Maintaining Personal Relationships as an Emerging Museum Professional

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Maintaining Personal Relationships as an Emerging Museum Professional
by Kayla Altland

9 states in 5 years. That is the total number of states my partner and I have lived over the past five years of our relationship. 3 of those states were together. After a full 3.5 years of a long distance relationship, sometimes not seeing each other for almost 5 months, we are finally able to live together. To say that pursuing a career in the museum field has been difficult on my relationships with him (also a museum professional), my family, and friends would be an understatement. However, there’s hope. Not in some magical formula, but in the human need for connection and that continual desire to be with others who care about you. That desire continues to draw people together across time and space.

I don’t have anything revolutionary to say about maintaining relationships when pursuing a career as a museum professional — in fact, hopefully some will be able to learn from my failures — but I hope to provide affirmation that it is OK. Wherever you are right now in your relationships with family, friends, a romantic partner, you get to decide if you’re happy with those relationships and how to continue to nurture and nourish them. Even when you have to work on the weekends, balance multiple jobs with continually changing hours, or move every 6 months to pursue seasonal positions, you get to decide how important those relationships are to you and take steps to prioritize people over your career.

I’ve met a host of wonderful people through my career (including my partner of 5 years) and have friends all over the country, but I have a tendency to put a lot of energy into my work, which doesn’t leave much for others. Some things that I have learned in the last 8 years of pursuing my museum career and continually have to work on are listed below.

Care for yourself first.

There have been times when I worked 60-70 hours a week, had to drive an hour to get to work, continually needed to switch my attention either between multiple jobs or projects so that at the end of the day, even if I just sat at a computer for most of it, I was exhausted. When I get home, I would barely have enough energy to cook dinner, let alone meet friends, call my parents, or take time to actually respond to text messages. I’ve learned that caring for myself and my own needs first helps me to have more energy and joy to bring when I give my life to others. Taking baths, going hiking, and reading help me to re-energize and decompress from work-related stress. Make a list of things that bring you joy and pursue those; invite your people to join you.

Be present.

We all know that checking email during off hours and responding to social media notifications for your work page are those minuscule time stealers that turn into major attention drains. My partner and I both have to work when we’re not at work sometimes, but we make it a habit each week to hike together. It’s an unspoken rule that we aren’t allowed to use our phones unless taking a picture. What are the little time stealers for you? Who is losing out on your presence and attention?

Be thankful.

I am eternally grateful to my family that despite missing Thanksgiving, Christmas, vacations, and almost everyone’s birthdays, they understand why I am so passionate about my work and the sacrifices I have had to make. Even when I don’t think it is necessary, I thank them. They don’t have to do anything extraordinary, but continue to love me and support me in my career. When was the last time you thanked someone just for continuing to be involved in your life?

Forgive yourself.

I have missed countless weddings, forgotten to return texts and phone calls, and spent many late nights working while my partner graciously waited to eat dinner until 9p or later. The best way to continue moving forward and having a positive outlook is to forgive yourself. Make a list of things you may feel guilty about regarding the important people in your life and put a big X through it, shred it, and start anew.

Learn to say no.

I will never forget the time I travelled 2 hours to NYC to visit my roommate from college. While I was there, one of my best friends from high school happened to be stopping over while visiting the U.S. from Spain. We spent about 2 hours together until I had to head back north to attend an event that was being held at my museum that night. I was asked to help and usually am more than happy to be there and serve the public. On this rare occasion, I hoped I had the courage to say no, that I was busy. The event ended up having low attendance and I didn’t really need to be there after all. It’s been 3 years since this happened and I haven’t been able to see my friends since then as she is still living in Spain. This is one of the things I have had to forgive myself for.

You do you.

I still have 2 jobs and commute at least 2 hours in a car each day, but have realized that making and sending cards is the nest way for me to stay in touch with people. Find what works for you and carve out time each week to reach out. I’ve made a goal of reaching out to one person each week in my life that I care about. With family and friends all over the globe, this is what is manageable and works for me. Figure out your rhythm, too.

Work life balance is important extremely important, yet not a new concept. However, it’s important to recognize that this goes both ways. You need to know and set your boundaries and our employers need to support and respect them. Offering fair wages, paid time off, and reasonable expectations for being available outside of regular work hours will help all of us to be present for those in our lives that matter the most. Lastly, the one bit of advice I have to say that might be deemed revolutionary is–your friends, romantic partners, and family deserve you (your energy, your presence, and your joy) more than your museum.


IMG_0411Kayla Altland has been working in museums and heritage organizations for over 5 years. Since October 2017, she has worked for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Historical Society in New York as Deputy Director for Administration. In this position, she has played a role in leading strategic planning, grant writing, as well as coordinatingmembership and communications, while working collaboratively with staff and Board members.Previously, she worked with the National Park Service for over 3 years in Interpretation and Education from Colorado to Kansas to New York. Youth development, community engagement, and partnerships have been key themes of her work in the cultural heritage field, maintaining the belief that museums are integral public spaces in a thriving community. Contact her at kma37@cornell.edu
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