MW2013 reflections on emerging and collapsing museum roles

Well I’ve been hanging out in America for the last week with a mind full of thoughts in the aftermath of Museums and the Web 2013… and computer problems. It’s been frustrating, but it also provided the perfect excuse to upgrade my laptop after years of slow technology. Hooray! Truly, a new computer is a pleasure.

Now that I’m back online, I thought I’d start a series of quick posts on the issues that really caught my attention during the conference (a kind of belated version of what Koven Smith was doing in his live-blogging from Portland). In the meantime, if you’re feeling less patient and just want an overall summary of the themes and discussions that came out of the conference, check out the great reads by Danny Birchall, Susan Edwards and Ed Rodley.

So, theme no. 1: the fluctuation of museum jobs, and the impact that has upon the sector
On Day 2 of the conference, Rob Stein and Rich Cherry presented a plenary session that asked what is a museum technologist anyway? During the questions that followed, Liz Neely asked how many people in the room had made up their own job at some point in their career. I was surprised to see  the number of hands waved in response. It was probably close to half the room, all of whom had created a job for themselves.

As someone who has never known where I would fit within existing career paths in this sector, I was pretty excited by this. But then I started thinking further on the implications. When a job is created for someone, rather than created to fill a particular pre-identified need or purpose, then that job will be necessarily built around their individual strengths and weaknesses, maybe even more than the institution’s actual needs. So what happens when that person leaves the organisation? Does the museum then look to fill that position, or to craft another one in concert with the person who comes next into the role? I know I’ve created at least one job for myself in this sector, and it’s now something my museum will always need to have someone doing… but the opportunity came up because I identified the gap, not because they did. How often does this happen?

Sitting next to Michael Parry in one session, I had a discussion about the frequency with which museums should revisit their digital structure and strategy. Given how quickly the technological and work context change, should a museum rewrite its digital strategy and organisational chart regularly? And what are the benefits of doing so very regularly (maybe every three years) versus waiting longer; of making foundational instead incremental change? Two critical issues here become the value of adaptability vs stability, and the potential loss of corporate knowledge (not to mention staff morale… do people want to work in an environment where they position is always up to be questioned?). But it is something worth considering in the frequent discussions we have about writing a digital strategy; getting beyond the how and looking at the when.

These were just some of a series of questions that started to come up about the fluctuation of museum roles. In the session on digital curation that Danny Birchall and I were a part of, Danny looked at different curators who have influenced the sector to show just how diverse the notion of a “curator” is, even in the museum sector in order to demonstrate what museums could teach those who now seek to curate the digital world (one of these being Iris Barry, founder of the film department of the Museum of Modern Art, who herself created her own job based on her own skills and interests), while I looked at what museums could learn from some different types of curators of the digital world. In response to this session, Koven got to the heart of the matter and asked whether the discussion was indicative of the need for a new kind of role within the museum; that of the curator of the digital. Are we witnessing the birth of a new museum profession in these discussions? Do we now need someone who curates the digital world for stories and information as they relate to the collection and/or mission of the museum, in addition to more established curatorial roles?

In the unconference session that followed, Seb Chan pointed out that many museum, archive and library roles were beginning to collapse onto themselves as the differences that defined one from the next became less distinct in the digital realm. All of which makes me start to wonder just which roles within the museum will stand up as they currently are, and which other roles (like digital conservators) will begin to emerge as more and more critical in the coming years? Just how fluid is the museum’s institutional and organisational structure, anyway?

And, finally, what happens if you design yourself out of a job? There is a tension between wanting to create efficiencies and do things better, and wanting to maintain your job and an organisation’s need to employ you. Given that the positions needed in and by this sector appear to fluctuate more than I had previously imagined, I’m interested in how this tension plays out in career paths, and whether institutions can or do support those whose once-essential skills are now only peripherally useful.

This is where my relative newness to the sector starts to really get in the way, because I cannot look back at institutions and their history to know how these kinds of questions play out. But I am sure some of you can.

I’d love to hear more about your experiences and what you’ve seen in your own careers. Do the roles that museums need filled fluctuate significantly over the course of years? And what impact does that have on the museum? How often should a museum actively revisit its structure and strategy to ensure a fit for purpose?

A trailing spouse? Has being partnered affected your museum career choices?

When I was a mere kitten of five years old, my family relocated to Papua New Guinea. My dad had received an interesting job opportunity, so he, my mum and I all moved to the tropics and spent several years negotiating life in another culture.

