Museum Studies Supply and Demand

NC State public history students tour behind the scenes to view museum objects.

NC State public history students tour behind the scenes to view museum objects.

North Carolina offers 7 graduate training programs to prepare masters’ level history students for museum careers. These are, from west to east, Western Carolina UniversityAppalachian State, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, NC State, UNC Wilmington, and East Carolina University. Most of these programs are concentrations within a public history degree program. These programs have served as a resource in our region, offering qualified and ready graduates to fill a range of openings in museums and historic sites.

However, the numbers of freshly minted M.A.s in this field each year compares unfavorably to the number of job openings. UNC Greensboro has one of the largest and most robust museum training programs within its public history track. It produces 8-10 graduates yearly. Last year’s class at NC State consisted of 13 public history master’s level students. If each student’s summer internship selection was any indication of her career preference, 8 of those were museum-career hopefuls. Several of the other programs are somewhat smaller. So, let’s estimate that, on average, 6 students graduate each year from each of the 7 programs. Are there enough jobs to absorb them statewide, regionally, or even nationally?

Most months the North Carolina Museums Council’s website posts up to 3 job openings. 42 graduates to 36 openings annually doesn’t look too bad, right? But consider the range of postings from very part-time work at $10/ hour to more advanced positions in the $50,000 salary range. Also consider that 1/3 to 1/2 of these postings are for jobs in art and science museums, employers which often prefer candidates with graduate degrees in those fields. Complicating the picture is that many jobs in museums do not go to candidates with museum studies backgrounds. Museums, often struggling financially, tend to bring in leaders with proven fundraising experience and business or legal acumen. Similarly, many mid-level museum positions require expertise in facilities management, human resources, or technology. How often are public history or museum studies graduates attractive for these positions? The fresh M.A.s are often perfectly positioned for the $10/ hour, 20 hour/ week jobs (which usually require weekend and holiday work), but at the upper employment levels, diverse skill sets often become more valuable to museum employers.

Nancy Villa Bryk, Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation at Eastern Michigan University and a former museum educator and curator has written an “In My View Column” in the current issue of Museumthe American Alliance of Museums‘ magazine (available by subscription or membership). Bryk’s article, “Too Much of a Good Thing” questions whether there are too many museum studies programs, especially given the economic downturn of the last few years. Rather than shrinking class sizes for graduates, as law schools have done during this period, numbers of museum studies programs have increased. Part of this results from demand, as potential students hope that staying in school for a graduate degree will help them more on a career path than the likely prospect of unemployment. Villa Bryk asserts, “I have resisted the urge to begin a museum studies program in my department even though I believe we could fill these classes. I am uneasy about turning out more entry-level museum professionals who will struggle to find employment.”

In addition to growing demand, there are also incentives from the supply side of these degree programs. Adding graduate degree programs serves as a revenue source for universities. Museum studies/ public history courses can also be an attractive recruitment and retention feature for history professors who enjoy graduate-level teaching.

One positive attribute of most of these museum studies training programs is the internship requirement. Not that it is often paid work, which would help off-set the costs involved in the degree. Rather, internships are a chance for these museum-career hopefuls to observe closely. How many long-time museum workers seem satisfied with their jobs? Does the institutional leadership offer opportunities for mid-level staff to develop new/ creative ideas? How many workers in mid- and upper-level positions have degrees in history or museum studies? What proportion of museum employees have to moonlight in order to pay off student loans?

These are tough questions but important for those students who hope for a museum career to try and answer before making long-term investments in the field. Remember that of North Carolina’s nearly 1,000 cultural heritage institutions, volunteers completely staff more than 1/4. (Stats from the NCECHO survey; see p. 27 of final report.) When so many museums keep chugging along with the dedication and determination of un-paid staff, justifying the need for paid professionals is challenging.


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on June 4, 2013, in historic houses, historic sites, museums and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Museum 2.0 wrote about this issue as far back as 2007, but I think that the issue has only gotten worse with the recession.

    • You’re right, but I think Simon’s main point was a critique of the utility of the museum studies curriculum rather than a comparison of numbers between need and output. This blog topic is a theme, however, that’s getting a bit worn out in the history-related blogosphere. Still, I hope the NC focus is somewhat useful.

  2. Stalling, Kristen

    Interesting article– Thankful to have a good job in the field!

    On Tue, Jun 4, 2013 at 9:28 AM, collectionsconversations wrote:

    > ** > collectionsconversations posted: ” North Carolina offers 7 graduate > training programs to prepare masters level history students for museum > careers. These are, from west to east, Western Carolina > University, Appalachian State, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, NC State, UNC > Wilmington, an”

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