All posts by rkimpton

The Integration of Digital Technology and American Art Museum Practices

Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions, reflections, and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.


The Integration of Digital Technology and American Art Museum Practices
By Emily Crum

The digital age of the 21st century promises an innovative, forward-thinking technological era. Smart phones, the takeover of social media, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are all by-products of the tech boom that has developed over the past 15 years. This time of change raises several challenges across industries, including museums. In 2016, a photo went viral of a group of children in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. This photograph by Gijsbert van der Wal features a group of a dozen young people that are glued to their cellphone screens.(1)

Rembrandt The Night Watch: The real story behind the ‘kids on phones’ photo

The image encapsulates how easy it is to miss out on the experience and beauty right in front of you due to technology. Each child appears to be immensely bored with the experience. It sparked an international debate as to if the students were simply a metaphor for our age, or using their phones to complete research for their class assignment. The main synopsis was that today’s youth are more interested in their screens and applications than the artwork on display. Others argued that the students were using the museum’s freely downloadable multimedia tour. A well-designed application should not solely exist through an experience on a technological platform, but also encourage direct interaction with the artwork on display. Digital technology within art museums are tools for access and engagement and can enhance the experience in the presence of art. 

American art museums are running into two problems. First, museum educators cannot adequately meet the needs of every individual and second, educators cannot assume that every visitor has the same level of knowledge or entry narrative. According to Cuseum for Art Museums, the challenge is “with such rich educational experiences to be had in the museum, visitors find themselves wishing for more information, but no easy way to get it. Too much signage is distracting from the art, a lack of guidance leaves people seeking direction, and visitors have an increasing set of unique needs”.(2)

So, what does this mean for the future? Can art museums become immersive and interactive experiences that foster learning and curiosity without completely forgoing the traditional, ritualistic aspect of museum experience? Why are people more excited to visit a history or science museum? Best practices for art museum educators today show that museums should be attempting to reach an audience that has historically been unrepresented or disinterested in a museum. But, how can a museum expect someone to change their outlook if  1) museum practices do not change or grow, or 2) do not develop and offer new tools with the outcome to promote access, interpretation, and experience? 

One example of a museum adapting technology is the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) in Cleveland, Ohio. The CMA developed and integrated one of the most technologically advanced interactive art experiences in the world: ArtLens Gallery. As part of a $350 million expansion project, “ArtLens Gallery is a multi-faceted, innovative experience that allows you, your family, and friends to look closer, dive deeper, and have fun discovering the museum’s collection using award-winning digital technology.”(3) I received a grant from the School of the Art Institute to travel to see this technology in person in January 2019. Comprised of four different sections – Exhibition, Studio, App, and Wall – the ArtLens Gallery’s multi-faceted technological achievement is a prime example of the relationship technology can have in conjunction with museum participation, interpretation, and learning. According to Jake Barton, the president of Local Projects, the goal of the CMA ArtLens Gallery was to “create something where if you’d never been in a museum before you’d be intrigued, and if you’ve been to many museums, you’d still feel comfortable”.(4)

Image result for art lens cleveland
From http://www.clevelandart.org/artlens-gallery/

The CMA is essentially granting their visitors the capability to engage with the collection and create stories that are relevant to themselves on a platform that is comfortable through current and advanced technology. The CMA’s ArtLens Gallery is a prime example of how the relationship between new technologies in museums cultivate new ways of visitor engagement, interpretation, and learning. The gallery promotes engagement through a series of games, challenges, and creativity throughout the exhibition, studio, app, and wall programs that challenge the visitors in a variety of ways and appeal to general curiosity. All these facets come together to create a full, museum-wide experience that starts in the ArtLens Gallery and percolates throughout the collection, creating an overall sense of curiosity, wonder, and desire for learning. ArtLens Gallery technology allows the visitor the opportunity to create a personalized visit and experience that can be different each and every time.

Image result for art lens cleveland
From https://mw18.mwconf.org/glami/artlens-gallery/

The ArtLens Gallery tackles many of the most prominent arguments related to modernization and the changing of the museum experience. Today, “people come to museums for storytelling and engagement, and [expect] the technology needs to facilitate that”.(5) Technology allows the freedom and independence for visitors to customize their experiences both inside and out of the physical space, but aids in a deeper connection and conversation to happen within the gallery itself. Another goal of the ArtLens Gallery and its programming is to reduce the discomfort that non-traditional or unfamiliar visitors experience upon entering these “ivory tower” types of institutions. This technology is a program that aids in developing toolsets for its users, enabling them to look closer at each aspect of an art object, cultivate a deeper understanding, and develop a new, personal relationship to works in the museum’s collection. After this first interaction with ArtLens, a museum visitor, upon returning to the CMA, will be faced with new challenges, new works, and new adventures that elevates their experience with the CMA’s collection. While not the final solution on the issue, the CMA has developed one of the most cutting-edge technologies with the intent to foster experience and engagement, essentially setting the stage for best practices in the field. 

Digital technologies within museums provide a platform that resonates with American society. These technologies can help visitors learn how to look at art, and what to look for, in order to recognize commonalities and patterns over multiple mediums. For individuals that find it challenging or feel uncertain to visit these institutions, digitized tools and collections can be a source of comfort for navigating such cultural treasure-troves. This is also true for the youth of America today that are the future of these institutions. If the youth of today are given meaningful and exciting experiences, then they are more likely to recognize the importance of these institutions, ensuring their longevity and commitment to serving their wide-ranging publics. So, the final question is not how, but when will all museums integrate technology?


7AE1ED64-D224-4F19-A983-2DB742500C3DEmily Crum is a passionate museum educator based in Chicago, IL who strives to ensure museum spaces are innovative, accessible, and serving the public at large. Currently, Emily is the Education Coordinator at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum and a Master’s candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Now in her third and final year, Emily is completing a dual degree program in Arts Administration and Policy and Modern and Contemporary Art History, and she will complete her studies this upcoming May. She holds a BA with Honors in The History of Art and Architecture with an emphasis in Museum Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Emily has a wide array of experiences from holding positions in several museums, the government, and more. She is most passionate about exposing all audiences to art and culture through facilitating experiences with lasting impact. Connect with Emily via LinkedIn.


