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MCN Insights: A museum professional’s musings on job hunting in a pandemic.

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Courtney OCallaghan joined the MCN Board in 2018 and is currently filling her time with MCN, consulting, homeschooling, bread baking, and gardening.

A year and a half ago I was laid off from my full-time museum job. I had few concerns about finding another position as long as I had patience. In fact, I planned to take a few-month break first to work on other opportunities I had put off earlier in the year.

I do not think my tempered optimism was illogical. Before the pandemic (a phrase I say a lot these days), I believed that the museum sector was on the precipice of change. People exposed salaries via internationally-shared spreadsheets. Digital was finally finding its seat at the table in small and medium institutions. The toxic environment of overworked underpaid and unpaid staff was no longer a sector secret. It felt as if the cultural museum sector was edging closer to a systemic shift.

Eighteen months, a pandemic, and a trip down the job interview hole later, I have to wonder how many places will exist for digital professionals in museums in the future? And with that startling possibility in mind, am I asking for too much?

Sorry, We’re Closed

At the beginning of the pandemic, we all hoped the sweeping museum closures would be short-lived. By early summer of 2020, it was obvious museums would not be reopening anytime soon. The financial impact was unprecedented. An AAM survey of US museums released in early July 2020 found that one-third of museums were concerned that they would never reopen. It also noted that 44% of the United States museum sector workforce had already been furloughed or laid off. The world has fared slightly better, but the statistics are still grim. Two studies by UNESCO in May 2020 found that 13% of museums internationally would likely never reopen. 

This of course had a serious effect on hiring at cultural institutions. The very slow trickle of advertised positions in spring 2020 all but froze in summer and fall. This was doubly true for management positions. The shortage of positions was paired with many of my digital/technology colleagues in management positions being laid off. When positions did begin to appear again in early 2021, I noticed a trend of part-time jobs (no benefits), contractor positions, and lower pay.

My Heart is in the Museum

Like many in the museum field, much of my identity has been defined not only by my position or my museum, but the field itself; I am a “museum professional”.

I have worked since the age of 17. My first job outside of school was in a museum. And though I have held full-time positions outside of the museum field, I have never really LEFT the field. I visited, volunteered, and worked as a consultant while “outside the field”.

I started down this job search road with the idea that I could have it all – a safe and inclusive place to work, a salary my family could live on in our city, the ability to telework a few days a week, and a training budget. This felt like normal expectations. I dismissed opportunities for places with poor reputations, especially those known for toxic work environments. I looked for places with community outreach programs, where the neighborhood was welcomed in or at least not shunned. I wanted my future museum to care as much as I do because I am my museum!

Is it Me?

I have since gone on a handful of interviews where all seemed to go well until the end of the multi-interview process where we talked terms, until I got serious about salary and financial commitment to professional development. Maybe it was until I asked about board diversity and intern pay. Perhaps I was more bother than I was worth. I began to wonder, is it me? I mean, it is obviously my words, questions, and choices that have led me here. I get that. But how much comes down to my high expectations for the cultural sector? And how much am I willing to give up to still be able to define myself as a museum professional?

It seems to me that many institutions that look for digital talent for department-director level positions don’t offer pay that matches the experience they desire. More museums than I expected have reduced their digital footprint (and internal departments) to little more than a website editor and a streaming video program producer. Recent RFPs I’ve seen suggest museums are trying to buy piecemeal solutions rather than making even modest investments in sustainable infrastructure. In addition, over the past few months, a myriad of museums made the news for their problematic take on race, equity, preferred audiences, internal politics, financial priorities and more — with too little or no internal change outside of firing the most obvious offenders.

Should I accept a toxic workspace? Lower my salary expectations (that will negatively redefine my earning ability for the rest of my career)? Abandon the expectation that my institution will support the professional development of my staff? Return to 60+ hour work weeks and add a multi-hour daily commute? Ignore the lack of plans for board/staff/visitor diversity? Not work in museums?

I do not have the answer to this yet. And something tells me I’m not alone.

Where Do We (All) Go Now?

I see many of you out there, starting companies, becoming consultants, working with the museum sector, but outside museums. I see those of you who have left the field altogether for more pay and flexibility, for more life balance. I see us all, standing here with a deep love for museums and cultural institutions, wanting them to learn and grow, wanting them to see this time as the opportunity to invite the world in with digital. 

I recognize the privilege I’ve had being able to stay home and not take a job that pays half of what I made. But that time is running out. I know I do not want to be an independent consultant forever. I need a salary and retirement. I want colleagues and causes.

Alison Green, the author of Ask a Manager, recently told the NYT,  “’If you’re conscientious and you like what you do, it’s very easy to get your identity all tied up with your job. … And not just the job itself, but the idea of yourself as someone who’s really good at what you do. That’s a very powerful thing.’ … She went on to explain that centering your life on a job may even make you act against your own self-interest and happiness, perhaps by working long hours or accepting behavior you normally wouldn’t.”

Is the sector still the right place to make my living, or is it time to recognize that I can be a museum advocate while not being a museum employee? I will always be part of the museum world, but perhaps it’s simply time to find employment outside of my old idea of self. After all, I am more than my job.

What are your thoughts on the current museum job field? Have you ever thought about leaving? How do we make the changes that would allow more professionals to stay?


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