Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Tips for the Burned Out Museum Professional

Hopefully, everyone had a relaxing holiday weekend! This week I’m tying in some ideas that I’ve been mulling over since the 101st NEMA conference. The theme was “What’s in it for Me?” and the answer isn’t always clear in our field that has low pay, large workloads, and understandably, a high burnout rate. But hopefully, some of the tips below will be of some use to you: 

  • Objects – What made you join this field? What part of museums drew you in? For many people I’ve talked to, the objects were the key factor that pulled them to museum work. Whether it was an old teapot or an abstract painting, our connection with the “stuff” is what drew us in. While at the NEMA conference, I had the pleasure of attending a session run by Rainey Tisdale and Marieke Van Damme, where we focused on the pieces of joy that could be added to museum work (if you want to look further into this, definitely check out Joyful Museums). One of their suggestions that caught me off guard was the ability to have access to the collection. It’s simple, and yet, I had never realized that I felt detached from the objects that I work around every day. I can imagine that that feeling is increased when one works in a position that doesn’t visit the galleries on a daily basis. Tisdale and Van Damme suggested ready-only access to the collections database for all employees as a possible solution. To take that idea a little further, museums could even host a close-looking activity once a month. Allow all staff members to vote on which object they want to see up-close and then pull it out of storage for everyone to see. This is a cheap and fun activity that is likely to remind staff members why they entered the field to begin with.  
  • “Protecting your ‘yeses’” – Honestly, this is a tip that I got from an inspirational planner last year, and I pretty much haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It’s become a mantra of sorts because I hate saying no to people and always want to prove myself as a capable coworker, employee, and emerging professional. However, overworking myself is not the answer. I think this is a common problem in a field where there is rarely money to hire enough people, the workforce is mostly women, and the employees are passionate about what they do. However, viewing my “yeses” as a thing that I am giving to people has helped me to scale back my workload a bit. Of course, there are always instances where its crunch time, and there’s no option except to work through my exhaustion. But the mindset that you are saving your ‘yeses’ for a few projects or events that you’re really passionate about rather than having a hand in a bit of everything can save you from that guilty feeling of not doing enough. 
  • Identify your needs – This one might seem a bit obvious, but at the Education Professional Affinity Group (PAG) lunch, we did an activity that involved writing down your needs as an employee, a coworker, a museum professional, and an individual. Often, I complain that I don’t have enough of a work/life/school balance but putting my needs into such defined categories was helpful to understand where my problems lie. Of course, sometimes our needs transcend categories and that’s okay too but being able to see where my needs as a coworker differ from my needs as an employee is a great way to sort through what my goals are and how to ask for them.  

There are so many more ways to handle burnout! If you’re looking to do your own research on it, AAM published a blog post in 2017 about why museum professionals are Leaving the Field. One of the best ways to prevent burnout across the field is by sharing tips and strategies that have worked for you! So, we want to know: what ways have you prevented or improved symptoms of burnout?  

Weekly Jobs Roundup

Happy hunting! 

South: 

Curator (San Jacinto Museum of History, Harris County, Texas) 

Digital Content Strategist (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX) 

Assistant Curator (Telfair Museums, Savannah, GA) 

Museum Diversity Fellow – Museum Education (Reynolds House Museum of American Art, Winston Salem, NC) 

Deputy Director (Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, KY) 

Director of Education and Public Programs (Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center, Oklahoma City, OK) 

Midwest: 

Operations Director (The Rabbit Hole, North Kansas City, MO) 

Director of Learning and Engagement (Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, MO) 

Manager, Digital Media (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO) 

Deputy Director (Carl & Marilyn Thoma Art Foundation, Chicago, IL) 

Advancement Director (Illinois State Museum, Springfield, IL) 

Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator (McHenry County Historical Society, Union, IL) 

Registrar (Ulrich Museum of Art Wichita State University, Witchita, KS) 

Docent and School Programs Manager (The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH) 

Interpretive Planner (The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH) 

Public Education Fellow (History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, WI) 

Mid-Atlantic: 

Curator of Digital Projects (Smithsonian’s Arts + Industries Building, Washington, DC) 