  1.  Molloy, Mark. “The Real Story behind a Viral Rembrandt ‘Kids on Phones’ Photo,” January 16, 2016, sec. News. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/12103150/Rembrandt-The-Night-Watch-The-real-story-behind-the-kids-on-phones-photo.html
  2. “Art Museums.” Cuseum, https://cuseum.com/cuseum-for-art-museums.
  3. “ArtLens Gallery.” ArtLens Gallery | Cleveland Museum of Art, 31 Oct. 2018.
  4. Fred A. Bernstein, “Technology That Serves to Enhance, Not Distract”, The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2018
  5. “Art Museums.” Cuseum, https://cuseum.com/cuseum-for-art-museums.

How to Find Funding and Get Your Foot in the Door

Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions, reflections, and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.


How to Find Funding and Get Your Foot in the Door
By Tiffany Miller

Anyone working or studying in cultural institutions knows how difficult it is to find funding and funded opportunities. Even funded experiences, such as internships, fellowships, or educational grants, typically provide bare minimum wages. As an EMP who just finished a fellowship at the university that I graduated from, I barely made enough money to pay my rent, bills, and get groceries, so I had to go out and get second job. College students and recent graduates should not have to find an internship or job that pays next to nothing, and unpaid internship are not an option for everyone.

Hopefully things will change, but in the meantime, I hope some EMPs find new ways of funding their work opportunities and other cost-effective ways of getting out there in the field!

1. Research

There are a lot of professional affiliations and networks that share openings for paid internships and jobs, such as AAMG and AAM. It is is free for students to become a member of AAMG, so once you join you can search for grants, internship opportunities, and scholarships. This is a great place to start to find a position that meets your professional and educational goals at a wide variety of institutions, and to get a sense of what jobs are out there.

2. Ask and Think Outside the Box!

At my undergraduate university, scholarships and grants were not well advertised at all. I did not even know about these types of funding until my sophomore year when I started as a work-study student at a museum. I asked my supervisor about ways I could fund my unpaid summer internship, and they showed me the seemingly hidden section on the university’s website. From there, I began applying to any department that offered grants that were related to my internship. In my case, this included art history, Italian, and off-campus studies (which may help you secure college credit for unpaid internships).

3. Join a Club

A lot of clubs at schools and within your local communities have funding available, either from fundraisers or endowments. Ask if you are eligible to utilize it. Joining a club is also a great way to meet people for future connections (which I get into further down).

4. Experience

Funding may be more readily given to those with good amounts of experience, as this demonstrates that you have a solid idea of what you want to do. For example, for graduate school I secured full funding for my program solely based on my experience, not merit: I completed internships every summer, additional volunteering, and worked in a variety of museums in different departments and locations. This allowed me to develop a diverse, well-rounded background to become a more desirable candidate for funding sources.

5. Start a Blog

If you are interested in a certain topic, starting your own blog is a great way to get your writing out there and shared with friends and colleagues. This is also a great addition for school, internship, and job applications. From an employer perspective, it is nice to see people take initiative and step into the field through other channels, especially if you are gaining consistent or new feedback on your published work.

Rachel suggests: Check out Medium – this is a user friendly platform that you can use to create a basic blog to get your writing published without needing to build a website from scratch.

6. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone!

Try working within a different department at your current museum. Or, if you only worked, interned in, or thought about working at an art museum, try volunteering or working/interning at a natural history museum. You may be surprised once you get out of your comfort zone! It is helpful to understand how other departments or institutions work to be a better employee in the future. In my opinion, finding out what you like to do is just as important as knowing what you do not like. 

7. Network Like It’s Your Job

Whether it is going to the opening of a new exhibit, volunteering, interning, reading blogs, or interacting on social media, there are many ways to connect with new people who share your interests. That one person you met at a random gallery opening or on a trip to a museum could be the person giving you a job, or recommending you for an opening somewhere else. Follow up with them afterwards to reaffirm that connection so that they remember you. It is hard enough to get a job, especially in museums, so reaching out with a quick email after meeting people in the field can go far.

8. BE NICE!

This seems like a no-brainer, but you never know who people know. Always be the best version of yourself: if you show rudeness, complain frequently, arrive late, or miss an appointment, your peer or supervisor might share this with know someone at a different institution that you may eventually want to work at. Poor behavior could result in your supervisor not writing you a good letter of recommendation, or one at all. One of my previous supervisors told me that she would never write recommendations for a fellow, work-study student, or even a volunteer that performed poorly.

As with anything, if you work hard, show effort, show desire to work in the field, and are polite, all of that goes far while trying to establish your career in museums.


NEMPN Photo_Tiffany MillerTiffany Miller is a graduate student at Syracuse University studying Museum Studies and Art History. She obtained her BA in Art History in 2018 while also studying Museum Studies and Italian at DePauw University. Previously, she worked in museums and galleries in New York, Washington DC, Minnesota, and Indiana, as well as in Italy, and recently finished her year-long Collections and Outreach fellowship at the Richard E. Peeler Art Center at DePauw University. She works in collections management and registration, and focuses her research on provenance history, as well as Italian Renaissance and Baroque art and their perceptions, preservation, and placement in art collections. You can reach her at tiffany.miller389@gmail.com.

Networking as Community Building

Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.


Networking as Community Building
By Isabel Singer

As soon as I graduated from my master’s program, I started avidly networking in order to find a job in the museum sector. However, as the months wore on and a year passed by, I felt extremely frustrated that my efforts had not resulted in employment. I decided to take a break, regroup, and reflect on my process.

After careful consideration, I realized that I needed to change my perspective on networking. Good networking is more than developing instrumental ties; it is an opportunity to build a community. While I had not yet landed a job, my efforts had yielded valuable knowledge and relationships that I cherished.

Below is an abridged account of some of the lessons I have gleaned and a few of the amazing people I have met while building myself a community of museum professionals.

If you’re genuinely interested in someone’s work, it never hurts to ask them to get coffee.

Some of my most important professional relationships began because I boldly (and politely) asked a person who I admired to grab a coffee with me, even if we had no direct connection. I’ve had the privilege to take a stroll with an executive director who made an intriguing comment on an acquaintance’s LinkedIn post. I’ve talked on the phone with the head of evaluation of a major US art museum. I even interviewed an exhibit developer who worked on the amazing new SUE exhibit at the Field Museum for my blog. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. The worst thing has happened to me when I reached out is that someone did not respond or told me they were too busy to meet.

However, don’t reach out to people because you think they can help get you a job. When I first started networking, I reached out to a few people solely because they worked at an organization that had a job opening or they were connected to people who could hire me. My desire for a favor colored my conversations with them and none of us benefited from the interactions.

