Job description. Photo by marcus_jb1973.

by • 21 Jan, 2013 • PeopleComments (17)17252

A job description for future museum professionals

We’re looking for: People that help museums stay relevant in the 21st century. Job title: community manager, digital engagement officer, online marketeer, audience curator, hands-on project manager, educator (etc. etc.). Your profile: hmm…

In general, the debate on ‘21st century skills’ or – put differently – what we expect in terms of skills, attitudes, behaviour and knowledge from future colleagues is diverse and inspiring. In the museum-context, it might even be more complicated. Studying various reports of such skills (etc.), such as the excellent Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills (PDF) and a Dutch one by Kennisnet, most of the focus is on skills that help people design the future. Museums, obviously, and museum professionals also play an important role in maintaining the past. This duality is obvious in the ICOM definition:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development (‘future’), open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches (‘past’), communicates and exhibits (‘future’) the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education (‘future’), study (‘past’) and enjoyment (‘future’).

Note that I use ‘future’ and ‘past’ to make a distinction between the internal, traditional role of a museum and the outgoing, also-traditional-but-now-key-to-receiving-funds role that can be considered to focus on the future of the institution.

As museums realise they need to evolve in order to stay relevant, within them a continuous debate begins between the ‘past’ and the ‘future’. And, as much as the ‘traditional’ museum professionals need to be comfortable with the 21st century, the future professionals need to be comfortable with the traditional role of museums in society, which is probably why maybe the number 1 question I get from clients and at conferences is to help define a profile for the future museum professional.

Looking at jobs at the ‘future’ end of the continuum in the ICOM definition, based on the reports above and many discussions, I think the ideal future museum professional is:

  • 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).

Add to that some basic job specific skills (but not necessarily more than basic) and – if you can find them – your organisation will have a team that, together with skilled curators, leaders and support staff, can take on the world.

Which brings me to the next and a tricky point of the job description:

Your experience: Not necessary. In a great post on LinkedIn Lou Adler makes a compelling and thought-provoking case for hiring Mary, a girl (woman?) with limited skills and experience, but a proven track record of outperforming herself. Rather than filtering people based on the number of years they’ve managed to stay in one job, Adler advises to filter on exceptional performance:

[A]sk them to describe the biggest thing they’ve accomplished with the least amount of skills and experience. Then don’t be surprised how many talented people emerge from the shadows.

Some of the best professionals I know never managed to stick to one job long before wanting another challenge. Others never finished their degree. Of course, it’s tricky, but in an organisation that is at least part made up of stable and experienced curators (cs.) such a gamble isn’t necessarily risky.

Finally, what do you offer these people? Apart from reasonable pay (everybody working for real, even in an internship scheme, deserves to be paid for real), give people what you hire them for: room for development, an ear for their ideas, real responsibilities. In the end, that might be much more valuable to both you and them than their paycheck.

What do you think? What is missing from this job description? Please add your ideas and thoughts to the comments, so we can build a full job description together.

Header photo by marcus_jb1973 on Flickr.

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  • Intelligent and brave article Jasper!

  • Lynda Kelly

    Fine work Jasper! We need more guerillas-in-residence: :-)

  • Thanks Lynda. I like the last point in your article: “laughs a lot” > Definitely also a skill for the future!

  • Joana Monteiro

    Great post, this one, Jasper! Apart from the new museum skills, I’ve never thought about the “past” and “future” of the museum’s definition. This would be interesting for the ICTOP/ ICOM group about museum professionals’ skills.

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  • Markmacleo

    How about responsive or flexible for other ideas that will come from colleagues and visitors. An ability to look fresh is great to hear, perhaps having open mind/ears is also beneficial to the organisation.

  • Definitely! Maybe “humble” is not the right word, but to be successful as a team and as an individual, you need to be able to switch between worker and (idea) leader roles. Open mind, open ears, open to ideas of others

  • mmortati

    I agree that ‘future museum’ people need to be… more creative. I think that given we are moving from modes of primarily cultural conservation to cultural production that the biggest skill set needed is to have some “design skills” or at least a familiarity with creation and production from start to finish. These require new systems in many museums I have worked with and also new skills that haven’t been in the traditional quiver.

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  • Great article, I can’t help but share it everywhere I can!

    Not only good advice for museums but also for several other types of work who need some out of the box thinking people.

  • MaryJo

    A great post with much food for thought. I am interested how you have defined ‘future’ and ‘past’ tasks. Is it solely on what you see are the ‘new’ and ‘old’ ways of doing things in a museum? or is there a belief that acquiring, conserving and studying are really past-oriented activities and that exhibiting is a future oriented activity?

    My own reaction is to think this is illogical, given that acquiring and conserving forcibly create a tangible future space ie. once an object is acquired and conserved, the present generation has now made the future generation responsible for the management of a very real thing. Future resources have been committed. Exhibitions are a ‘present’ activity. The information and ideas generated can only be understood within the current lens of understanding e.g. it is very difficult to understand just how shocking the Impressionists were for their time – few patrons react to a Vincent vanGogh as they would a Tracey Emin.

    The idea of ‘maintaining the past’ and ‘museums evolving’ seems quite linear to me. I believe museums and the role they support across global cultures are much richer than that. I would see museums as a resource for a reiterative dialogue that society uses to determine how best to manage and reflect on their own present. We’ll swing between museums being ‘agents of change’ and or part of the ‘slow movement’ for many centuries to come.

    There is something here to do with timescales. Some perceive of the future as being the next several years, whilst others draw on the next several hundred years. And I think that may be one of the key skills for the 21st century will be understanding timescales. Museums act within the smallest of time-scales – weeks, months and years where education and exhibitions are concerned and centuries when it comes to their collections. We need creative thinkers who are sensitive to both intergenerational stewardship and contemporary relevance.

  • Thanks MaryJo for this very thoughtful comment! Makes me think.

  • Refreshing to see someone challenging the norms of hiring in the museum industry (and government sector)! If only institutions took this on board when considering applicants. As a soon-to-be graduate looking for work in the industry I know I speak for most when I express how disheartening it is to see entry level positions go to only those with extensive experience in the museum industry.

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