Adult & Family Programs Coordinator (National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC) 

Curator (National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC) 

Library Collections Curator (Virginia Museum of History & Culture, Richmond, VA) 

President and CEO (Science History Institute, Philadelphia, PA) 

Executive Director (Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center, Pennsburg, PA) 

Executive Director (Sewickley Valley Historical Society, Sewickley, PA) 

Executive Director (Roebling Museum, Roebling, NJ) 

Museum/Historic Site Interpreter (Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, New Castle, DE) 

Northeast: 

James Nachtwey Archive Fellow (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth, Hanover, NH) 

Assistant/Associate Curator of Education (Williams College, Williamstown, MA) 

Museum Development Director (Somerville Museum, Somerville, MA) 

Gift Shop Supervisor (Old North Church & Historic Site, Boston, MA) 

Director of Recreational Enterprises (The Trustees of Reservations, Boston, MA) 

Director of Development (The Bostonian Society, Boston, MA) 

Executive Director (Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, Wethersfield, CT) 

Head of Design (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY) 

Registrar and Collections Manager (Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY) 

Assistant Curator of Exhibitions and Programs (Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, NY) 

West: 

Curator of Contemporary Art (Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO) 

Curator (US Olympic & Paralympic Museum, Colorado Springs, CO) 

 Education Specialist (Idaho State Historical Society, Boise, ID) 

Director of Development (Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA) 

Development Officer (The Getty, Los Angeles, CA) 

Volunteer Manager (Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA) 

Head of Conservation (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA) 

Senior Membership Coordinator (The Walt Disney Family Museum, San Francisco, CA) 

Thinking about design thinking

I’ve had some exposure to design thinking both professionally and as a student but it has always involved developing a usable product, either physical or digital. It wasn’t until I attended a session at the 2019 NEMA Annual Conference that I realized its potential for programming purposes. In hindsight, that’s an absolute “duh!”

In a session titled Using Design Thinking to Solve Problems Throughout the Museum, Sherlock Terry, Trish Palao, and Jennifer Rickards of the Montshire Museum of Science shared examples of using design thinking for a range of projects including exhibit design, operational challenges, and event planning. They introduced the room to the basics of design thinking, walked attendees through the steps in three Montshire use cases, and then we had the chance to practice it ourselves. (Hands-on learning – my favorite!)

The idea behind design thinking is that it is a human-centered approach. It’s flexible, iterative, and, as most design thinking proponents will tell you, usable by most anyone. It’s not exclusive to people who identify as designers professionally or as a hobby. I’d wager many professionals follow the process intuitively, but may not hit each stage.

The typical order for the five stages is as follows:

The stages can happen in order, out of order, and repeat as many times as the project requires. Understand your users from their perspective, clearly define what it is they need, brainstorm ways to help, and do a practice run (or three) to see if the project achieves what you hope it will.

This graphic from the Interaction Design Foundation illustrates the cyclical nature of the process:

Copyright holder: Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Design thinking’s focus on user needs and flexibility makes it the perfect multipurpose tool for just about any challenge we might encounter in museum work. As our work is entirely for the sake of our visitors, if our project doesn’t work for the people we serve, it doesn’t work at all – no matter how cool or innovative we think it might be.

If you’re new to design thinking, here are a few helpful tips I’ve learned courtesy of both Montshire staff and the Tufts digital media course:

  1. Enter the process with a well-defined goal to guide you. Our broad goal for the practice scenario in the NEMA2019 session was “How can our museum better engage teens?”
  2. There are multiple ways to think of the problem you are defining – without thinking of it as a problem. Consider it a “job to be done” or build a challenge statement. Montshire staff gave us this template for a challenge statement:
    • How might we [theme goal] in order to [broad goal] considering that [key consideration #1] and [key consideration #2].
    • Example: “How might we train staff in order to better engage teens considering that staff may have little knowledge and/or negative impressions of that age group?”
  3. When brainstorming, go big and broad. Montshire staff came up with 40 ideas during their ideate stages! The idea isn’t to have 40 winners, but to spit out anything that comes to mind. Ideas which might seem totally bizarre or unattainable may have just the right kernel of inspiration.
    • Post-its are your friends here: use one post-it per idea and then group them into themes.
  4. Prototypes don’t have to be physical. Develop the prototype that fits your goal – if you’re designing a program, this might be a lesson plan, a discussion prompt, a question on a sign, a game, a worksheet, whatever. Whatever format lets you test if users are getting what they need is the right format.

