The Changing Nature of Careers in Museums and Historic Sites

One of the perennial topics at professional conferences and when I meet colleagues are the challenges of working at an historic site, historic house museum, or history museum.  They often center around ever-decreasing resources, board members who aren’t raising money, and the constant attention to financial and personnel management.  Nothing new about that, except you’ll notice some additional topics depending on the person’s age.

Generation X (those born 1965 to 1980) frequently mentions that career advancement is stagnant.  They’ve been blocked by the previous generation, who were the first major generation of trained museum professionals and have held senior positions at museums and historic sites for twenty years or more. These Baby Boomers will be retiring en masse soon to open up many opportunities, but Gen X may be caught in the “can’t be hired as a director because you haven’t been a director” whirlpool.  Other Gen Xers have watched the stress that hits executive directors and have decided to pursue other paths for their careers (I’ve seen several directors develop serious health problems as a result of their jobs–is it really worth it?).

Generation Y (born 1981 to 2000) is currently in college and graduate school, and their biggest concern is getting a job, any job, in the museum or preservation field.  They’re pursuing a career seriously and paying for lots of tuition to earn that master’s degree to give them a competitive advantage.  Museum studies programs are responding by providing classes in business and technology and requiring several internships to get plenty of experience on resumes.  And yet landing a job is difficult.  In this economy and a limited job market, hundreds of applications flow in for a single entry level position.  And if you can’t land a job in the field you’ve chosen, what do you do with a museum studies, art history, history, or preservation degree?

The Four-Year Career (Fast Company, 2012)

In “The Four-Year Career,” Anya Kamenetz at Fast Company describes how some Gen Yer’s are navigating this rough terrain by developing personal goals and then treating jobs as learning experiences towards personal fulfillment.  Jobs change frequently and as needed, and there’s a recognition that you shouldn’t stay at one place too long.  Loyalty is temporary and short-lived, both by the employee and the employer.  That follows national trends, which show that the median tenure in a job today is about four years (a significant drop from the 1970s) and that most people have eleven different jobs in their lifetime.  She associates shorter job tenure with a:

new era of insecurity, volatility, and risk. It’s part of the same employment picture as the increase in part-time, freelance, and contract work; mass layoffs and buyouts; and “creative destruction” within industries. All these changes put more pressure on the individual–to provide our own health care, bridge gaps in income with savings, manage our own retirement planning, and invest in our own education to keep skills marketable and up to date.

Other Gen Yer’s are simply taking a risk and pursuing new ventures outside the field.  Indeed, some have described this as the “most entrepreneurial generation in history,” much of it due to the Internet and online technologies, although some have serious doubts this will be as successful as anticipated.

We’re definitely witnessing a major change in the way employment operates in this country.  The expectation that you’ll land a job for a lifetime or find one that perfectly meets your narrow expertise will be rare.  More common will be shorter project-oriented employment based on skills and experience, with a heavy reliance on personal references (“I need an online collections catalog and only have $10,000–is there anyone you can recommend?”).  Work may be more frequently found in RFPs  than in job announcements.  This shift requires a different way of thinking and a new set of survival skills, so if you find yourself exploring these ideas either as an employee or employer, I’ve found the books by Cliff Hakim and William Bridges to be very helpful (fifteen years ago, Hakim said “we are all self-employed” and Bridges talked about a “workplace without jobs”).  If you have any advice to share on careers in museums and historic sites, you’re welcome to share them in the comments below.

P. S.  Leslie Kesler thoughtfully discusses what she learned from recent lay off from her job as an historian and curator at a local history museum on Linda Norris’ blog The Uncatalogued Museum.

6 thoughts on “The Changing Nature of Careers in Museums and Historic Sites

  1. Carter Lively

    Dear Max,

    I am interested in your comment “Other Gen Xers have watched the stress that hits executive directors and have decided to pursue other paths for their careers (I’ve seen several directors develop serious health problems as a result of their jobs–is it really worth it?).”

    As a director and museum professional since 1977 I have noticed as Assistant Directors have left their jobs for jobs that are definitely not a step up. One told me,” I wouldn’t have your job for the world.” For my generation this was, at first, a shock and then I came to understand that their generation prioritizes differently than mine did. After thinking about this for a while, I began to accept that their priorities make a lot of sense, in a lifestyle sense, but It makes me wonder who will step up when my generation leaves for retirement. Will the Gen Xer’s have the experience to lead, or for that matter, will they just not step forward?

    Please understand, I am not criticizing the Gen Xer’s, I am just posing a question.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Well, Carter, it looks like we’re getting some answers. It may be that the ED positions currently filled by Boomers will skip a “generation” and go to Gen Y. We won’t know for sure until we get there, and I suspect that we’ll know in the next 5 to 10 years. Max


  2. Allison

    As a member of Gen Y who is out of grad school, working in the field, and certainly hopes to be an Executive Director, I would caution against stereotyping people based on their birth year. I do agree that people in general are more concerned with finding a healthy work-life balance, but I don’t think it has made entire generations less ambitious. I know that colleagues in my age group wonder when higher-level positions will ever open up, but I think that plenty of people want them when they do.


  3. Susan Hellman

    I am one of the baby boomers blocking the path for Gen X and Y. I made the same comment to my Director that someone once made to Carter: “I wouldn’t have your job for the world.” Now I have her job in an Acting capacity, and I honestly don’t know if I want to make it permanent.


  4. GenXDirector

    The past few ED jobs I applied for yielded interviews but I was told that while I was very impressive, I was too young (not stated directly but clearly a consideration) and lacked sufficient experience with fundraising and earned income development. There clearly are more openings for Directors than other museum positions but many boards seem to be looking for someone with corporate style revenue generating experience and who can cite fundraising dollars in the millions (not just the couple hundred thousand I helped raise).

    I have 9 years of experience managing a small museum & am proud of the progress that I have made but feel stuck in this position. I am trying to figure out how I can move my museum forward with fundraising etc with very limited board support & in a very challenging situation so that I can take the next step in my career. I am competing with boomers who have a lot more experience but the limitations of my current position and limited opportunity to obtain the business and big time fundraising experience that boards want also comes into play. I may try for a Development position in a larger museum as a next step or possibly leave the field entirely.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      You may be on to something. Sometimes it’s easier to move up by moving sideways first, especially if it’s to a larger or more prestigious institution. And fundraising (both grants and earned income) is clearly a priority for most boards today, which means it’s a priority for executive directors as well. With some practice and coaching from an experienced fundraiser, anyone can become a skilled fundraiser (although that still doesn’t guarantee you can bring in the bucks, just that you greatly improve your chances).


Comments are closed.