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.