Changing Expectations + 21C Skills: Are We There Yet?

Close your eyes and think about the museum professionals in your life: your colleagues, your friends and your partners in crime. They’re passionate people, right? And driven. And pretty darn smart. However, passion, drive and smarts aren’t all we need in our professional lives. We need fair compensation, feasible (if still challenging) expectations and opportunities for further professional development and enrichment to not only help us navigate our own museum-centric career paths but to also become more effective contributors to our organizations, thus furthering their missions and serving the community at large.

I love working in a museum, and I am thankful for the opportunity, network, luck and happenstance that has been my path in the profession. That being said, I want to dive a little deeper into the “structure” of the field: what we look for in new hires and what to look out for as a professional – the “dun, dun, DUNs” (all dramatic like) of a museum career.  To start this discussion off, I’d like to explore two perspectives, The Museum of the Future‘s “A job description for future museum professionals” and Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers‘, “Expectation Inflation: “DO YOUR JOB, AND THEN SOME”

Jasper Visser’s blog post, “A job description for future museum professionals,” discusses 21st century skills, lists museum professional qualities and challenges the notion of “experience is required.” First of all, the 21st century skills debate is a personal favorite of mine. Perhaps it’s because I’m a part of Generation Me – “I can do this, I can do that and I bet I could succeed at x, y, z.” We’re also guilty of, “anything you can do, I can do better” – I blame the 1990’s Gatorade campaign with Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm. But, I digress; let’s return to 21st Century Skills. What are they? Basically, to have them you should be a filer (organized), flutist (talented), work to become fluent in Finnish (challenge seeker) and a Futurist (techie). Okay, not really – but what makes 21st Century Skills so unique (particularly in a museum setting) is their function of connecting traditional roles of the museum in the community to the evolving and ever expanding reach of future/digital potential within communities AND vice versa. Yes, I said vice versa. The future can only truly be successful when we take the time to understand the past: where we come from and why we exist, all while recognizing that change is inevitable. Basically, the outlined 21st Century Skills set of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation are all skills needed by successful museum professionals as the field continues to evolve.

Jasper then lists the following qualities needed in an ideal future museum professional:

      • A practical communicator who can (help) uncover stories hidden in the collection, exhibitions, etc. and can make them resonate with a wide variety of audiences.
      • A team player not only in her own team (communication, online, etc.) but especially in teams that contain people from all over the organisation.
      • A creative, pro-active problem solver who always looks with fresh eyes at the organisation and the things it does to generate ideas for experiment and improvement even where none are (desperately) needed.
      • Absolutely passionate about and undoubtedly loyal to the vision of the organisation.
      • Well aware of the wider societal, cultural, economic and political environment in which the organisation operates.
      • Responsible and willing to take responsibility beyond the scope of the job description and organisation.
      • Curious (proven).

This also sounds like someone I’d like on my bowling team. Seriously.

There is one other element that Jasper tackles in his article, which I really think is the kicker: Experience. Are 10 years of managerial experience required to successfully manage a project? Jasper says no. What about a graduate degree? Jasper, again, says no.

Radical? Yes and no.

While I know of organizations that “experiment” with hiring and are occasionally willing to think outside the traditional boxes of “appropriate qualifications,” what I’ve continued to see in the realm of history museums is that we too often hold steadfast to professional degrees as a necessary qualifier for employment. Is that starting to change? Maybe. Jasper certainly suggests that it needs to.

Does Jasper’s post make you feel all warm and fuzzy? To be a successful museum professional, it’s not about the years of blood, sweat, and tears; toil and exasperation, or the patience of a saint. With a little creativity, flexibility, forward thinking and a passion for the work, anyone can be prepared to shape the museums of the future and tackle any problem that the field can throw at us. It all sounds good, right? Well, the next blog post we’re about to dive into, “Expectation Inflation: DO YOUR JOB, AND THEN SOME,” makes me uncomfortable – probably because, as I said before, I’m from Generation Me. This post discusses those “dun, dun, DUNs” of the museum field, arguing that sometimes passion, creativity, and chutzpah are just not enough. The underlying issues in the museum field, it suggests, are the unrealistic expectations of the profession placed on its professionals, a basic set of organizational structures that have been challenged by budget and staffing cuts, and the harsh reality that we all face of “less people, more work.” Individuals may possess the skills to seamlessly transition from traditional museum ideas and practices to more of an experimental, digital and outreach approach, but if an organization treats its employees like cattle – they’re eventually going to wander off and look for greener pastures. Or, as a colleague of mine bluntly put it: if you work something to death – it’s eventually going to die.

Buzzkill yet?

unrealistic expectations“Expectation Inflation: DO YOUR JOB, AND THEN SOME,” written by the cleverly named Fully Loaded Camel (FLC), discusses and rebuts an article from the American Alliance of Museums publication, Museum, titled “Leadership at All Levels”(which is excerpted from the book, A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career). “Leadership at All Levels,” written by Elizabeth S. Peña, is described by FLC, as a “go the extra mile” soapbox. “Be ambitious,” “extend yourself,” and “make yourself indispensable” are phrases that can apply to nearly any career field. FLC suggests that, particularly in the museum field, these virtues are exploited and we must, therefore, change the fundamental structure of the how we operate.

Most museums are non-profits. Most, not all. That being said, when you enter this line of work, whether it be museums, education, social work, etc, you enter it with the clear understanding that it will not be the most “lucrative” of career paths. Giant salaries, company jets and ridiculous (or even regular) bonuses don’t really exist. The dangers of over-commitment, overwork, time poverty and overall stress discussed in this article are very real. There are hell weeks (exhibit openings, annual reports, close of a capital campaign) and there are unrealistic expectations.

FLC’s post addresses some very valid points on work/life balance and the field in general, and suggests that there are ways to handle and manage these stressful situations (managing up, learning to say no – check out their wiki here). But, ultimately FLC suggests that if the job is more challenging than you bargained for and is no longer fulfilling – at no fault of the individual, but rather a result of the unsustainability of raised expectations without raised compensation or resources for the employee – it may be time to step away and leave.

Sounds a lot like failure to me (Generation Me talking) – again, not of the individual but the field failing its employees and I’m just not comfortable with that outcome. I’m interested in starting the conversation of:  “what can we do to remedy this issue?”

I often hear museum professionals joking about salary, because it’s easier to laugh than it is to cry about it, right? Goodness knows, I’ve been subject to long hours on projects I’ve been pulled into last minute. No work life is without stress – but it would be a shame to feel you missed out on life due to work – and I think we can all agree on that.

So what do you think? Have I read the two posts right? Do you agree with my assessment?

What are your work-stress levels like and how do you handle them?

Do you have any questions about this ever present problem or advice you can offer for seeing the light at the end of a (sometimes) very long tunnel?

4 thoughts on “Changing Expectations + 21C Skills: Are We There Yet?

  1. Jamie: Thanks! From one GenXer to another. I have to agree with your take, particularly on the field failing its employees—especially the ones “in the middle.” So much so, I’ve stopped working for institutions for the time being. I got really sick of the call to “lead from the middle” particularly when I saw so many of the leaders at “the top” opting for self-preservation over the tough but future-looking choices cultural organizations have had to face in the past 5 years. For now I’m leading from the top of my one-woman-show…

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