Be open to changing your career goals

Talking to Kiah Shapiro, the Manager of Strategy at Luci Creative, showed me that I needed to think more broadly about my career. When we met for coffee in January 2018, Kiah told me that she believed her team at Luci is so strong because they have multidisciplinary experiences from outside the museum world. Her colleagues use their diverse research, project management, design, and team building skills to create experiences for museums, non-profit institutions, and even corporations. I was intrigued by the functions of her job and the people with whom she worked. Museums were not the end goal of her job, but one path towards achieving her goals.

After my conversation with Kiah, I expanded my primary career goal from “finding work in or with museums” to “finding opportunities that combine my desire to collaborate with people, my devotion to improving the world, and my love of research.” I want to spend my time building bridges between people and knowledge and I believe museums are one path towards that goal.

If you’re willing to put in time and effort, you can access incredible growth opportunities.

While looking for ways to hone my visitor studies skills, I met Fran Mast, a Research and Evaluation (R&E) Associate at the Shedd Aquarium, at a Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group (CMEG)  meet-up. She needed assistance collecting and analyzing data, and I enthusiastically volunteered to spend two Sundays each month at the Shedd. I embarked on the best volunteer experience that I have ever had.

As an R&E volunteer at the Shedd, not only did I have the opportunity to contribute to a great organization, but my social science research skills improved immensely. I underwent extensive volunteer training from which I gained a greater appreciation of the IRB process. While collecting surveys from hundreds of visitors, I observed the ways different survey designs and my own preconceptions can impact sampling. I interviewed dozens of visitors and improved my ability to ask good probes. Overall, I became more observant and a better listener.

Invest in personal friendships.

After a CMEG meeting, I stood outside waiting for an Uber with a fellow job seeker, Filippa Christofalou. I had just received several rejections from jobs and was feeling pretty hopeless. “I’ll never get a job in the museum sector,” I lamented to Filippa. “Why do I keep trying?”

Filippa turned to me and smiled sympathetically, “I get that you’re frustrated. I am too. But, you have a unique perspective to offer. Someone will see that,” she said. “Don’t give up. I’m certainly not giving up on either of us.”

Even when the road is rough, It is comforting to know I am not alone in my frustrations and I have peers who believed in me.

Seek out mentors and embrace their feedback.

Colleen Dilenschneider consistently reminds me why I love the cultural sector. I came across her blog, Know Your Own Bone, when researching visitor studies and exhibit development strategies. I read the blog voraciously and found it incredibly insightful. Curious to learn more about the person behind the content, I looked Colleen up on LinkedIn. When I realized she also lived in Chicago, I got up the courage to shoot her an email and asked her to grab coffee with me. A day later her project coordinator emailed me and we set up a meeting.

When we finally met, Colleen and I talked for hours. We dorked out about data trends in the cultural sector and discussed the manifold reasons cultural organizations need to become more inclusive. Her positivity was infectious and she asked me thoughtful, penetrating questions about my dreams and goals. Her career route was circuitous and fascinating. I left our first meeting feeling more optimistic about the museum sector and my role in it than I had in months.

After meeting Colleen, I asked her to formally mentor me. Now, we meet quarterly to catch up, discuss my career trajectory, brainstorm solutions to challenges I’m facing, and just chat about the cultural sector. I appreciate that she gives gives me honest critical feedback and pushes me to be my best. I always leave my meetings with Colleen feeling refreshed and ready to face new challenges.

Keep networking even after you have the job.

In December 2018, Luci Creative called to offer me a job. It was a dream come true, a moment I had been hoping for since I sat down for coffee with Kiah Shapiro nearly a year prior. While networking is certainly not the reason I got the job, I believe that the fact that I already knew Kiah and a few of the other Luci team members helped my prospects.

However, just because I have a job in the museum sector doesn’t mean I have stopped networking. The knowledge that I acquired and the relationships I developed in the past year and a half have been too significant for me to pass up the opportunity to meet new people. So, please reach out if you’d like to chat! I’m always looking to befriend more of my peers.


IBS Headshot
Isabel Singer is an Exhibit Developer at Luci Crea
tive, where she supports the strategy team in developing content for exhibits and spaces in museums, cultural institutions, and corporations. An active museum blogger, Isabel provides insight into industry trends and interviews experts in their fields. Isabel developed her strong research, analysis, and writing skills while earning her B.A at Yale and MPhil at the University of Cambridge, both in history. She honed these skills by performing audience research at the Shedd Aquarium, creating professional development programming for public historians at Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center, and helping the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum improve its interpretation of women. Isabel is also a classically trained vocalist and spends her free time performing with a small world folk music group. Email her at isabelsinger@aya.yale.edu. 

Seven Ways Volunteering Can Help Emerging Museum Professionals

Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.


Seven Ways Volunteering Can Help Emerging Museum Professionals
By Amanda Hoffman

Our time is the most valuable commodity we can give the world. But after a full day of meetings or a long week at work, offering more of our time to volunteering is the last thing we want to think about. There are many personal and professional benefits to volunteer work that you probably never thought about, like experiences you can’t always gain during your daily work routine. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the daily hustle of our careers, but I encourage EMPs to take a step back to think about volunteering in your community.

1. Enhance your understanding of the volunteers you work with.

Volunteers are an integral and vital part of many museums and non-profits. For those of us who work with volunteers on a regular basis, we need to understand and acknowledge them – they deserve to feel appreciated and acknowledged! The best way to understand volunteers is to be one. If you begin to donate your time to different organizations, you understand what kind of an impact you have as a volunteer. Furthermore, you’ll notice the efforts those organizations make to ensure volunteers feel valued – like organizational perks, special events, or small annual gifts. That knowledge can help you make the volunteers you work with daily feel satisfied, and when that happens, everybody benefits.

2. Gain a better understanding of your community.

Ideally, everything museums do should benefit their members while reflecting what the community wants and needs in their exhibits, programs and opportunities. By being an active participant in your own neighborhood, you can improve your knowledge of what people actually want from their local institutions. When you donate your time, you’ll work with people you may not have met otherwise, building a diverse network of peers and friends.

3. Develop new professional skills.

You are probably developing skills everyday, but there are certain strengths you can develop outside your office that you might not have the opportunity to advance at your job. If you work behind the scenes in an office setting, consider volunteering in a public-facing capacity to improve your communication skills. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to give graphic design or social media administration a try, but those skills just don’t fit into your workload. Volunteering can allow you to try something new without impacting your day-to-day responsibilities at work. 

