Now What?

Next Friday is scheduled to be my last day at the museum. And, not coincidentally, in museum work.

After my boss told me a few months ago that my contract was not going to be renewed, I did a lot of soul searching. I’ve been working in trying to work in museums for more than 10 years. Every career move I have made was with the goal of securing a stable, long-term position in a museum, but no matter how hard I’ve tried to make this career path work for me, it just hasn’t. I stumbled on the notion of working in a museum as a college student, and thought it was my dream job. I thought it would be fun to study artifacts and research the past. I thought that my work would have greater meaning – that I would get to make contributions to a larger body of knowledge. And I thought it would be more creative and therefore, more engaging than your typical 9-5 office drone work.

But what I found instead was that the reality of working in museums never aligned with what I’d envisioned. Studying artifacts? Hardly! In order to study any artifacts, you have to be able to find and identify them, so my task  more often than not always ended up being cataloguing the artifacts. Read: mind-numbing repetitive data entry. Hour after hour. Day after day. Week after week. Ad infinitum. I guess I could take comfort in the fact that my work was making contributions to a larger body of knowledge, but, after a few months hours of tedious data entry (and let’s not forget printing, cutting out and applying tiny, tiny catalog labels to the objects), I started to realize that unless I got additional tasks that would use something other than my lizard brain, I was going to lose my mind. So museum collections management wasn’t for me. I wanted to work on developing exhibits, but it turns out that kind of work is nearly impossible to find, nevermind get. Building the exhibits themselves was out of the question – at larger museums, those are done by outside firms, and even in smaller institutions, you need someone who has, at bare minimum, carpentry skills. And if you could see me with a drill, you’d now be laughing so hard you’d be pissing yourself. So while the execution of a vision isn’t my strong suit when it comes to museum exhibits, concept development is. And those jobs in exhibit development? At least as scarce as…no, I would argue scarcer than exhibit design jobs. So when I finally landed one, I found myself in a tiny, understaffed, woefully underfunded museum where, sure, I got tasked with thinking about and planning the big picture of our museum exhibits. Along with just about everything else, leaving me almost no time to do any of the work that I had come there to do. The only other time I found myself in my desired role was, well, now. I was hired to write the permanent exhibits, which I did, and now that they’re done, I’m laid off.

Let’s do the math. In the 10 years since I finished my M.A., I’ve had a grand total of just over 5 years of gainful employment in my field of museums. If this were baseball, I’d be in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, that meant that for 5 of the past 10 years, I spent just as much time stubbornly chasing down a foolhardy vision of a career as I did working the short-term positions that I successfully pieced together in my chosen field. I’ve been working at making a career out of a dying career path, one that is over-credentialed and woefully underpaid, all for the sake of fulfilling some childish vision of a “dream job.”

In my experience, it’s called a dream job because it is some romanticized fantasy – a reverie. Now that I’m waking up, I find myself in a daze, having given over more than a decade to something that just wasn’t really there. I have worked in positions that had advertised the need for advanced degrees and specialized skills when the day-to-day responsibilities turned out to be manning the front desk cash register and answering the phone. I took short-term and contract positions with the hope that they would turn into more, but inevitably each would come to an end as funding ran out. All along the way I found myself thinking , “If only I [fill-in-the-blank]” [had a Ph.D., knew more about ancient pre-Columbian textiles, became an expert at HTML5 applications for web-based exhibitions…you get the idea], I would at long last achieve the dream job I’d always hoped for. I finally ended up with a great title (exhibit writer) and overlooked the teeny tiny minor detail that it was a short-term contract position.  I have given it my all. In the end, my 10 year pursuit has come at a high opportunity cost: the chance to have had a decade of better pay, retirement benefits (paid by someone other than me out of my meager take home pay), and professional growth and advancement in a career path that offered continuity instead of the punctuated equilibrium that has been my ‘career.’ I’m taking this layoff as a sign: that it is time to move on.

To what? I don’t know. I fear that I have over-niched myself to such a degree that I wonder if I can identify, nevermind market, any transferable skills to move on to something else. All that I’ve learned is that museum work isn’t what I want to do anymore, but I haven’t gotten any closer to figuring out what I do want to do.

