I've been noticing a growing number of young professionals choosing to leave the museum field, so I asked one of them, Claire Milldrum, to share her thoughts on the subject in this guest post:
Normally, I write over at the Female Gaze, but after writing a couple pieces there about museums, I was asked, basically, why I left the field. This is not an uncommon question, as I was once a diehard intern and researcher.
I left the Gallery, Library, Art, and Museum (GLAM) field because I decided I was very tired and deserved a lot more than was available to me. I also stand by a belief that it was a brave decision for me, as I left behind all that I had trained for. It is also, in my opinion, difficult to stay when things get tough and to work against the odds to stake a claim that you may often want to abandon. To do something scary, anything scary, is to resist the human urge to do what is easiest.
I left the field in theory poised for success. I had been lucky enough to learn from many wildly intelligent, driven and passionate people who gave me excellent insider advice at how to game the system. I had been accepted to top grad schools in Library Science, and at one of them, a guaranteed student work job in my subfield.
So when I am asked why I left, I always will say I was priced out of competition. I had reached my (un)reasonably high tolerance for giving away my labor through volunteering and internships. I miss the field, and wish deeply I could be entering graduate school in a week or two. Yet, had I committed to either school, I would graduate over $120,000 in debt after considering the all-in cost and all scholarships available to me. I would also be facing a serious job gauntlet, maxing out at $40,000 in entry level pay available to me.
After two years of the grind of the service industry, coupled with great but massive underemployment in the field, and a history of overworking to survive undergrad, I was done. I was done groveling for the hope of some full-time job that I’d have to fight tooth and nail for to make sure it someday became permanent.
In leaving, I made the right decision. I am now about 8 weeks into a job that allows me to accomplish the following: paying off my undergrad loans, save for retirement, do work that helps people, and only work 40 hours. Also, this means I can finally see a dentist. These things should not seem exceptional to anyone, but in the museum world they have become some impossible thing.
To get here, to get to the point where I can buy a bottle of rose and velvet chokers for a Charmed viewing party without any financial shame, took me ditching what I love. It took raging, sobbing, holding back tears while working. It was as bad as my worst breakup and I wish it on no one. It is also why I refuse to listen to those who dare tell me that a prestigious degree (I went to Wellesley College), negotiating pay, more work experience, or that I need to stay because I am supposedly woke. I owe no one anything, but I was owed more respect and honesty through the entire 7 years I tried to make it work.
We all deserve more, and we need to demand it. Until the MFA, DIA, Met, MoMA, and Smithsonian institutions pay their interns a living wage, do not effectively demand graduate degrees for entry work and focus on true diversity in hiring, nothing will change. Until those places that can afford to buy masterworks actually start managing their expectations of what an underpaid and overworked staff can do, I am not here for them or their apologists. If those large institutions adjusted their behaviors and took the high ground, the entire industry would change. If they want to lead the field through new educational programming and innovation in curatorial work, they better do it also for all the people that make it happen.
In summary, I left because I picked my humanity over the objects.
POST AUTHOR BIO: Claire Milldrum is that person in your class that is always amazed by something. She is enthralled by the positive social outcomes of arts and is trying to learn how best to encourage those kinds of changes. Once in the museum field, she now works in non-profit finance and community development. Photography is her main focus for its capacity to capture the world we know while leaving a record for people who will not know our faces and names. She also loves a good cookie and biking.
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