Here are some additional resources on design thinking and design thinking in museums:

What uses have you gotten out of design thinking? We’d love to hear your experience in the comments!

Weekly Jobs Round-Up

Here are the latest museum jobs on the boards. Happy hunting!

Northeast:

Executive Director / Ogunquit Museum of American Art (Ogunquit, ME)
Curator of Education School and Access Programs / Yale University (New Haven, CT)
Project Manager for the Five College Collections Management Commons / Five Colleges, Incorporated (Amherst, MA)
Data Specialist for Five Collece Collections Mangement Commons / Five Colleges, Incorporated (Amherst, MA)
PT Junior Communications Specialist / John F. Kennedy Library Foundation (Boston, MA)
Public Humanities Project Coordinator (One-Year) / Plimoth Plantation, Inc. (Plymouth, MA)
Full Time Teacher Naturalist / Mass Audubon Boston Nature Center (Mattapan, MA)
Arts/Crafts Instructors / Ipswich Museum (Ipswich, MA)
Development Coordinator / Boston Athenaeum (Boston, MA)
Professional Development Associate Director / Museum of Science (Boston, MA)
Education Associate, Overnight Program & Summer Course / Museum of Science (Boston, MA)
Account Manager, Social Sales / Museum of Science (Boston, MA)
Visitor Services and Safety Associate / King’s Chapel (Boston, MA)
Gallery Assistant / Copley Society of Art (Boston, MA)
Administrative & Data Management Assistant / Old North Church & Historic Site (Boston, MA)
Manager of Foundation and Government Support / Mass Audubon (Lincoln, MA)
Grants Administrator / Mass Audubon (Lincoln, MA)
Development Manager / Fuller Craft Museum (Brockton, MA)
STEM Curriculum Manager (Managing Editor) / Museum of Science (Boston, MA)
Exhibit Fabricator & Installer / Museum of Science (Boston, MA)
Managing Director / Chinese Historical Society of New England (Boston, MA)
Catholic Records Proofreading Intern / New England Historic Genealogical Society (Boston, MA)
Museum Development Director / Somerville Museum (Somerville, MA)
Social Media Strategist & Writer, Marketing & Communications / New England Aquarium (Boston, MA)
System and Applications Administrator, IT / New England Aquarium (Boston, MA)

Mid-Atlantic:

Conservator / Newark Museum (Newark, NJ)
Director of Institutional Giving / Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY)
Assistant Curator, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project / Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum & Foundation (New York, NY)
Major Gifts Officer, Major Gifts and Discovery / Smithsonian Institution, Office of Advancement (Washington, D.C.)
Director of Learning and Education Strategies / The Phillips Collection (Washington, D.C.)
Director of Community Engagement / The Phillips Collection (Washington, D.C.)
Chief Operating Officer / Liberty Science Center (Jersey City, NJ)
Public Programs Manager / Museum of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, PA)
Executive Director / Historical Society of Washington, D.C. (Washington, D.C.)
Online Marketing Specialist / Smithsonian Institution, Office of Advancement (Washington, D.C.)
Program Officer for Arts and Cultural Heritage / The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (New York, NY)
Curator of Collections & Exhibitions / Freedman Gallery – Albright College (Reading, PA)
Assistant/Associate Curator, Greek and Roman / Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY)
Belle de Costa Greene Curatorial Fellowships / The Morgan Library & Museum (New York, NY)
Institutional Advancement Coordinator / American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY)
Assistant Community Services Administrator / Rockwood Park and Museum (New Castle, DE)
Assistant Curator of Education for School Programs / Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library (Winterthur, DE)
Curatorial Assistant / Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, NY)
Manager of Gallery Learning / The Walters Museum (Baltimore, MD)

