How to Get a Job at a Museum
You want to be prepared going into an interview, so get all the information you can.
Make sure that this is the place you want to work. Generate a list of questions for them that show you have done your homework and that will satisfy any nagging issues you have. If you have a portfolio of work to show, make it look stellar. If you have worked at well-known institutions or with well-known professionals, drop the names into the conversation. Eagerness and earnestness could very high in museums, so show yours off.
1.) Visit a Museum’s Web Page.
Look for job postings and HR background information.
Read the entire site. The appearance of the site along with the information it holds will tell you a lot about the culture of the museum.
Do they list staff contacts? Large, bureaucratic, and old museums tend to not list them. They don’t want the public contacting staff.
Do they have events and classes going on all the time? When was the last time they posted a press release or item of news? If their news is months old either they don’t value the public relations of their own web site or they are operating in first gear.
When was their most recent special exhibit and what was it? Record what you find out. When you talk to the staff informally or during an interview you can ask them about exhibits and programs by name. This will impress them that you’re on the ball.
2. Visit the Museum
Find out what’s going on. Are your pre-conceived notions about the museum fulfilled?
Find out staff attitudes. Casually talk to the staff about what they are doing or how the new exhibit is going. Are staff and volunteers excited about what is going on? If they aren’t excited and aren’t interested in getting you excited, why would you want to work there?
Pick up the literature. Is it professionally laid out and printed? Could you do a better job? If so, you could mention that you’d like to work on future flyers, newsletters, and brochures. Mine the literature for information you can use in an interview.
What are the exhibits like? Could you make something comparable? Better? Are there other technologies that might work better? Clearly you don’t want to make the staff defensive about the quality of their work, but you might mention an interest in trying other ways to build or maintain exhibits.
3. Find out what the Community thinks about the Museum
If you live in the same community this is easy. If you don’t, go to the chamber of commerce and ask for information on the museum. Ask the staff about it and if they would recommend you visiting. In your interview you can mention that you’ve done a quick assessment of the community views and then share what you’ve found.
4. Use your Network
Who do you know who has contacts with the board or staff? Contacting board members can be tricky as they should not meddle in the hiring process, but can provide you with useful information. Don’t try to have a board member intervene on your behalf – it can backfire badly.
Staff can alert you to what the museum is looking for in the open position. They can also give you inside information on the financial condition of the museum.
5. Get the Annual Report
Museums should produce an annual report with financial statements. They may share it on their web site or you could contact the museum to request a copy.
Some watch guard organizations collect and share nonprofit’s IRS filings. GuideStar (www.guidestar.org) is one of these.
Review the financial reports. If you are unfamiliar with reading these, ask an accounting friend to read them with you.
Why go to this trouble? Do you want to quit your job, possibly move your home, and start working for a museum that has fallen on hard times? If that prospect doesn’t frighten you, then understanding the financial reports will make you appear much more knowledgeable during your interview.
6. Present Yourself as a Problem Solver
Especially in smaller museums every member of the staff wears several hats. Regardless of who holds what title, the person who can repair computers is called upon to do that. If you can repair computers, or toilets, or the cash register, let them know.
Don’t point out a museum’s weaknesses in an interview, but present yourself as someone who can solve the problems they appear to have. Given that they may have two or more equally credentialed candidates for a job, they might select the one who offers talents they need in other areas.
7. Attend the Conference
Attend the conferences of the associations for museums. They will have the latest museum job openings listed at the conference and some museums may be interviewing people at the conference. At the least by attending you will learn more about the type of museum you are interested in and may make contacts you can call later for information.
Subscribe to the newsletters or magazines published by the national organizations that represent museums you are interested in. You can gain good background information on the industry as a whole and about the institutions individually from the notes and articles.
If you are interested in museum jobs in one region, go the regional museum organization on the web. Not only do they post jobs, they also hold annual conferences and provide some professional training.
Get your resume in order. Or, develop a new resume that will appeal to museums. Have several friends review your resume. As in any job search your resume is your tool to get to first base. Prepare notes for your interview – things you want to mention and questions you want to ask. Let them know that you have taken the time to learn about them.
10. Plan B
If there are no jobs open or if you don’t get the one you were applying for, go to plan B: get a non-paying job at the museum with the idea of making yourself indispensable (see Volunteering at a museum). You will be surprised how many people working at museums got their start by volunteering. Once you’re a volunteer, make yourself indispensable so when a job becomes open they slide you in.
Get additional qualifications. Colleges offer non-degree programs in museum management and in the specific -ologies that the museum specializes in. For instance, a museum that features modern art would be more interested in someone with some background in modern art. A science museum with a planetarium might be more impressed with someone who just took an astronomy class. It’s easier to describe your enthusiasm for a museum and its field if you have some qualification to point to.
Join. Take out a membership so you can follow more closely what is happening. Attend the social events and lectures or other programs. Try to meet the staff and key volunteers. The more you know about a museum, the more valuable you are.