4. Determine precise career goals.

Volunteering can you help look beyond your current professional scope or experiences to discover that your true passion could be somewhere completely different. You’ll also get a chance to meet new people with similar interests. Some of these folks will be established professionals; by learning about their career paths, that could help determine your own. And, even if these new acquaintances don’t work in a museum, they’ll be able to give you invaluable advice. Take it!

5. Explore your work place needs.

Since volunteering doesn’t come with the same pressure as a daily 9-5 job, you can utilize this time to figure out what you are want in an ideal work environment. Workplaces are not one-size-fits-all, and it takes serious thought to decide which aspects of a work environment are the most important to you. Maybe you prefer a more informal and independent setting, or perhaps you work better under management that outlines daily tasks and goals. Maybe you want to work at a smaller or larger organization, so you choose to volunteer somewhere that gives you that new scope. Volunteering can help you figure out which style is best for you.

6. Build confidence.

Walking into a job interview or an important meeting with extra knowledge, diversified experiences, and an expansive resume can put you ahead of other candidates. Volunteering can provide you with a sense of purpose that can make you ooze confidence… the best boost for your career and personal life.

7. Giving back feels good!

Museums wouldn’t be where they are today without an active community of supporters. A big part of what attracts people to work in the museum industry is being able to perform meaningful and fulfilling work for the community. And this desire to do something good doesn’t end at 5 o’clock on Friday. Knowing that you’re helping to make your community a more connected place will give you a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Apart from all the benefits volunteering can offer, it is also a lot of fun! I know it can be difficult to add another activity to your already busy schedule, but it will be worth it. Even donating one afternoon a month to a non-profit or charity can change your perspective and attitude in a positive way.


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Amanda Hoffman currently serves as the Youth Programs Coordinator at the Tampa Bay History Center. She holds a Master’s in Museum Studies from the University of Aberdeen and a B.A. in History from the University of Central Florida. For more information, contact Amanda at ahoffman@tampabayhistorycenter.org

Getting Set Up for Your Museum Job Search

Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.


Getting Set Up for Your Museum Job Search
by Caroline Klibanoff

Gearing up for a job search in the museum field can be a daunting process. Last summer, as I finished my M.A. in Public History, I spent several months “on the market”: networking, doing informational interviews, submitting applications and interviewing. To my surprise, I found myself sort of…enjoying the process! I had been through a couple career changes, and I knew I would be graduating, so I had some time to get prepared. These are some do-ahead steps I picked up that made the entire process easier, and I’m eager to share them with the emerging museum professional community in the hopes of lightening the job search burden — both to help you land a great role, and more importantly, take care of yourself.

Step 1: Write a pitch for yourself.

I borrowed the following tactic from Karamo Brown from Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” and it serves several purposes.

Write down (really — write it down!) two sentences, and stick this somewhere that you can see it every day. The first sentence should say what it is you want to do. This can be somewhat detailed depending on your career goals, any constraints you have, and where you see yourself working every day. The second sentence will explain why you deserve it – and you should feel free to brag!

During my job search, I wrote, “I want to be employed full-time by a large institution to create projects and systems that better facilitate public engagement with the humanities. I deserve it because I have developed a thorough understanding of digital tools, communications strategies and how to coordinate teams, and have a unique talent for helping people connect with history.”

While it may seem silly, this statement serves two purposes. First, you can look at it every day and remind yourself why you ARE good enough for the roles you’re pursuing, even when the search gets discouraging.

Second, it helps distill what you are actually after so that you can share that news with people whenever they ask. This gives you a quick way to identify what is most important to you (i.e., a small museum; something where I can handle objects; a place that embraces the digital) without resorting to a laundry list of roles that might appeal (“I’m hoping to work in a history museum…or a historic site…or an archive…or for the government…”).

Which brings me to step #2.

STEP 2: Make some lists.

Before or during your job search, people are going to ask you what you want to do, which presents a great opportunity to help them help you by making connections, passing on openings or suggesting places to work that you might not have heard of. You can speed up the process by making a few lists:

  • List 5 people who have jobs you that you think are cool. Reach out to these people, cold, and ask them if they have 15 minutes to speak with you via phone about their career path and what they know about the landscape for doing cool work like theirs around your city, or your subfield, or their museum. At the end of the call, ask them who else they’d recommend that you speak to.
  • List 10 institutions you’d want to work at. Make a list of places where you’d really like to focus on landing a job. Note whether you know anyone working there. If you do, make sure you talk to them early in the process to get a sense of the organization’s priorities and whether they’re hiring any positions soon. If you don’t know anyone there, start tackling that — search on LinkedIn, or email someone to see if they’ll talk to you.
  • List the people close to you who support you. This one is crucial. Being on the job market can be disheartening, and even when things are going well it can still be confusing and stressful. Speaking from personal experience (ahem), it’s good to make a decent-sized list if you can, so you can call in the second string and give your significant other an occasional break.

STEP 3: Get your system organized.

  • Schedule. I put a note on my calendar to repeat every Thursday at 12:00pm that said “Check job sites.” This is a low-pressure enough task that you can block off some time dedicated to it while on your lunch break and then have the satisfaction of crossing this one off your list.
  • Subscribe. Sign up for job digest emails so that you can read through the latest postings on your phone during your commute. Set up Google alerts or other keyword searches on job sites for “museum” and any job titles you think you’d like to have. Download the Indeed app and upload your resume so that you can get customized recommended jobs delivered to you via email (and you can scroll the app while you’re waiting in line for a coffee). Put all of the websites that list postings — everything from the AAM job board to the Careers page of the individual museum you want to work at — in a Bookmarks folder and go down the list once a week to check for new openings. Even if you’re not ready to apply, getting on the right listservs now will help you stay “in the know” about who’s hiring for what roles.
  • Standardize. It’s hard to find time to write cover letters, let alone fill out the long web forms where you have to repeat all of the information in your resume (thank you, USAJOBS!) One game-changer for me was to create a Master Resume and Master Cover Letter where I dumped in everything I’ve ever done, worded in different ways depending on what skills I wanted to highlight. For each job you’re ready to apply to, just copy and paste lines from your Master File — and you’re done.
  • Sticky. I had to type my references’ and past supervisors names, titles, addresses and phone numbers so many times that eventually I caught on and put a sticky note on my desktop with this information so I didn’t have to look it up every time. You can also create a “References” page in your Master File and select the most appropriate references for each job application. Just make sure you keep their contact information up to date, and give them a little courtesy heads up when you apply and include them as a reference.
  • Steal time. If you, like, me, are finishing graduate school while working several jobs, I know you have very little free time. But this might mean that you have some flexible hours in which you can do interviews and phone calls with people who work standard hours in offices. It becomes much harder to do any kind of phone or video calls once you’re at a full-time job, so take advantage of your student schedule and the quiet meeting rooms in your university’s library. Many have rooms specifically for phone/video interviews.

