Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Curiosity First

This week, several blogs (New Curator and the Center for the Future of Museums in particular) have been abuzz with discussion about whether a museum studies degree is worth it. As I read the posts, I thought about the worth of my own graduate degree and what I would look for in a new hire today. I came to the conclusion that there are some qualities, which perhaps cannot be taught, which make a good museum professional--from my own perspective. Feel free to disagree!
  • First and foremost: curiosity. If you're not curious about the world around you, about what other museums are doing, about the community you work in, then I think the museum field is not for you. I've asked interviewees about the last museum they visited and received a long silence. It's a big world and more than ever, there many opportunities to learn about it. I appreciate my colleagues who have deep interests and commitments outside their work: their artmaking, choral singing, French-horn playing, gardening, dog training, perspectives enrich their work. Paired with curiosity is, almost inevitably, imagination.
  • Second: ability to work as part of a team. I know there's a part of the museum world that likes to work deep in collections, on their own but I want people working with me who like to work with other people, who believe that collective minds produce better products. I still remember a colleague telling me about his stint as a very young director where, as a small staff of three, they spent one morning every week cataloging collections together--a great team-building effort.
  • Third: a sense of humor. These can be jobs with problems, with difficult people, with tough budget choices and more. It's a lot easier if a staff enjoys each other.
And a couple other skills that are assets:
  • Ability to develop and understand a budget. No matter what part of a museum you work in, it has a budget. Don't just shrug your shoulders and say, "oh, I'm a art or history person--I don't do numbers." Learn how those numbers are shaped and what they mean. That knowledge can be powerful.
  • Ability to speak in public (in my head, this is always paired with the other piece of advice I got from Louis C. Jones, founder of the Cooperstown Graduate Program--which was learn how to hold your liquor at exhibit openings.) The ability to be passionate and engaging about your museum to all kinds of groups--from elementary school students to seniors--can make new audiences care about the place you work.
  • Ability to be an early adapter about something. Most often this is now something on the web, but it might also be new lighting techniques, or green exhibit fabrication, or trends in education. These can be great ideas to share with colleagues. You can make your own little niche of knowledge.
  • Have a professional network. Much of my work has been about connecting people with other people. If you come into a position with a network of contacts--and preferably not just from your graduate program, you're a significant asset. They might be contacts in the community, in your field, or just a big random network.
  • Know how to write on deadline. It's great to be a good writer (and I always wish I were better), but if you're a good writer that takes forever, that's not particularly useful. And by the way, it goes without saying that understanding what deadlines mean is a very useful skill.
Do you need to go to graduate school to learn these skills? Absolutely not. Can graduate school help you refine and develop these skills: yes, for some people. Do I think the field benefits from the broadest range of perspectives and experiences? Absolutely yes.


Bodhibadger said...

I absolutely agree with all of these observations, Linda. What's more, I am confident that anyone passionate about museums, and having these qualities, will over time amass the right training and skills to do their museum job.

I think one of the challenges is that some (many?) of the people traditionally attracted to a career in museums (often in behind-the scenes roles like collections management, registration and curation) have wonderful skill sets for the technical and intellectual parts of their jobs, but are not naturally strong in the social aspects (teamwork, public speaking, social schmoozing.) The director of the Cal Academy of Sciences recently told me that he has established evaluation criteria for curators in these areas to complement the assessment of their academic work. (Well, at least the teamwork and public speaking, and popular writing. I am not sure he is assessing their schmoozing at exhibit openings.) He provides training and tools for them to get better at this, but the message is: get good at it, or get out. This is a real shock to the traditional museum culture.

Anne W. Ackerson said...


I'll point out that your list (or the vast majority of it) goes for board members, too.

Bodhibadger's example of the museum director who acknowledges the importance of interpersonal skills and is willing to help staff build those skills is a great example for all of us charged with developing the human talent in our organizations.

Linda Norris said...

Both these comments made me realize how important mentors have been to me and what a difference they can make in professional development. I've been lucky enough to learn from directors, from board members, and from my colleagues, all of whom have encouraged my development--pushed me to learn more when I needed to be pushed, provided a sounding board, or made me laugh.

I seem to be getting more questions these days from young professionals about how to shape a career--and it's interesting to me that many of them are coming out of graduate programs. (and, if you're one of those working to shape a career and looking for advice, don't hesitate to contact me.) Everyone's career will take a different path and I think the best thing about the field at the moment is that there are many different paths to take.