How Museums Find and Hire Staff

What happens after you submit your resume and cover letter?

You wait. And, you hope that the door opens just far enough to let you get your foot in. It may be a phone call, but more likely an email, asking you to an interview.

If you are in the same region as the museum, this first meeting may be face-to-face. Otherwise, it will be done over the phone. There could be several phone conversations with different members of the search team. Don’t assume that they will share information about their talk with you; instead, make each telephone call a special sales call.

For senior positions in a museum a head hunting firm might be used. The first telephone interview or face-to-face interview might be with the head hunter. Typically they ask each candidate the same questions and are likely to miss important qualities. Don’t let them get away without jotting down what makes you the idea candidate. Remember, they don’t care who gets what job; they are responsible to feed the pipeline of candidates and to reject all but a small handful. Rejection is on their mind, so don’t let them overlook your talents.

If a head hunter isn’t used the museum’s HR person or department will conduct the first interview. In some cases the department manager may do it. You need to know who you are talking to and what their background is.
HR people won’t be impressed with your knowledge of 17th century artists – they will be more interested in your arrest record.

Getting to second base means a live interview. For directors, this means meeting with the board of directors or a selection committee of board members. These are the movers and shakers behind the museum and you need to impress them that you move and shake. Obviously you need to maintain a differential attitude to them, local traditions, and their fair city.

Positions other than directorships will be adjudicated by members of the museum staff. You can learn a lot about a museum by who attends an interview and what they say about the position and museum. Is it a democracy or dictatorship? It’s reassuring to hear a consistent message from them; inconsistencies likely indicate schisms between departments or individuals.

Whether you are flying across the country for an interview or driving across town, make the logistics as easy for you as you can. Arrive early, well fed, calm and prepared. If you are coming from afar, the museum should pay some or all of your travel expenses.

For the interview wear business attire. You don’t need to set new standards for style, but you do need them to focus on you and not the hole in your blue jeans. If you typically wear ostentatious jewelry, have tattoos, or smoke – don’t reveal anything that you don’t need to. They can adjust to you later; first get the job.

A tour of the museum should be anticipated. If you are led around by a less senior member of the staff, this is your opportunity to ask lots of questions.

Many museum interviews are managed poorly. Staff have little background in HR and board members just don’t care. (A board member once asked me in an interview what church I attended and how often. That was his only question in the interview). They may spend all the time talking about what they have done at the museum and not asking you any serious questions. Somehow you have to break into the conversation to sell yourself.

Be prepared with a list of questions about what the job is about and what the museum is up to. Skip any questions about benefits, pay, and retirement. Those questions can be answered later if they offer you a job. (Undoubtedly the benefits will be weak and the pay low).

You’ve gone from one in a hundred to one in three or four during this process, so go home and give yourself a minor celebration. Afterwards send a note of thanks to the people you have met. If they asked any questions that you didn’t fully answer, include an answer now. If they responded to some points you made in the interview, reaffirm those points now.

If an offer comes, bring up the questions of what’s in it for you. The museum will have little wiggle room with benefits, but may have some on salary. Small institutions that don’t have rigid personnel policies may be able to negotiate other (non cost) benefits – like vacation time. Now is the time to grab whatever brass rings are out there.

If you will have to move, nail down what assistance the museum will provide. They may be able to get you a hotel room while you search for a place to live and again when you arrive before the moving van. Let them either cover the cost of the move (billed directly to the museum) or give you a flat payment and allow you to score the best deal you can.

Bummer! You didn’t get it! Despair, but not completely. It does occur that the number one pick changes his or her mind. (It happened to me! He left them standing at the airport. I was their second choice and got the job.) Or that they do something really dumb. It also occurs that other museums conducting a similar search will make contact to find out who the number 2 and 3 candidates were. They might short circuit the hiring cycle and just talk to you. Play nice and hope for the best.

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