STEP 4: JUST DO IT!

I know what it’s like to have great job listings sitting open in a tab on your laptop for literal weeks. And juuust when you finally carve out time to polish your application, you discover that the posting has been removed.

My method now is to get the application out the door, as best I can, without making it my life’s work. The goal is to get a first interview, not to land the entire position in one cover letter. Imagine if you spent several days perfecting your application, only to learn there was an internal candidate all along! And don’t get in your own way by doubting whether you really want the job or whether you have every last qualification. It’s their job to sift through candidates and decide who’s qualified and pick a candidate who’s a fit — don’t do their job for them by taking yourself out of the running.

The museum field is competitive and looking for the right position can be overwhelming, even when things are going well. Having been through this myself, I am eager to share anything I’ve learned that might make it easier going forward for others. It is my hope that with enough advance planning and the use of “infrastructure” like lists, templates and schedules — can you tell I ultimately accepted a role as a project manager?—  that the job search becomes a smooth and even enjoyable process.


 

klibanoff-150x150Caroline Klibanoff is a public historian working at the intersection of digital outreach and storytelling. As exhibitions project manager at the MIT Museum, she coordinates exhibit development, video and interactive production, and logistics for a brand-new museum opening in 2021.

She graduated with her M.A. in Public History and Certificate in Digital Humanities from Northeastern University, and with a B.A. in American Studies and Film & Media Studies from Georgetown University. Klibanoff has conducted research for Northern Light Productions; planned a symposium on immigration for the Cambridge Historical Society; completed the National Register of Historic Places documentation for the Longfellow House; and coordinated the activities of the Northeastern University’s Digital Scholarship Group. Prior to joining the public history field, Klibanoff worked in communications and video production for several years at the Pew Research Center and the FrameWorks Institute. She also sits on the leadership team of the Bridge Alliance, a civic engagement organization. Contact Caroline on Twitter @cklibanoff.

How to Prove Your Qualifications in One Interview

Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.


How to Prove Your Qualifications in One Interview
By Tory Schendel Cox

Fortunately, I have been steadily employed as a museum professional for 8 years. Nonetheless, for as many contract, temporary, or permanent jobs I received, the amount of rejection letters almost triple my obtained positions. However, I gained a new perspective from each experience and managed to learn something regardless of the end result. Nevertheless, due to my last interview, I wanted to share a strategy that has consistently resulted in my hiring.

As 2019 was approaching, my gallery position was ending and the grueling process of job hunting was upon me. Spending days and nights applying for anything museum related, I came across a job that caught my eye—Virginia G. Schroeder Curator of Art in big beautiful black letters scrolled up my screen. Perplexed at how this fabulous job could end up on a search engine, I clicked on the details to learn more. After reviewing the job description, I was hooked. This is my dream job. I needed to apply. Once the required materials were submitted, my heart stopped. Although I reviewed my application more times than I would like to admit, I was convinced I made a mistake and would never receive an interview. However, I was wrong. I submitted the application on Sunday at 4:15 AM and an email graced my inbox at 12:20 PM inquiring about an interview. I almost fell out of my chair.

With six days to prepare, I began to strategize. While learning about the institution’s rich history, diverse collection, and interesting staff, I came to the conclusion I needed to tangibly prove my research, creative, and personable skills. Therefore, what better way to show creativity and research than a self-created binder with sections covering: the job description and expectations, future exhibition and community plans, and the AAM accreditation process (as it was referenced several times in the job description). I filled each section with relevant pages of information, highlighted lines and sections that I wanted more elaboration, and jotted questions in the margins. Additionally, I had a copy of my most recent, grant funded, original research paper on hagiography in a booklet ready to leave with the Executive Director. Although I felt confident in my strategy, I was nervous as to what her reaction would be.

On the day of the interview, I drove in early to tour the museum and gain a better perspective of the objects in the collection. Because of my staff research, I noticed the Executive Director standing behind the counter. I could not help but smile and she seemed to know why I was doing so. Once we made our way to her office, it was time to implement my strategy. As I sat down at the table, I took out my notebook, the binder, highlighter, and pen. As I put on my glasses, I started with the job description and the conversation took off. Three-and-a-half hours later, we covered everything in my binder, from front to back, and every highlighted and written question. Neither one of us realized how much time elapsed until an announcement came over the intercom. As we wrapped up our final thoughts, I left her with my neatly packaged research paper and she walked me to the front desk. Two weeks later, I received a phone call. She offered me the position and I still cannot fully express my gratitude.

As noted in both publications, Museum Careers: A Practical Guide for Students and Novices and A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career, while preparing for an interview, it is important to be cognizant that every candidate applying is probably as skilled, educated, and possibly experienced as you. Therefore, it is your duty to set yourself apart from the other applicants. Since we are in a profession where you are expected to be creative, try your skills out in the interview. Think of ways that you can tangibly produce or do something that embodies the major points in the job description. Do not be afraid to try something a little different. If your methods are questioned, defend them. Let the hiring manager know the job description carefully created by the institution warranted this type of action.

I learned of other museum professionals who implemented similar strategies during their interviews: an Education Curator brought a self-made activity applicable to the museum, a Collections Manager brought in a toy to demonstrate proper handling and cataloging, and a Membership Officer took the hiring manager into the lobby area and began engaging with the public. These creative yet small things will leave a lasting impression on the hiring manager. With the competitiveness of our field, we only have one opportunity to prove our skills and vitality to the organization. Therefore, if you have the credentials, take the risk and do something innovative—part of your salary will depend on your creativity. I hope you find some inspiration from this blog and good luck on the transition from emerging to professional museum worker.