South:

PR & Marketing Account Manager / Florida International University (Miami, FL)
Preparator / Birmingham Museum of Art (Birmingham, AL)
Content Coordinator, part-time / Capitol Square Preservation Council, Virginia State Capitol (Richmond, VA)
Associate Registrar/Registrar / Amon Carter Museum of American Art (Fort Worth, TX)
ICAA Digital Experience Specialist / The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Houston, TX)
Director of Learning + Engagement / University of Oklahoma (Norman, OK)
Travel Exhibitions Manager / Art Bridges Foundation (Bentonville, AR)
Program Education Manager / Art Bridges Foundation (Bentonville, AR)
Associate Museum Educator, Youth & Family Programs / Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR)
Museum Manager / The Peel Compton Foundation (Bentonville, AR)
Deputy Director of Collections and Engagement / Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (Santa Fe, NM)

Midwest:

President / Cranbrook Educational Community (Bloomfield Hills, MI)
Associate Registrar, Permanent Collection / The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Executive Director/Chief Curator, The Renaissance Society / The University of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Digital Marketing Manager / The Morton Arboretum (Lisle, IL)
Executive Director / The History Center of Washington County (West Bend, WI)
Learning Specialist / Shedd Aquarium (Chicago, IL)

West:

Chief Financial Officer / Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (Los Angeles, CA)
Director of Public Programs / The Mob Museum (Las Vegas, NV)
Education Program Manager / Museum of the African Diaspora (San Francisco, CA)
Director, Museum Store / San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco, CA)
Fund Development and Community Engagement Manager / Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History (Santa Cruz, CA)
Collection Database Administrator / Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums (San Francisco, CA)
Chief Financial Officer / Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles, CA)
Head of Publications / Fowler Museum at UCLA (Los Angeles, CA)
Chief Financial Officer / Asian Art Museum (San Francisco, CA)
Director of Education / UC San Diego (La Jolla, CA)
Education Specialist / Idaho State Historical Society (Boise, ID)
Director of Education / Burke Museum (Seattle, WA)

Virtual Reality Experience

MASS MoCA has virtual reality (VR) experiences from Laurie Anderson, which you can view through 2020. She has developed projects there in the past and was an artist-in-residence. Anderson is a poet, filmmaker, vocalist, and multimedia artist, and the VR experiences of Chalkroom and Aloft showcased that. For both you would sit in a swiveling chair, place a VR headset with earphones over your head, and then were transported to another place and time that was like a curious dream of hers that you had entered. 

Chalkroom is a massive labyrinth of black walls marked with chalk and glowing portals that you can fly through with a push of your arms. Aloft begins with you sitting in an empty plane that gradually comes apart around you until you are floating in the air, using your virtual hands to grasp at objects swirling around you, to listen to Anderson’s hypnotic anecdotes. When I experienced the latter, I grasped onto the seat because my stomach dropped at the illusion of being up high. In the former, I was giddy flying through and exploring the chalkroom. It was a strange coincidence that I had been seriously considering the importance of VR technology in museums just a month prior, and then got to experience it firsthand. 

VR technology allows the audience to be emerged in the experience of a work of art, or it can act as a tour through a gallery. Curators, artists, and educators alike can utilize this technology for a new perspective on content. It connects to younger audiences that struggle to engage with static exhibits. VR can engage your hearing, movements, thinking, and visual perception. Though VR can draw people to museums, VR also means that people with impaired mobility or trouble accessing museums due to its location, cost, or social atmosphere can access great works of art and history from a remote location.

Money and timing are important factors. VR headsets can range from $20 to $1000 depending on whether you want headphones, hand controls, hand sensors, and a comfortable head clasp. By timing, I mean that if a museum could afford the technology, there would certainly be a limit on how much they could afford, so there may be two headsets that people must take turns to use, like at the Anderson installations that had six altogether and people had to schedule an appointment to have the experience. Despite this, VR technology can encourage new and returning visitors to offset the cost.

Hopefully, museums across the world will engage with this more immersive version of VR technology so that everyone can experience the richness of many cultures from close to home.  

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