Laid Off and Knocked Up

Note: Because I relocated my Laid Off & Knocked Up posts from another blog to my regular blog, I have deliberately assigned the wrong year for this entry – 2010. The events below actually took place November 7, 2011 but in order to keep all the blog posts in the correct order, I had to assign the wrong year to keep this entry first in the series. Okay? Cool. Read on:

 

Exactly one year ago today, we found out we were having a baby.

In one singular moment, you go from envisioning what it might be like to be a parent to having a ticking time bomb until you will become a parent. No matter how prepared you think you are for the moment when you find out you’ll be a parent, you just aren’t. Sure, logically, we’re no dummies. We could put two and two together – or, rather, one and one together to equal three. And sure, we sat around thinking, “it would be nice to have a baby someday,”  but, especially after years of living in that mindset, it’s still startling to discover that “someday” has just been recalibrated to mean “in less than 9 months.”

I had often found myself wondering in some daydreamy way, “I wonder what it would be like to have a baby.” But when that became “Uh, so I have exactly how long before there’s a BABY?!” I found myself living at the intersection of exhilaration and panic attack. Especially because I had only 10 workdays left before I was getting laid off.

Like the pregnancy, that wasn’t exactly unexpected either. My boss had already tipped me off back in August that I’d be losing my job at the end of my contract in November.  It was nice of him to give me some warning so I could have a jump start on looking for work, but my efforts to land a new job before my last day hadn’t panned out. I had spent the last 10 years trying to make it in the museum profession…and had largely failed. With this layoff I was determined to make a break from museum work and try something new, but I didn’t have a clue what I could or would want to do.

I was starting to panic. If there’s ever a time to stanch the flow of money out the door, it’s when there’s a new baby on its way. I needed a job, fast. So while I was beyond ecstatic about finally getting the chance to become a parent, that exhilaration was dampened by my nausea at being unemployed at one of the most critical times to have a steady income. Or was that just the morning sickness kicking in?

 

In Which I Officially Become a Writer

So, it’s real. The vision I created through career counseling to become a writer is happening. I just accepted a job as a writer! It’s actually writing museum exhibits, which isn’t exactly the kind of writing I want to be doing and I really wanted out of museum work, BUT it’s a launching pad. And it’s temporary – 18 months – so hopefully I’ll have developed enough of a portfolio in the next 18 months to say buh-bye to museum work altogether and set my sails for writer-land.

The Trend-Followers

Museums strive to influence culture, to argue that they are a nexus, the ground zero of things like civic engagement, social responsibility, and visual learning. Ha! That is such bullshit. An example: the web. Museums are constantly looking at emerging technologies as in, How do we get in on that? Museums say “What’s with this Twitter thing? What is the need for social networking?” rather than sitting around thinking proactively about how to put these tools to use — its all retroactive. It’s kind of like reading Snow Crash today and saying Wow! This Stephenson guy really took the avatar idea and ran with it, gave it life. (For those who don’t know, Stephenson invenvted the whole avatar thing.)

I mean when I started applying my writing skills to museum exhibits, the most exhibit experience I had was in doing online exhibits….as in on this thing called the interweb. This was no secret — I made it completely clear that I had very little hands-on experience with making a “real” exhibit. And yet, my boss said something to me like “See, here’s where we differ. I don’t think online pictures can replace the real thing!” Let me be clear. Web exhibits are not supposed to “replace” the real thing. People come to museums to see stuff. But what we do online can help get people to come see stuff. And give them an unstructured space to explore what we’re all about.

I taught myself a bit of HTML & CSS, I do a lot of database admin for my work, and have had to learn basic SQL, networking, etc. And yet I’m almost always the most knowledgeable about this tech-type stuff among my coworkers, except in places that have staffs large enough to hire *actual* IT folks. Which is scary, because I only know enough to be dangerous. I can figure out how something is put together, and it takes me a long time to break it down, recode it and put it back the way I want it. It can be done, I can do it, but it takes me awhile. I am self-taught in Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Access, Google Sketchup, and tons of other stuff, which means I can figure something out, but it takes me longer than folks who’ve had formal training in these things. But at least I recognized that for my future career, I would need to know these things and try to at least keep up with the curve, rather than falling hopelessly behind. Like the luddites with whom I seem to work. I mean I said something about how stupid it was for all of these Second Life museum classes I keep getting advertisements for, and these folks look at me like I’ve grown a second head: “What’s Second Life?”  OMG, ARE YOU SERIOUS?! I get “I don’t believe in Facebook” or “What’s the point of Twitter?” I think my points are lost when trying to explain that Facebook can be an incredibly powerful marketing tool, and Twitter is just plain awesome. Especially for writers — it helps me hone my skills of saying what I want to say in less than 140 characters several times a day. What better way to become more concise AND tell all of my followers about my thoughts on the a penis invasion on Second Life?