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Tory Schendel Cox is the Virginia G. Schroeder Curator of Art at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History, and Science. Since 2010, Tory has served the arts community cross-county and abroad. Notably, she has performed curatorial work for Newfields, IN, formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IN), Indiana State Museum (IN), Death Valley National Park (CA), and the National Museum of Archaeology (Greece). In addition to her work, she has won a variety of academic awards and scholarships for her research in iconography and hagiography. She earned a B.A. from Indiana University of Indianapolis and is finishing her M.A. in Museum Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is community oriented and continually seeks opportunities for partnerships and collaboration projects. You can connect with Tory on Facebook or email her at tlschend22@gmail.com.

 

Maintaining Personal Relationships as an Emerging Museum Professional

Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.


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

Adaptive Career Strategies for EMPs

Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.


Adaptive Career Strategies for EMPs
by Aja Bain

Our field can be a tough one to flourish in: jobs can be scarce and demanding, and as costs of living rise and work/life balance suffers in many regions of the country, EMPs may find themselves scrambling to find full-time employment that fulfills both their career goals and their material needs. In this environment, it often pays to be flexible and creative with your career planning. Sometimes, by adjusting our expectations for where our careers will take us, we find where we are really meant to be.  Here are some thoughts about reconciling passions with goals, approaching the job search with an open and resourceful attitude, and reevaluating traditional museum roles and expectations that I hope can help other EMPs find obtainable and sustainable success in our field.

1. Be realistic and prepared for truths that may initially disappoint you.

There is a saying (riffing on an apocryphal Confucius quote) that goes: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life, because that field isn’t hiring.” We as public historians know this feeling well. Encouraged by well-meaning advisers and jobs that can require almost unbelievably specific expertise, many of us pursue our beloved niche interest only to be discouraged when the single available position for Early American black walnut spinning wheel conservators is filled by someone else. Even broader areas like education or collections work are often underpaid yet very competitive. Accept that your specialty or preferred type of museum work could be one that is either too rare or too popular, low paying, or confined to a certain geographic area, and use that knowledge. Be honest with yourself about your needs and understand what balance between job satisfaction and overall quality of life you can accept.

For me, I always thought I’d work in collections and got my Master’s degree with this goal, but those positions are very competitive and often poorly paid in my region. I realized that even if I were lucky enough to land one, the compensation would not allow me the life I wanted. So I had to think more broadly about who I was, what fulfilled me, and where I could find that satisfaction in a tough market. Which led me to:

2. Explore alternative skills (and let others help).

When I was interning in museums, people would often ask me to write and edit for them: exhibit panels, blog posts, newsletters, all kinds of things. And I happily did, because I have always loved writing and helping others convey their meanings with skill and grace. I also came to realize that many people dislike or are afraid of writing, even if their job requires it. So when I was rethinking my career as a collections person, I realized my alternative was staring me in the face. I could help share history through writing, and through helping those who do write to edit their work so it was clear, accessible, and effective.

Is there some task at your job that others are always asking for your assistance with? Is there something your colleagues say you are skilled at, even if it’s not in your job description? Co-workers and peers might have insight into strengths that you take for granted. Think about how you could incorporate this edge into your career, and how pursuing this skill could set you apart from other job candidates or help you craft a different kind of museum career than you initially envisioned.

3. Be open to career satisfaction from multiple sources.

If you choose a job that is stable and pays the bills but doesn’t further your career goals or fulfill you, think about ways to supplement your job satisfaction beyond your 9-5. What about volunteering at your historical society on weekends? Learning a historic trade or craft? Serving on the board of your local museum? Even working or interning part-time at a museum if that’s a possibility for you? Be creative about maintaining your connection to museums, even if you can’t make it your full-time job yet.

AASLH is a membership organization comprised of museums and sites, but we don’t usually get to do history work ourselves. I missed sharing my love of history with the public, so three years ago, I got a weekend job as a guide for historic downtown walking tours. For a few hours a week, I get to enjoy doing history in public without trying to subsist entirely on a tour guide’s income. It’s a balance that works well for me and my goals.

4. Accept that there are no straight paths.

In our field and others, finding your career is no longer just a matter of perusing classified ads or going straight from school into your dream job. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t be afraid to explore. Don’t worry about “wasting” time and effort, because every experience you have can be fertile ground for personal and professional growth and can teach you important skills for your future museum career.

When I started exploring public history as a career option, I made a point of asking everyone I met how they got to be where they were, what their major(s) had been, and what made them choose their current job. And I was almost always surprised by their responses! Hardly anyone had known at 18 or 20 or even 30 where they wanted to end up, and most admitted that what they were doing now (and enjoying) was not what they originally set out to do. But they convinced me to find value and comfort in the winding path, and to be open to re-evaluating what I wanted to do based on the things I learned during my career “detours.”

We all know our field, like many others, has serious issues when it comes to employment. These tips do not address the larger forces that contribute to underemployment, low wages, and inequity, but are offered with the intent of helping fellow EMPs cope with difficult situations by utilizing one of our most valuable tools: adaptability. By thinking creatively, acting resourcefully, and adjusting optimistically, I think we can help move our field forward to a future that values the diverse experiences and versatile perspectives that EMPs bring to the table.


 

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Aja Bain is the Program and Publications Manager for the American Association for State and Local History, where she serves as Associate Editor of History News and blog editor. She holds a Master’s in public history from Middle Tennessee State University and a B.A. in American history and anthropology from Vanderbilt University. Currently president of the Inter-Museum Council of Nashville, her research interests include Southern migration and the commodification of regional culture in globalized societies. Contact Aja by email at abain@aaslh.org or on Twitter @PointA__PointB.

 

Be a Museum Renaissance Person!

Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.


Be a Museum Renaissance Person
By Tim Betz

In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci was applying for work. Specifically, he wanted to be employed as the court artist and engineer of the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. Thus begins one of the most fascinating resumes in history. Leonardo lists all of the things he can do: build bridges, construct cannons, make chariots and guns, construct aqueducts, design beautiful buildings–the list goes on and on. The artist who painted the most famous painting in the world ends his resume with a humble “I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.” Leonardo is perhaps the most famous of the “Renaissance men,” people who became highly skilled at many subjects, bouncing between them with ease, with limitless curiosity. As museum professionals, we can learn a lot from him.

