Okay, they don't eat people's brains. Heck, many of them are intelligent, sincere, interesting people. But someone needs to raise the red flag before it takes an MA to work the register at the admissions desk.
Summer's coming to D.C., and with it flocks of museum studies / education / exhibit planning graduate interns. I’m always curious when I meet these folks, who are about my age, choosing a different entry path into the museum world. The value proposition of museum grad programs is cloudy in my mind. Is it a credential that serves as a gateway to better jobs? Is it an education that would make me a better person?
Sure, it’s great to learn museum theory and history. But I have some big concerns about museums studies programs, namely:
Standardizing the field limits the potential for radical change. I confess I often feel this way about school in general. One of the reasons I fell in love with museums is because they support learning that is distinctly un-school-like. So I see these programs as a threat, an encroachment of schoolishness on the willfully unschooled. Following a standardized curriculum to prepare for work in the museum field homogenizes the perspectives and skills people bring to museum jobs. I think one of the things that keep museums fresh, welcoming, and non-didactic is the fact that most exhibit designers, museum educators, and conservators come from a variety of backgrounds. You were a carpenter. I was an engineer. She was a ceramicist. He wrote poetry. Sure, we may have some communication trouble getting on the same page. But that’s worth it for the wealth of different experiences we bring to the table.
And by presenting the "right way" to do things, graduate school defines and judges other options as sub-optimal. Young people who walk into class with wild ideas may walk out (and into jobs) with the perception that those unique ideas are inappropriate or impractical. But those are the ideas we need to grow. Museum people aren’t mathematicians; our work can’t be traced to an immutable set of laws. The more we teach and judge based on laws, the less students and graduates will try to break them.
But this isn't just about my personal bias against school learnin'. I support pedantic educational models when goals and outcomes are clear. But no one can list the tangible skills these programs impart. When I ask alumni about the value of museum education/studies programs, they often say, “It was a good experience. But I wouldn’t recommend it for you.” This may sound reasonable; any life choice is a personal decision. But why isn't it right for me? Because I already have those skills? Because I'm already on the way? If I've learned in a few years of experience and reading--for free--what I would have learned in graduate school, why bother?
Other graduate programs develop hard skills. Last year, my museum was a “client” for an MIT product design grad course (in mechanical engineering). The students designed and fabricated prototype pieces of an upcoming exhibition. None of these students had backgrounds in educational theory or museum studies. And yet if given the choice to have one of them as an intern or a museum studies student, I’d choose a mechanical engineer in a second. All of those students had real skills—in building and design—to bring to the drafting table.
If the programs aren't about skills, are they a professional gateway? Not in my anecdotal experience. The credential is a crapshoot. I used to work at a children’s museum with another young woman who had a graduate degree in museum education. We cut the same construction paper. We taught the same programs. The only benefit her degree got her was 25 cents more per hour. I don’t think this is an unusual circumstance—most of the museum grad students I know have the same struggle as non-grad students to find museum jobs, made worse by hefty student loans. Worse, graduate school provides a sumptuous taste of exciting museum work via substantive intern projects which makes sinking into mundane entry-level jobs disappointing. At least I knew I wasn’t using a graduate degree to cut construction paper, that I was paying my dues without also paying thousands in loans. The grad students I know who have successfully transitioned from school to job did so because of connections they made in the program—connections they could have made on the job or at conferences. Why pay for an internship when you could offer yourself to a museum for free?
The graduate programs don't just offer false promises to students. The semblance of a credential creates a red herring that employers latch onto. Over the last 10 years, “graduate degree in museum X” has snuck into many listings for entry level museum jobs. Have these jobs changed such that a graduate degree is now a necessary prerequisite?
I asked my boss about this. She’s a graduate of a museum education program, and she originally hired me for a job that listed museum graduate degree as a prerequisite. She reflected and said that she would always prefer someone with interesting, diverse real-world experience over someone who just has a graduate degree. And yet, she admitted that seeing that MA on the resume imparts a certain comfort, a known quantity, that appeals to her. But how many interesting, diverse people like me would have turned away from that job listing because of a lack of the credential? How many resumes would she examine less closely due to lack of the MA? For her at least, the degree is a crutch that makes it easy for her to not seek out the best person for a job—which creates a lose-lose for the institution and for that best person, wherever he or she might be.
This is not to say that I don’t think education and learning is essential for our field. If anything, I support MORE educational opportunities in museums. But should they happen in a classroom? And is graduate school the best entry path for people new to the field? I want the head honchos of the museum world to spend some energy enabling apprenticeships, internships, and experimental projects, so that young people can learn real skills in the open, creative environments that museums can and should be. I want to see more graduate programs (and less formal opportunities) like Bank Street's Leadership program, which is for working, mid-career educators to collaborate and learn in a high-quality, focused environment. I want access and discussion around conference sessions, journal articles, exhibit critiques, and workshops.
When it comes to museum education, we need to stop grading and start enabling. “No one ever fails a museum.” But did they get an A in the class where they first learned that?