My New Job Sucks

There. I said it. No upward mobility, no possibilities for growth and advancement. No additional training or support for professional development. Basically, I’m my employers’ bitch. It’s 40 hours of “Dance, Monkey, Dance!” At first, it was really nice. I had left my museum job because I had been overextended, and stretched too thin. While it’s nice to not be held singlehandedly responsible for several dozen projects at once, it would be nice to get the chance to take responsibility for at least one or two.

At least it’s only 40 hours a week, unlike my last gig. And I can set my own schedule. But since it’s become clear that my bosses have no interests in my development, and see me only as their hired clerical assistant, I guess I’ll be revisiting other options for work. My museum experience has been illuminating. I feel like there are (basically) two paths museum professionals take. The first is to pursue work in a small institution where you can quickly become responsible for museum projects and endeavors like exhibitions or educational programming. But the problem with that path is that these young go-getters like me frequently don’t get the mentoring and support that they need to develop. In my small museum job, I was on a staff of four, then three, then two. To whom could I turn for professional guidance and advice, especially since I had so little time to emerge from the trenches of day-to-day tasks? Where was I to find time to network? The other path is to take an entry-level position at a larger institution and work your way up over time. The trouble with that path is that young go-getters quickly bore and feel tasked with rote, repetitive data entry tasks that do not match the level of skill (and graduate degrees) they have attained.

So in leaving behind museums for a private art gallery, I thought I’d be making a transition to doing something else while I downsized my responsibilities and got my work hours back around 40 per week. I felt completely swamped and overwhelmed in my last position. But here I feel overqualified for the tasks with which my bosses task me, which is essentially serving as an on-call data entry assistant. I know there must be a way to find the appropriate balance somewhere out there in the museum world, but not when you’re geographically tied to a specific place (and Phoenix is not known for its vibrant museum community, people).

In addition to my recent job plights, I have found the museum field frustrating on so many other levels. They’re all underfunded and overextended. They often seem to attract pretentious A-holes to their boards, whose conservative values and visions often clash with the innumerable incredibly talented, thinking-outside-the-box creative types who work there. Museums frequently offer few benefits. I’m in my 30s and have never had a museum job that offered a retirement plan. And in my previous job and my current one, I’m left to obtain my own health insurance (and since I don’t qualify for private health insurance, I’m basically screwed). So all of this makes me wonder what else can I do with my degree besides museum work? I think it’s time I find out, because I strongly suspect that the field to which I have dedicated 8 years of my life so far is not for me. Hello, career counseling!

Unfiltered Thoughts: Architecture

So my new job is in a private art gallery in someone’s home. And by home, I mean overly designed architectural marvel. And by marvel, I mean that it’s, uh, special. Unique. Ok, it’s just straight-up fucked up, really. The building is shaped like a parallelogram. Well, actually, it’s a rhomboid, not just a parallelogram. So there are no 90 degree angles anywhere in the building, and everything, from the furnishings to the fixtures, is custom-made. It may sound pretty cool, but there are some pain-in-the-ass quirks about it for someone who works in such a contrived and unusual structure.

For starters, I work on the basement level. On the south end of the basement level, the ceiling (or the floor of the ground-floor level) is actually a series of plexiglass skylights that let in a lot of natural light. So much light, in fact, that they had to install custom sunscreens on all of them. Not only because of the light and resulting heat, but more importantly because the homeowners store their textiles on the south end, and textiles are easily damaged by light. Meanwhile, the north end of the basement level, where the offices and kitchen are, and where someone like me works 40 hours a week, has no windows or natural light of any kind. It’s a mind-boggling arrangement. Valuable textiles’ exposure to light should be minimized as much as possible, whereas natural light is good for a healthy work environment for people. So why they didn’t just flip the arrangement, and put offices on the south end and textiles on the dark north end, is beyond me. I would say it’s just a decision that the owners made after the architect left the scene, but I know how the owners work. They stay on their help employees, contractors, groundskeepers, and architects like a hawk. And there was a clear and conscious decision to place the office spaces on the north end. There are no rooms at the south end – the textiles are displayed along partitions, not walls or within interior rooms.