This was one of a few moves that we made when I was growing up; all of them for my father’s work. Although both my parents became high-achievers in their respective fields, it was my father’s opportunities that drove us around the country and overseas. His career was more established, and we followed on. It was not until my dad retired that my mother really had opportunities to pursue her own career ambitions, but once she did, her career soared.

Within the museum sector, cross-institutional (or even cross-country) relocation for work appears to be strongly tied to advancement, particularly at the upper echelons. While it might just be a skip from institution to institution (if you’re lucky enough to live in a city with multiple cultural institutions), oftentimes progress seems to require more significant jumps than just across town. Indeed, the first two commenters on a 2011 Center for the Future of Museums post about landing a job in the museum of the future both observe how important it is to be willing to move in order to find work in the sector.

Why is this? Is it just that so many employers within the sector are small museums that might have only a handful of staff positions? In my home town, I would guess that there are less than 30 full time positions within the scattering of museums, so the opportunities for growth are fairly few and far between. Moving town to find a full time position makes sense, because openings are rare and are highly fought over. I’ve often seen internal applicants for those scarce jobs passed over for those with experience at outside institutions. This is an understandable choice; external applicants will bring with them different experiences and knowledge from those already contained in-house within the institution, but one that can be challenging for people located where there are few other opportunities for growth.

If moving to find work isn’t absolutely imperative, it seems particularly common in high achievers. Victoria Turner, in a 2002 paper on The Factors Affecting Women’s Success in Museum Careers, writes that:

The career paths of high profile men and women in museums and related fields show much variety: some have worked their way through one institution; others have moved between many high profile organizations; others started in small museums and moved on to larger ones; others began their careers in different sectors (Who’s Who 2001).

But what happens when the choice to move for work isn’t yours to make alone? In the same paper, Turner explicates that (emphasis mine):

with limited jobs available, and no clear career progression, museum employees often find it necessary to move around the country in order to advance their career. This is clearly complicated where a family is involved, for employees of either sex (Carmichael 2001), but as women are still often considered as secondary earners, it will often be more difficult for them to institute a move, a major factor inhibiting women’s career progression (Kolb in Taylor 1984).

Is this one reason (amongst many) why there remains significant disparity between high female employment in the arts and comparatively low representation at the top? As an older post on indicates that (emphasis mine):

Of those people who moved for work in 1993, a scant 17 percent were women–and only 10 percent of them were married… A recent poll of unemployed executives showed that men are three times as likely to pick up and move for a new position than women.

These statistics are old, and not specific to the sector, but a clear gap still seems present between men and women on the question of moving for career advancement. We work in a sector filled with women where progression, or even getting a job to begin with, can be tied strongly to the possibility of going elsewhere, a situation that seems – on the surface at least – disadvantageous to those same women. So what’s a girl to do? Is it possible to progress, to make an impact, to grow without acquiescing to pressures to go elsewhere? Does living in a highly connected world change the playing field at all, or will cross-institutional advancement still trump? And what is our obsession with hiring those with reputations and experiences gained elsewhere? Do such practices ensure better hires, or just ones that sell better to boards and funders?

It’s worth noting that this isn’t just a women’s problem however. Even if they’re in the minority of those who initiate moves, women are not the only ones who become ‘trailing spouses’, and partner dissatisfaction on the part of either sex can have a major impact upon the success of a relocation for work. In a NYTimes article on the question of trailing spouses and dual career couples, it is noted that:

According to the 1999 Global Relocation Trends Survey conducted by Windham International GMAC and the National Foreign Trade Council, almost half of all spouses accompanying expatriates had jobs before moving abroad. Of that number, only 11 percent were employed during the assignment. The same survey lists partner dissatisfaction as the most common reason for an assignment to fail, although the exact cause of that dissatisfaction is not spelled out.

A 1999/2000 survey by the accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers of 270 European employers found that almost two thirds listed the spouse or partner’s career as a barrier to mobility. The authors of the study also noted that “factors rated least highly by companies when selecting people for assignments such as partner adaptability and dual career management are the most likely to be the cause of failed assignments.”

I’m really interested in how this attachment to movement impacts our sector, and those who work within it. What have your experiences been?

Have you moved for work, or conversely, been prevented from progression (directly or indirectly) because you haven’t done so? What impact has your choice made upon your career, or your family? Why did you make that choice? And if you haven’t been able to move, have you found other tactics to enable career progression?