A trip to the museum can evoke a wide array of emotions. A young child may shriek and chuckle as they discover hidden surprises while exploring a hands-on exhibit about backyard bugs. A teen’s eyes may light up as they connect with a painting. A multigenerational family may have a deep conversation about their history after seeing an artifact. Developing a powerful museum experience requires an excellent team of museum professionals.
We recently talked with Karen Marshall, a museum consultant and an instructor for the UW Certificate in Museum Studies. She has more than four decades of experience managing collections, developing educational programming and serving as the CEO and executive director for museums with themes ranging from history to waterfowl. “I love to share my experiences with people who have a passion for and want to work in museums,” said Karen.
But working for a museum also has its challenges. “A lot of people think it's easy to work at a museum, but it's not,” said Karen. “I enjoy helping people understand what it takes to successfully operate a museum.”
Here’s what Karen had to say about working for museums and how to get into this rewarding field.
What do you find rewarding about working for museums?
I've always appreciated the feedback from visitors that the programs, exhibits and other educational opportunities we created made an impact. Some of the coolest experiences are those aha moments you see in visitors when they make a connection with your work.
You realize that the work you do in museums can unite communities and create spaces for reflection and dialogue about important contemporary issues. Museum work at its core is bringing people together to experience, learn and share with each other.
How has working for museums changed over time?
Previously, many museums looked inward. They thought about themselves as the source of information for a particular subject and would plan out how they would want to present that information to the public. Today, museums see themselves as a partner with the public. They now collaborate with their communities when gathering information and curating an exhibit.
Museums are also focusing on improving their internal operations. They’re working to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion policies and practices in their organizations, especially in hiring. Museums recognize that the staff should reflect the communities they serve.
There is also a push towards paying museum staff for what they’re worth. The museum field has been previously full of people who could afford to take a lower salary. This prevented people such as heads of households from considering a career in museums.
What kind of jobs are available at museums?
Museum job titles and roles vary depending upon the size and type of museum. Some common positions include collection managers, curators, educators, visitor services staff and administrators such as CEOs, executive directors, accountants, security guards, fundraisers and marketers.
Larger museums have staff members with very specific roles, for example, some have curators who use their specialized academic backgrounds to develop particular types of exhibits. Staff in smaller museums hold a variety of responsibilities and require a greater range of skills. Many small museums only have an executive director, curator and educator, and so those three would work together to develop an exhibit.
What challenges do museums face today?
The greatest challenge is financial. We have seen how the pandemic has reduced income from admissions, a significant source of a museum’s annual revenue. But even before the pandemic, surveys showed that fundraising was one of the most significant challenges for museums.
The second challenge is maintaining a good relationship with leadership. Museum staff needs to maintain relationships with the board of directors and public so that the staff can propel the institution forward with a clear mission and vision.
What skills are valuable for people who work in museums and want to help overcome these challenges?
You need to be inquisitive, flexible, creative and able to work as a team player because almost every aspect of museum work requires you to cooperate with other people. You also need excellent writing skills to create marketing and educational materials, write grants as well as complete administrative work.
What are the benefits of taking the UW Certificate in Museum Studies?
Our instructors are passionate about museums and they carry that passion into the program. The one thing I love about the UW Certificate in Museum Studies is that you get a taste of what it’s like to work in a museum. You’ll discover everything that goes on behind-the-scenes at museum that visitors don’t often consider, such as, risk management and ethical and legal issues. You’ll also learn about collections management, educational programming, exhibit design, administrative processes and how to effectively work with the board of directors.
What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in museums?
Volunteer in a museum to see if it's something you really want to pursue. Students with some volunteer experience tend to grasp the terminology better and have a better sense of what they might like to do and focus on in the course. It’s a competitive field and so you must be patient, know how to network and have clear path for how you want your career to grow.