities and fears were just normal to her. It didn’t faze her, she just worked through them with me. You know that feeling when a doctor looks at something and says ‘oh, that’s nothing to worry about, you just need this medicine and you’ll be fine’, and a weight you didn’t know you were holding falls off your shoulders. Well, she made me feel like that. You may be able to find a great coach. But a fabulous manager, friend or ally in the sector could do this for you too.

The last thing is that people really want to help if they can. Most people are nice, most people remember when they needed a helping hand. And it’s flattering to be asked. You won’t believe it when you start asking, but more people will offer their time to help you than will ignore you. I didn’t believe it, I often still don’t believe it, but when I have pushed through and made the call, people have been lovely.

At first, you flirt.

Think of this career experimentation like dating. Maybe the first date tells you this person isn’t for you. Maybe you realise that after a few months. Or maybe they become a life-love for the rest of your time. All are possible outcomes. But they all start with a first date, and flirting with a possibility. 

The cultural ideas around career route are just like the ideas around marriage: incredibly linear. We’ve imbibed our parents and teachers, and all the books and films, that told us a career means going steadily up a ladder: Junior, Middle, Senior, to CEO or Lecturer, Assoc Professor, to Professor. Breaking this needs bravery in disruption.

And finding the right thing is really tough, practically and emotionally. Partly because as you shape your world, the world shapes you. I’m still no closer to finding the ‘right’ answer for me and maybe that’s the point. There isn’t a ‘right’, there’s just different. It’s OK to try something, discover it’s a dead end, then move on.

Focus on values and outcomes, not skills and history

Museum sector biases strongly to ‘stuff I know’ – technical skills. And the boomer resumé structure taught us to frame ourselves as merely a career history list of facts. This was prestige gatekeeping in action; don’t replicate it.

I learnt to talk about my strengths, then what impact that had in the world, then follow that with evidence. Like this…

I am great at making risotto, and so my family enjoy a great meal. My teenage kids have even invited friends round to taste it. I’m so glad I got to learn this from my neighbour, an Italian nonna.

… is a completely different and more compelling narrative than 

2007. Studied risotto-making from a neighbour

2009-13. Made over fifty five risottos for friends and family

Which chef would you hire? 

Miscellaneous CV and interview fails for career shifters:

  • Outside the museum sector, few care about publications and conferences. That you are an influencer in your field, respected for your insight, is valuable. But say it like that, don’t write a page of chapters and conference names
  • Jargon and acronyms. Careful, you might be so used to them that they creep through
  • Give qualitative and quantitative data to support your achievements. Customer service ratings went up by what percentage? Your peers say what about you? I’ve seen many museum staffs’ resumés full of qual information, but with no meaty numbers. Other orgs want to see the results like that, and they also want to be reassured you’re savvy enough to know that quant matters
  • People who don’t state their values. The museum sector largely assumes common values (Look after stuff. Be accessible. Decolonise.) But you have to say so, outside the field. What do you believe in, what do you care about? How do you want to change the world?
  • People who don’t convey their continuous learning mindset. It is amazing to be able to tell a story of when a director threw you a curveball and you had to learn rapidly while doing. Building a plane while flying the plane is something every museum person I know can do, and it’s a talent worth hiring for
  • People who don’t convey they can develop then apply rules consistently and fairly, and know what to do when they find a grey area. Again, especially for those in any form of conservation or acquisition roles, this feels too obvious to mention. But in the wider professional world this is a real talent and sought after. Healthcare, government, insurance and more.
  • Proofread. Please. Do not be the person proclaiming they’ve run successful pubic programs.

Apply like a straight white man. By that I mean research has shown marginalised people typically wait until they are certain they tick every box before applying; the stale male applies when they’ve kinda got most of the requirements. I’ve written countless Position Descriptions, and I always ask for more than I know exists – always try to hire the unicorn. But no-one ever has 100% on every requirement. What I’m always looking for is ‘most and learns’ – the person who can begin pretty strong on day one and with support and training will become the unicorn. (oh, and anyone who has 100% on everything should be applying for the next job up!)