Beyond the appropriation of space on the basement level, there’s also an issue with the furnishings. Every single furnishing is a built-in. While my office is beautiful – sleek glass and dark black countertops – there are some problems. My desk is also a rhomboid to remain parallel to the interior and exterior walls. Have you ever tried to cut a perfect 90 degree angle on a surface that’s a rhomboid? Give it a go and tell me how that works out for you. And everything is fixed. Also, the surfaces are all at a fixed height (which is exactly the wrong height for me), so I’m developing carpal tunnel. When I adjust my chair height so that the seat has me at the appropriate spot, there’s only a couple inches clearance under the table. And try as I might, my thighs are not a mere 2″. Finally, there are some major oversights in terms of accommodating basic needs. Because all storage is also built-in, there are no wall hooks, no closets. Where am I supposed to hang my jacket or put my wet umbrella?

It’s utterly baffling, because I’m left to think that either the architect missed some key details in terms of thinking about how people would work in and use the space (as this level was specifically designed for the homeowners’ hired help), or that the architect’s attempts to incorporate such improvements was entirely overridden by the homeowners.

In Which I go Through the Open Window

Today was my last day at my museum job! On to another museum-ish job. Not exactly a museum, but a private art collection, where I’ll be managing the collection and doing research. It’s going to be different in a lot of ways, but the one that I’m looking forward to most is having a clearly defined role that will enable me to concentrate on one project at a time and do each well. I wasn’t able to negotiate putting off the start date, so I’ll be starting after a long weekend, rather than after the years weeks of vacation I actually need to rest up & recover from my museum job, but at least I landed a job in my general field. And that is a feat in and of itself in this economy.

Work Assessment

So in looking for new work, I’d applied to a position at another nonprofit that seemed to have its act together. I wasn’t sure if the position was right for me, but as I got to know the company, I felt like it was a really good fit. Read: they pay well and offer benefits.

But the hoops to go through in applying for the job were borderline ridiculous. In addition to the usual cover letter and resume, phone and in-person interviews, I had to take an enormous battery of personality assessments. I had been told that regardless of whether I was offered the position, I’d be given the results. After I’d gotten word that I wouldn’t be offered the position, I hadn’t heard from the HR folks, so I finally called to inquire and had a phone consultation with them today to go over the results. The first thing the HR woman asked (excitedly) was, “So! Did you get the job?!”

Um, no.

“No? Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

(Um, why the hell didn’t you know that already? Weird!)

“Do you know WHY you weren’t offered the position?”

No. I simply received a letter that stated that another candidate had been offered and had accepted the position.

“Well, we’ll see what we can find out on our end and give you a little more feedback on that at another time. In the meantime, just try to understand not to take this personally and ….”

I tuned out. It’s hard not to take this sort of thing personally.

Anyway, on to the results. I was shocked at how accurately the results reflected my work style and personality. I was measured in four cognitive ability areas: vocabulary, numerical and visual analysis, verbal reasoning, and critical thinking. For these four tests, I rated “far above average” in these areas. But that wasn’t the interesting part. The assessments also measured my work personality in several areas.

As far as my leadership style, I am comfortable at being in charge but it’s not something that I have to have at work to be fulfilled. (Check). I am open and willing to challenge the status quo and challenge authority, not a blind follower. (Yup.) I am willing to voice unpopular opinions, but I am also concerned about what other people think of me and my work. (So far, three for three.)

On a scale of introversion to etraversion, I am in the middle. Which means I need to be around people and be given the opportunity to work on teams, but I also require alone time to think, contemplate, and do the tasks that contribute to the overall project. Sounds right.

