In this guest blog, Greg Wiker discusses his experience as an intern at the National Museum of Bermuda, and how he sees his PhD as an entry route into the sector.
Before I graduated in 2009, a friend in my program approached me with a surprising request. He asked if I wanted to go to Bermuda to intern at the Bermuda Maritime Museum (now the National Museum of Bermuda) for a month during the summer. We were both about to earn degrees in social studies education from Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Twenty-two years of playing it safe suggested that I wouldn’t even consider the offer. But the job market was bad. Very bad. Ridiculously bad. I didn’t think I had any chance at getting a full-time teaching position, so I resigned myself to substitute teaching for a year before flying off to Bermuda.
When I arrived, I put my education degree to good use. My friend and I created teaching resources for the Museum, ones that could help connect the Museum with local schools. Near the end of our time on the island, we boarded the Spirit of Bermuda (a sloop used to educate schoolchildren about sailing) to discuss our work with local teachers. I had never really thought of museum work as a potential career, but after spending a month working with the Museum, I found it hard to imagine doing anything else with my life. For another five summers (and a couple winters as well), I interned at the Museum.
During those six summers in Bermuda, I wrote text for a proposed interactive exhibit. I created the history curriculum for a sailing program. I researched for a forthcoming exhibit on the Royal Navy. I assisted in the restoration of a nineteenth-century building. I cleared trees and brush at a convict bath house. I helped to dismantle a steam winch. I had a collection of experiences more exciting than I ever could have imagined, and I fell in love with museums.
I decided to pursue that love by entering a postgraduate program in history. I hoped that a PhD in history would position me to be able to both get a job in the museum field and advance during my career. I completed an MA at the same university at which I earned my BA and then entered the PhD program at the University of Rochester in New York. I’m in the middle of my seventh year of postgraduate education (two years for an MA and five so far for a PhD).
While my postgraduate education has provided me with many wonderful opportunities, it has been difficult for me to carve out time for museum work. But I’ve made it a priority. I created my own reading list and course to learn more about the theoretical side of museums. I’ve kept up to date on recent writing on museums, both academic and otherwise. I did two hectic tours of museums in Europe. I wrote a pair of articles for the MARITimes, the magazine of the National Museum of Bermuda. The weekly Museum Hour discussion on Twitter has served most weeks as a respite from the manifold challenges of researching and writing a dissertation.
But I haven’t volunteered for a museum in a few years, and I sometimes worry that by the time I hit the job market, my CV won’t look quite as appealing as it should. Spending so much time studying, teaching, and writing leaves PhD students with little time for much else. While many academic historians tell grad students they need a “Plan B” to the academic job market, it is difficult for students to carve out the time they need to become a viable candidate in other fields. Even those of us who have turned a Plan B into our “Plan A” are not as prepared as we would like to be.
At times, it has been disheartening to read the struggles that others have faced in the field. It’s clear that museum work is tough to come by. Many, if not most, volunteer for one or more museums prior to being paid for their work. When they are lucky enough to find paid work, museum professionals are often underpaid and overworked and find limited opportunities for advancement. Those who are unable to volunteer or attend postgraduate programs are too often shut out of the field entirely.
While this all may sound a bit doom and gloom, I am an eternal optimist about both the museum field and my potential to work in it. It is a field that is filled with people who have a deep love of, and passion for, their work. They often cannot imagine doing anything else with their lives. They’re people who find it difficult to get away from museums, even when the workday is done. They visit museums. They watch TV shows and movies about museums. They read articles and books on museums. They write about museums. They blog about museums. They tweet about museums.
I remain confident and hopeful that going for a PhD in history was the correct decision for me. The skills that I’ve learned during my PhD program, especially the ability to research in the archives and condense massive amounts of information into easily-digestible blurbs, are ones that should make me a strong candidate for museum work. Artifacts can’t contextualize themselves and exhibit labels don’t appear out of thin air. Sometimes when you’re working on a PhD for more than a half decade, it’s difficult to see the finish line, but I know that when I run or walk or crawl past it, the work I’ve done over what is nearly now a decade has prepared me for the career that I want.