Why Museum Work?

The beginning of a new year is a time of hope and new beginnings.  It’s also a time to pause and reflect.  How did we get where we are?  Where are we going?

Pause and reflection is an aspect of a question that Greg Stevens and Wendy Luke ask at the beginning of A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum CareerThe question is: Why museum work?

People come to museum work for many different reasons.  For some, it’s the love of the atmosphere.  For others like me, it’s subject matter.  For everyone, it’s a commitment to advance the museum’s mission.

My path to a career in museums wasn’t straight.  It begins in the summer of 1997, when I transferred to Drake University for my sophomore year.  I was open enrolling, and my would-be advisor was taking a long time registering the student ahead of me.  The university assigned me to an art history professor instead.  I needed one more class, and nothing was open.  My advisor suggested I enroll in his 19th century art history course.  I did, and it was one of my favorite classes.  Problem was, I never declared art history as a major, a decision I later regretted.


Seven years after graduating, I was still thinking about art.  I traveled to museums to see exhibitions which fueled my desire to learn more about art.  Then, I attended a Lenten reconciliation service at my church.  The program featured a reproduction of an artwork, but no title or credit of the author.  The subject of the image would be clear to any Christian.  It was the story of the prodigal son.  Looking at the style of the piece and the use of light I thought it was by Rembrandt.  As I turned the program over, I saw the credit line and saw it was indeed a Rembrandt.  Feeling a bit like the prodigal son myself for never majoring in art history, I took this as a sign.  Everything has fallen into place for a career in museums ever since.

My wife suggested I become a docent at the Des Moines Art Center.  Volunteering in museums is a great way to make sure this type of work is for you.  My interview to become a docent was the day after my position at a marketing and communications agency was eliminated due to a poor economy.

Becoming a docent helped me get into The Johns Hopkins University’s Master of Arts in Museum Studies program.  Another communications job was recently eliminated due to a business restructure.  This has allowed me to focus full-time on school.

Why museum work?  My love of art is one reason.  But more than any other, my story is one that shows the power of museums to change lives.  Through those difficult times of my life over the last few years, a museum has been there to pick me up.  Museums have the potential to make a positive impact on their communities and, perhaps more importantly, individual lives.

In 2015, I’ll complete my degree and begin working in museums.  It will be my turn to pay it forward, and help my museum make a difference in the lives of others.  This isn’t just a career, it’s a calling!

Why did you choose museum work?

Image Credit: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669. 262 cm × 205 cm. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


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