by Troy Smythe
I’m reflecting on current trends in art museum educator career paths while listening to The Puppini Sisters’ version of “I Will Survive” (which lives in my Killer Cocktails playlist, I’ll pause here while you find it on iTunes).
As an independent consultant I sometimes embed myself into a clients’ department for a few days as I work with them on a project. Often we have mission and vision conversations and toss around ideas about how future staffing plans will reflect those dreams. I’m always interested in talking with museum education professionals and their cohorts about the maturation of our field, which in my opinion is incredibly rich with new talent (I met so many intelligent emerging art museum educators recently in Fort Worth at this years’ NAEA convention). Interestingly, at the same time that all of these professionals are arriving; there is, as it seems there always has been, some ambiguity in the art museum world regarding what museum education is.
One way to pose the question of “what is museum education?” might be to ask how a museum sees its educators currently. Are they seen primarily as program developers? Or are they seen as content developers who aggregate and present information and ways to access art in the collection? In truth, at this professional level, the functions often overlap and occur simultaneously. When it comes to content development, however, it is equally true that museum educators and other departments within their museum often have very different views of how education should be involved in what information shows up in a visitors eyes, ears and hands.
From a distance, and I merely pose the rest of this post as a point of view to be questioned, supplemented, tweaked, and challenged, it seems as if the role of the art museum educator in the future may be housed in more than one department or outside the museums walls completely. Where we find ourselves may depend on the stage of our career and/or the combination of skills we bring to the table.
To start, those new to the field may continue to start work in what are most quickly identified, correctly or not, as traditional museum education roles, namely programming for school, family, and adult audiences. And Directors of Education will still manage and help professionally shape these employees, among other duties addressed below.
The educational paths to these “starting gate” jobs are now more diverse than in the past, with degrees in museum education, art history, formal education, museum studies, or some combination of all of the above serving as viable options. As a result of these multiple paths, a much-needed diversity of perspectives has infused our field with broader understandings of learning theory and practice as well as a healthy introduction to evaluative assessment of what impact their work has on visitors.
The challenge, however, for those who wish to increase their income and responsibilities beyond programming (assuming a museum expects more than programming from their education staff) is that upper level administrators often identify a significant depth of art historical knowledge as a key quality in candidates for senior or mid-level management positions in education.
To be more specific, art museum directors typically expect a senior education professional to have a mastery of basic art historical methods and proficient skill at building an accurate body of knowledge on a subject from available resources. There are exceptions to this, of course, but more than one institution in the last few years has filled their director of education positions with art history PhD graduates who have little programming experience.
A director of education must have management skills (typically undervalued, in my opinion) and a background in audience development. But what other skills and knowledge are helpful if one hopes in the future to move into a senior education position at an art museum?
If the museum is dependent on public funds or has a public mission, chances are, in addition to the art history background already discussed, they will need a combination of three other knowledge sets: evaluation and assessment; a working understanding of education technology; and demonstrable skill in the engagement of visitors with works of art and the museum, in multiple modalities, such as traditional in-gallery teaching and text, but also through other means.
Experiences with art are expansive and complex. They activate many neural networks at once, enabling personally relevant learning that extends beyond the museum visit. Personal, ‘smart’ technology, which grows more ubiquitous each day, is proving helpful as museums try to map and present these experiences. Rigorously designed assessment tools make gathering and presentation of that data possible. All will be key to garnering funding for museums as educational institutions.
Will a director of education in the future need to be an expert in art history, assessment/evaluation, education technology, and a skilled art experience facilitator? The answer depends on each museum’s value system, but a working knowledge of all of the above is not an unlikely request. In fact, a director of education may not need to be an expert in each area. Experts in each area, however, still will be needed by museums.
Though not every museum has embraced the importance of assessment/evaluation in tracking and building on their work, many have. Researchers, both employed as staff and more commonly contracted from outside the museum are more prevalent than ever before. Assessment has come to be viewed not as a budget extra, but actually as a means for drawing monies to projects based on outcomes that can be presented to funders. This specialized skill set is a possible career path for museum educators who are willing to invest the time and money to further their own education accordingly.
Another newer animal in art museums, often hired on with a title such as head of interpretation, may have fewer administrative responsibilities and direct reports than a director of education, but their depth of knowledge in the areas of art history, assessment, technology, and museum learning actually may need to be deeper in some cases. This is such a new trend in art museums that it is still too early to tell where the majority of these positions will be housed: in education departments or as exhibitions or curatorial staff members.
In art museums that see programming as the primary function of museum educators, content development, for wall texts or a cell phone tour stop to cite currently common examples, may be done by staff in curatorial offices or contracted from outside the museum. If the work were contracted, a museum educator with a good background in the discipline of art history working with a curator in the role of knowledge specialist would likely have the qualifications to do it.
So what do you think? Are you seeing other career path trends out there in art museum education? What are your plans to keep yourself professional sharp and hire-ready? Is it a coincidence that Shirley Bassey’s “Big Spender” just popped up on my playlist? Maybe some of you could share a few of the ideas in this post with people in your museum to find out how they see things. I hope to hear from some of you.