Benefits of Working For a Museum

It’s not the money! Museums are notorious for having low-paying job.

Yes, the director and maybe the business manager are paid well – not lavishly in most cases, but well enough.
However most of the staff are paid below commercial rates. If you’re after a high salary job then look elsewhere on JobMonkey!

Benefits? They usually lag what companies and even government agencies pay. Some of the larger museums have decent benefits, but that’s not why people work there.

So why work for a museum? Most museum people will tell you that they love their jobs. Some especially enjoy working with the public. They enjoy giving programs, explaining exhibits, and answering questions. Visitors come streaming in and the knowledgeable museum staff (museum people are quick learners) assume the role of experts and explain how the gold doubloon was found off the coast of Florida or why the horned toad has horns. Working across the street at a company would not give them the respect and place within the community as they get at a museum.

Some staff shun the public and work away in the dark interior of the museum. They love the academic environment. This environment doesn’t exist in many museums, but where it does it provides more academic freedom than universities. Many are the world’s experts on some tiny sub-field of specialization and they love their ability to focus without (much) interference.
If you want to study Matisse or Tyrannosaurus rex, this is the place to be. And if you’re in a museum technician job then you might actually be handling fossils and other fascinating objects.

Something almost all museum workers will tell you is that they like the excitement and change. New exhibits, new programs, special events. Too many changes can cause burn out and is one of the leading causes of museum workers drifting away. But on opening night of the big exhibit, excitement fills the air and knowing that you helped put the exhibit together is rewarding.

At some smaller museums very little changes. And these museums attract and hold people who thrive in the status quo. Period houses and historic sites especially like the dust exactly where it is.

With each new exhibit or program comes new stuff to learn. Museums are great places to work if you’re curious. Interesting stuff comes in, along with the most interesting people. Think of the people featured in National Geographic – they show up at museums.

Directing one museum in West Palm Beach, I had opportunities to meet and work with the rich (to ask for money) and famous (to ask for exhibits, lectures…;). I sat in the director’s office at the Nairobi National Museum of Kenya talking to Richard Leakey about exhibits on fossils. He provided us with a nice collection to display. With a board member I flew to Key West to meet with Mel Fisher to arrange an exhibit of his Atoche treasure. Jane Goodall and Donald Johanson lectured at our museum. I traveled to Peru to bring back $60 million of Incan gold; to Egypt to negotiate an exhibit on ancient toys; and to China to organize an exhibit on the Great Wall. Pretty cool stuff.

Of course when you’re picking up trash that today’s crowd dropped on the floor because the only custodian working for the museum called in sick, it’s easy to loose track of the highlights. That’s one of the rubs. Museums are chronically under staffed and under provisioned. Even office equipment is in short supply. People make do. They figure out ways around the deficiencies and get the job anyway. As much as it is a rub, it’s a blessing. How fun to do a variety of things and to know that whatever today brought, tomorrow will bring something different.

There’s also an element of status in working for a museum. You’re not at one of a hundred companies doing stuff that people don’t understand or care about. You’re working at the place that the local television station covers. The newspaper and radio have regularly assigned reporters to bring stories back from the ends of the earth – via the local museum. When you are introduced at a party, people have heard of your employer, probably have visited, and acknowledge how cool it must be to work there.

There are thousands of museums in the US and many more thousands scattered around the world. Each one has its own style and working conditions. You can find one where you’d love to work. I’ve found five.

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