“Knowing is Not Enough”

Many of us in the world of museums are employed at smaller sites with small staffs and small budgets. In my case, I am the only full time staff member with a very part time museum assistant and a core group of very involved volunteers. This means that in addition to being the executive director,  I am also the advertising department, the social media manager, the programming coordinator, the volunteer coordinator, the office manager, the collections manager, the exhibit designer, the curator, a tour guide, a workshop leader, and the janitor. There is no part of any sort of academic training (or, frankly, reading blog posts and articles) that gives you the range of skills to be, at one minute, the executive director schmoozing in the community, the next a workshop leader teaching children how to make candles, and the next dealing with troublesome squirrels who love to eat your building. My view and professional philosophy is colored by the experience of working at smaller sites. However, I think that much of this Leonardo-based philosophy can be applied to larger organizations.

Many of us enter the museum profession with a degree in a specialty, be it art history, history, a science, non-profit management, or museum studies. We usually have read a lot of books and studied a lot of theory. We’ve gone to a lot of museums and quietly criticized other museums on how they display their labels and their poor choice of exhibit colors (admit it, we all do it). We talk to other museum professionals and become part of the current discourse and culture. None of that, no part of education or study, can prepare you for all that you encounter. From problem visitors, to unruly wild animals, to a broken toilet (and not much of a budget to fix it), to needing to build a thing to display a thing, and learning period crafts – there just simply are things they don’t teach you in museum school. Leonardo is quoted also as having said, “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” Indeed, learning about museum theory, best practices, and reading is not enough: we must do. Most importantly, use that doing to grow, adapt, and change. We have to be tireless doers, and we need to be the sorts of doers that do things that aren’t listed in our job description (because, as I can attest, a job description that actually lists what you do as a museum professional would be 20 times longer than they normally are).

The Maestro in the Museum

Leonardo was an exceptionally curious mind who devoured the world around him. Many people know him as an exceptional artist, but the reality was he was a scientist (perhaps more scientist than artist), a philosopher, a mathematician, an anatomist…you name it, he tried it.  I’m not suggesting that museum professionals need to paint the next masterpiece, study anatomy, and design flying machines. I am suggesting, though, that our field requires a broad range of knowledge that they simply don’t teach in school and is way outside of what would be considered “traditional” scholarly discourse, or, really, in a lot of other fields. We must be masters of many fields. To be successful in the museum world we must be willing to try new things, to experiment (both organizationally and professionally), and, quite simply, be curious about the world around us.

Working in a museum is a unique experience. Regardless of the discipline, we are teaching the public about a wide variety of topics and ideas. This requires, at the very least, a passing knowledge of those topics and ideas, and the ability to talk about them in a variety of ways for all sorts of different folks. The reality, though, is that we end up with a wide assortment of arcane knowledge that makes us very fun at parties (Want to know all about 19th century peach production in New Jersey? I got you. Want to hear how many cows lived in late eighteenth century Lansdale, Pennsylvania? I have numbers for you. What about how an 1890 talc mill works from bottom to top? Sure!) But isn’t that is the sheer joy of being a museum professional? The knowledge, the digging, the teaching, the learning, and sharing that with people who visit us as our shared legacy and inheritance as people who live on this planet – a humbling reality of our profession that should never escape us.

Moreover, we need to be aware of all that is going on around us in our museum. Only working in development? You should have an idea of what the museum does, what the curators are up to, what exciting programs are going on. A curator? You should know what education is doing and what their job is like. Gift shop manager? You should know what exhibits are coming up, and the story of your place. Everyone should know how to change a lightbulb, where those light bulbs are stored, and where to take out the trash (oh, the less glamorous aspects of museum life!). Leonardo would have probably said that all of his explorations into all sorts of endeavours were connected and that they shouldn’t be parselled out. This is the same for museums. Yes, we can have departments, and yes, everyone has their job to do. But it is all towards the same goal. All parts of the same whole, and all cogs that work together to get something done.

We can’t be one person museums or working in a vacuum, and we can’t know everything. Rather, we should know where to go and who to ask for help, whether that is another expert, someone in another department, an older museum mentor, a volunteer who knows how to do something we don’t, an exterminator, a handyman. We should have no loss of pride in asking for help or admitting that we don’t know something. A 1490 to-do list written by Leonardo contains all sorts of items from drawing Milan to conducting science experiments. The most telling aspect, though, is that over half of the items on the list include a variation of the phrase “ask so-and-so how to do such-and-such.” Leonardo may have been a genius, but he knew where to go to get the answers.

Anyone who knows of Leonardo knows he had some glaring character flaws, like that he was easily distracted and seldom finished what he started, but we can learn from his mistakes. We can be inspired by his curiosity and drive, and, at the same time, apply those strategically to our professional life (while keeping checklists, making sure things get done, and achieving results). After all, “we must do!”

Killing it with Curiosity

The field of the museum professional is unlike any other. We must be researchers, tinkerers, problem solvers, scholars, people people, people pleasers, fundraisers, janitors, educators, and experts – and often all at the same time. We cannot and should not compartmentalize.

This Leonardo-based museum philosophy can be summed up with two words: joyful curiosity. Like Leonardo, we should delve and explore. Learn new things. Grow personally and professionally. We must question, learn, share, and question again. There is a reason we say museum interpretation and not museum presentation. Much of the public sees museums as places where the truth is presented with unquestionable authority. The reality is that museums should be a place for discussion and — above all — curiosity.

Curiosity is contagious. If we have it, we can share it with our colleagues and with the visitors who come through our doors. There is simply no greater service we can provide our constituents than a place to question, explore, and be joyfully curious. And it starts with us.


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Tim Betz is Executive Director of the Morgan Log House in Lansdale, PA. Previously, he has served as Assistant Director of the Red Mill Museum Village in Clinton, NJ. He received a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts Degree from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, a Masters in Art History (Renaissance Italy) from the Pennsylvania State University and a second Masters in History (Colonial Latin America) from Lehigh University. He is also a temporary instructor of art history at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, hound dog, and Maine Coon cat, and always has many assorted projects going on at once. You can contact him at timbetz3@gmail.com or follow along @TimBetz5 on Twitter.

Easy Access: Making Museum Education Accessible

Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.


Easy Access: Making Museum Education Accessible
by Abigail Diaz

Where do I even start? That’s what I kept thinking when I considered the inaccessibility of our museum education programs. Accessibility is such a vast topic, and so important, that it can feel overwhelming. I didn’t want to get it wrong. I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t know who to ask. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Over the course of a year, I led a transformation of our field trip programming at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (MSI) alongside two other incredible educators. MSI’s mission is to “inspire the inventive genius in everyone.” While we had always been committed to quality science engagement for our students, we finally began putting an emphasis on everyone — including learners of all abilities.