I am not only comfortable working among people who are different from me, I actually prefer that because I am inspired and fueled by the diversity of approaches and ideas brought to the table. I have strong empathetic skills. I am good at listening to and understanding others, I am concerned about others’ feelings, and I am approachable. I am dependable and see that follow-through is important, but I’m not overly concerned with details to make me a perfectionist. I am highly focused on achievement and strive to exceed my goals. I prefer to be self-directed and independent, but I like a lot of variety in my work — I get easily bored with the same thing or repetitive tasks. I am naturally curious, I am skilled at understanding myself, my thoughts and feelings, and reading non-verbal cues. The tests even revealed that I’m quite sensitive, that it is difficult for me (though not impossible) to address sticky or sensitive issues and I take constructive feedback way too personally.

While I may not have landed the job, I think all of this info is a really key takeaway as I look for other work, particularly since I’m considering bailing on the museum, and even nonprofit, sector altogether. The problem is I don’t know how to find work that best suits me…

Underdevelopment

All I do at work anymore is fundraise. The annual fundraiser is in three weeks, and my coworker (singular) and I have been working our asses off to make it go smoothly. I cannot believe how poorly planned the event is. With the Boss on her maternity leave, it’s up to me and the administrative assistant to make it happen. The board committee shows up for weekly meetings during which they play on their Blackberrys under the table while half-heartedly listening to whether we should have the same dessert as last year or a new one. The meeting breaks, an hour and a half later, with no decision made. The only decision is that we should all email our choice by 2 pm tomorrow.

Instead of all the work I came here to do — collections management, archival digitization, exhibit development — I spend all of my time putting together packages for the upcoming Silent Auction, take reservations for the event, book bands and photographers, and work as a bartender at all of the other smaller special events. This upcoming fundraiser is mission critical. It raises all of our operating expense fund for the entire upcoming year. All of our operating expenses.

My boss has all but said that the next year depends entirely upon the money raised at this event. But never having done this before, there’s no training, no help, nobody who did this last year to walk me through this. Until the museum can create a stable financial base, all of my efforts are going to be oriented to the season’s fundraiser. In the spring, it’s the major annual fundraiser. In the fall, it’s gearing up for a booksigning and lecture. In the winter, it’s a holiday themed dinner. And in the new year, it’s another booksigning and lecture. The museum has zero endowment, and barely scrapes together enough to pay its staff.  I have no idea why the museum decided to spend their hard-earned money on me, who has very little experience in special events and fundraising, when they could have spent their funds more wisely on a development director to raise money.

An Unlikely Ally

The other shoe dropped. Today my boss presented to myself and the president of the board her plan for her maternity leave. She’s taking her leave starting now, even though the baby’s not due for another two weeks. And then after her six weeks off, she’s returning to work.

Via telecommute. From home. Part time.

So I’m going to continue to be expected to handle all on-site concerns and duties. For six months after her maternity “leave” ends. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

But something interesting happened at this little get-together too. I have never really had any interaction with the board president, partly because it’s not my place and partly because she and my boss seem so buddy-buddy. So it was weird when the board president had my back during part of the meeting.

The Boss announced that the next exhibit would open in October. The board president lost it. She said that it is totally unrealistic and unfair to expect an exhibit to fall into place in 7 months, especially given all of my other responsibilities and immediate priorities. The Boss insisted it was “fine” and that it “has to happen. Period.” (Of course it’s fine for her! She’s not doing any of the work!)

The board president persisted. She is an exhibit developer for another museum and she said that at her institution, they take up to 2 years to put together new exhibits, because it takes that long to research and develop content, fundraise, write the text, gather the visuals, select the artifacts, prepare the gallery, and install the exhibit. The Boss, having zero experience in exhibit development, drew a line in the sand. “We have never taken more than a year to put together an exhibit and I’ve already committed to an October opening and that’s when it will open. I’ve told potential sponsors that it opens in October.”

My boss went straight from her MA into being a museum director. She’s never worked in exhibits, education, collections, or anything else. She has no clue what it takes to put together an exhibit. She couldn’t articulate the steps that have to happen if her life depended on it. And since she rules with an iron fist, when I tell her that I can’t accomplish a given task in the time allotted to me, she sees that as my own shortcoming, that I’m disorganized and not managing my time wisely. But maybe she’ll listen when the board president speaks.