Lastly, in making a good CV, remember that sectors and countries have different standards and expectations. Some hirers like a resume, some like a long ‘how I meet the criteria’ letter. Find out the rules of engagement before engaging. 

Confronting recruiter prejudice

You’ll have to gently confront attitudes about museums. External hirers fall for the cultural beliefs (dusty shelves!) too. And they won’t know what programmers or conservators do. So you must explain what you do clearly. If you’ve constructed a program and campaign that brought in a hundred marginalised people who’d never been before… that’s amazing and you have to explain it. Describe how you did it and quote the feedback they gave you. Worked with an international object loan? That’s cross-cultural competency, negotiation skills, regulatory competence. Say that, don’t just drop ‘worked on blah with blah’.

Some recruiters simply won’t have the imagination to see the transferable skills. Some hire for safety (they’ve done this before!) not for potential (their skills mean they could be the best at this role in six months). That’s their loss. Take the feedback, decide to accept it if it feels right (reject it if it feels like garbage), and move on. You’ll apply for lots before you find the next stepping stone, and along the way you’ll get rejections. Call a friend, have them remind you how great you are, then maintain your course.

In summary

I found that museum work can narrow your perception of what’s possible – in the world of work, and in yourself. The foundational career narrative is that museums are unique and you can’t get in the door without brandishing a Museum MA and five years of volunteering. The multiple dimensions of nonsense here is for another blog, but exiting museums is made as hard as entering by this lie that museums are just so special. 

Where did I land? I’m still working it out. I do know it’ll centre on aligning organisations around purpose through microtweaks to their culture and process, and it’ll always be purpose-beyond-profit. I’m going to have to keep experimenting for ever, and my main takeaway after four years is to be at ease with that.

For you? That’ll be a new and unique journey. The hardest part is breaking out of the bubble of myths. So, keep these truths close by; write them on page one of your career change notebook:

Museums are great but they aren’t the whole world

  • In Museums, I have become uniquely talented
  • People will help me with advice
  • People will help me with cheerleading
  • People will help me with introductions
  • I am amazing
  • I will experiment
  • I will thrive

If I can help, I will. DM me on twitter (@paulrbowers) or find me on LinkedIn

Good luck.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

How do I get out of Museums?

 I think half of the work problems in museums come from the fact that most staff feel trapped. And if you don’t want to move and you don’t live in a huge metropolis, you basically have very few choices. 

So what’s to do? One option is to leave the field. Listen, I’m just a few moments out. So, I’m not sure how good it is. 

But, I’d like to share my thoughts on how I got out. 

I’d really thought I wanted to stay in museums, but then the level of ridiculousness got too much. I decided I needed to look at other things. I would say this is the first step. You need to want to leave. 

But desire is pretty lonely if you don’t have any place to use it. I honestly couldn’t see where I could go. I felt like my skills wouldn’t be translatable. And here in is the next step. Ask for help. Call a friend doing work you might like to do. Hear how they got there.

Most museum pros can research anything. And these skills really came in handy in my job search. I spent time reading job descriptions and matching my resume to their needs.

We have so many useful skills. Project management, public speaking, and writing are three big ones. Many of us have spent years wrangling databases and organizing editorial schedules. I spent a good amount of time tallying my skills against those needed in the business world.

After that, I updated my LinkedIn and turned the light on (set it to show that I’m looking for work.) I did use the pro version for a month. I did the easy apply version for everything remote that was related to UX research and writing, since most of my work has been evaluation and interpretation. I got a lot of no thanks and many interviews. People were very receptive. No one was surprised I was leaving nonprofit. 

Now I’ve just left, so I can’t say how it is. But I am excited that I wasn’t trapped. I have options. You have options too.