Throughout the year, we learned important lessons about what it takes to create institution-wide change in a large museum. Here are 10 ways that you too can start (or continue!) making meaningful changes to your education programs to better engage all visitors.  

1. “Nothing for us without us.”

This powerful saying is used within the disabled community to show the absolute essentialness of including people with disabilities in your mission to create accessible spaces, programs and content. My role as an ally and advocate is to magnify the voices of marginalized groups, not speak for them. At every step, from planning to execution, include these voices. Make community connections by reaching out to local organizations. Your programs will be better for having their knowledge and life experiences. You’ll build partnerships with community groups that you wouldn’t have previously. You’ll create stakeholders in your mission and programs.

This is an essential step to creating inclusive programming, but it should be noted that people with disabilities do not owe your institution their life experiences or knowledge and especially not for free. Be clear on your budget up front. If you’re utilizing user experts, pay them as you would any consultant. If consultant pay isn’t an option, find a way to make this partnership symbiotic.

2. Make allies and find support

When we first began thinking more critically about access, we didn’t know where to begin. But we knew some great work was being done in Chicago. We reached out to groups and individuals on Facebook, we cold called and we emailed contacts around Chicago in order to audit what was offered in cultural institutions for people with disabilities. I created a standardized data collection form that we filled out at every stop on what we later called our Mission Accessible Road Trip. We visited 22 cultural and education institutions across the Chicagoland area and gained not only knowledge, but also connections with professionals working in education and access.

3. The long game

As we completed projects at MSI, we played the long game. We wouldn’t force anyone to take what we had made or implement ideas we had. But we made compelling cases, logically and financially. One in six Americans has a disability. They are an intersectional part of our community and to not serve them is morally outrageous and fiscally irresponsible. We were loud, convincing and persistent in our advocacy.

Slowly, the word spread. Different departments caught on to what we were doing and wanted to join us. Thus, Access MSI was born. This is now a branded program at MSI that catches all efforts in accessibility and inclusion. This did not happen overnight.

4. Ask better questions

When groups visited MSI on field trips, we used to ask the standard “Does your group need any accommodations on their visit?” We realized that we weren’t getting great data from that. Often, teachers wouldn’t share information. As the sister of and caregiver to a young man with disabilities, I know the very real fear of rejection that comes with bringing someone that does need accommodations to a museum. You’re afraid you’ll ask for too much and be told that this might not be the best place to visit. You’re confident that the museum could not provide more than you are already providing.

We started asking better questions. When you book a field trip at MSI now, you are required to read through a targeted list of offerings and questions about your group. Rather than asking an open-ended question, we created a checklist that includes what we do offer. Teachers can select: large print notebooks, Spanish notebooks, additional tactile opportunities, written transcripts or instructions, large pencils/pencil grips, auditory assistance, extra time for tasks and a sensory backpack. We then ask better questions about who is visiting us on this field trip. Teachers can select: my group includes students who might be sensory sensitive, who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, with vision loss, with intellectual disabilities, who are primarily proficient in a language other than English, who are non-verbal, who have low-mobility, who are non-readers, who need to use an elevator and who use a wheelchair.

By creating this list, we set boundaries on what we do and do not offer for accommodations. By asking better questions about who is coming, we are able to better plan our lesson and also hopefully make the teacher feel comfortable checking as many boxes as she needs do without fear of the rejection.

5. Universal design

Universal design means by creating spaces and offerings that are accessible to people with disabilities, they also become better for everyone. For example, large print is helpful for people with low vision. But isn’t it also better for younger visitors, older visitors and just about everyone in between? Yes! Whenever possible, make one thing that is better for everyone. It will save you time, effort and money.

6. Practical changes

We started by making low-cost, practical changes that were in the spirit of universal design. All notebooks we use with field trip groups became large print with high-contrasting colors. We added more spaces for sketching rather than lines for writing. We began offering pencil grips at tables for students that preferred them, often students that had a hard time with fine motor skills. We made sure to have written instructions rather than relying on just verbal directions. This helped students that might have hearing loss but also is just better for everyone. These are examples of changes that cost pennies but can make a huge difference for many different groups.

7. Sphere of influence

If you’re just beginning to think about access and inclusion, it can be overwhelming and feel as though it will never be enough or never be good enough. The fantastic Nina Simon once stressed in a webinar on inclusion that we must start with our own spheres of influence. What can I change tomorrow? What can I change next week? What can I do? Gradually your sphere will grow.

8. Access is more than disabilities

At MSI, we decided that accessibility was a holistic term that was going to mean much more than better serving people with disabilities. To make our programs more accessible, we started thinking about all groups that might not feel as though museums were for them. I made pronoun buttons for education staff. We translated notebooks we use on field trips into Spanish and came up with strategies for better sharing knowledge with English language learners. We started being more aware of how often we gendered language (Hey guys!) and held each other accountable for speaking with more intention. These changes were better for everyone.

9. Check your privilege

As a white, able-bodied, educated person working in museums, I understand that museums were made for me. I’ve never felt discomfort visiting a museum and I’ve never questioned whether I was welcome there. But part of cultural humility is understanding that not everyone has this privilege. There are systemic barriers in place that prevent full inclusion of people with disabilities in cultural institutions and it is your job to be an ally in breaking down those barriers.

10. It’s ok to be corrected

Yes, the stakes are high. You don’t want to offend anyone or make someone uncomfortable. But the overwhelming message that I have gotten is that it’s ok to get it wrong. What we think is best might not be best, and sometimes it’s only best for some people. For example, best practices say that we should use person-first language. My brother has autism, he is not an autistic boy. But some people identify as disability-first. If (when!) you are corrected, learn from it and do better. Stay humble and understand that you will mess up. Work in accessibility is not static; it’s always going to be a learning process.

It will take time to break down the systemic barriers that prevent all guests from visiting, engaging with and loving museums. We cannot ask people with disabilities to change. They are a vibrant, intersectional and essential part of our community. It must be museums that change.



Abbie G
Abigail Diaz signs her emails
museums are for everyone and works every day to make that a reality. She is the proud sister of a darling and daring boy with disabilities. Abbie has worked at 13 cultural institutions across four states. She is currently the Education Director at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and on the Board of Directors of the Museum Education Roundtable. You can find her at @AbsLovesMuseums on Twitter.