Written by Zélie Lewis
It’s hard to accurately represent the magnitude with which the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting each one of us and disproportionately affecting black, brown, and low-income communities. Not only are we all worrying about staying healthy and protecting our lives, we have the compounding stress of worrying about our livelihoods and careers as unemployment rates soar. In a report released on Thursday, April 2, the Labor Department indicates that “…there are around 8.5 million more people on unemployment benefits today than there were two weeks ago.” The unemployment rate has been estimated to be at around 13 percent, according to further reports. This is likely the worst period in history for all of us.
As a graduate student two months away from earning my master’s in Museum Studies, I find myself circling back to a single, gut-wrenching question: what am I supposed to do now?
It’s also hard to ignore the impact COVID-19 is having – and will continue to have – on museums and cultural organizations across the U.S. I can’t scroll through Twitter or talk to a museum friend without hearing about more layoffs, teams struggling to generate revenue while closed, or people scrambling to generate something, anything to put out into the world. Worst of all, it’s hard to escape the constant anxiety and grief that surrounds the work that we do.
While the U.S. is understandably preoccupied with the worsening health emergency, the last few weeks have underlined the fact that museums and cultural institutions are extremely undervalued in American society (just think about the lack of emergency funding for arts and cultural organizations). Our institutions were not designed to handle a crisis like this – and we haven’t even dealt with the education, job, and economic crises that are yet to come.
One perspective I have noticed is eerily absent from broader discussions about the impact of our current situation is that of the youngest generation of museum professionals. I’d like to create a space where our needs, concerns, and frustrations can be both shared and heard. I guess there’s no better way to do that than to start by sharing my own.
The last few weeks have brought an onslaught of changes for all of us. Like virtually every other student in the country, I have watched my university close its campus and switch to entirely remote learning and work, tried to prepare my individual research for conferences that might not happen, and watched the museum where I work part-time close to the public before laying me and others off.
I am tired. I am frustrated. But mostly I am anxious. Ironically, being a graduate student right now provides a certain amount of comfort; I have work to do, I have a community to lean on, and I have a sense of normalcy others may not have. Unfortunately, being a graduate student right now also emphasizes the uncertainty of the job market. I was in the midst of applying to countless positions before museums started closing and now…everything is on hold until further notice. Knowing that it can take several months to a year post-degree to land a full-time job in a museum, seeing the plight of the field unfold is petrifying. As an educator, watching museums announce sweeping layoffs of education and interpretation staff is especially worrisome. Getting a sustainable job as a museum educator was hard enough before COVID-19; if museums cut their education programs and have no plan for reinstating education staff, the outlook seems bleak.
And I am but one person. There are countless other graduate students and young professionals across the U.S. and around the world in the same position. In speaking with a peer from my graduating cohort, I quickly realized that the feelings of anxiety and fear are widespread among emerging professionals. Olivia Knauss, a second-year Museum Studies student at NYU specializing in development and fundraising, states:
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt ‘on-track.’ I was working two different paid internships at two different NYC-based museums, while also reaching the final stages of my master’s thesis. I made it to the second round of interviews for three different full-time positions. But as in most industries, everything came to a screaming halt. Early on, I was laid off from one of my paid internships, losing valuable income I need to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. All of my interviews have been suspended or postponed indefinitely. I’m back at square one…it’s hard not to feel helpless.”
Museum Studies students and those in related programs are not the only ones hurting right now. The programs themselves are facing mounting uncertainties. Will more students enroll this fall? Will these programs be able to stay open? What will this pandemic change how we pursue and complete graduate work? It’s hard to know what the next few years will look for professional training and graduate education.
This is not to say that there aren’t incredible things happening in museums right now. More institutions are finally realizing how essential true digital engagement can be. The National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City and the Shedd Aquarium are leading the way with joy-inducing internet content. Leaders in the field continue to share advice on how to navigate this experience and biting critiques of inequity in the field.
The only way out of this reality is through it, so we must keep pushing forward. I try to remain hopeful, to stay up-to-date on what is happening in the field, and to have faith that this degree will be worth it in the end.
I try … but what am I supposed to do now?
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About the Author
Zélie Lewis: As an educator specializing in digital learning and engagement, Zélie is set to receive her MA in Museum Studies from New York University in May 2020. Prior to graduate school, Zélie served as a college advisor in a rural high school where she worked to improve student and community access to post-secondary resources. Zélie began her transition to the museum field as an Apprentice Museum Educator at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York and joined the Brooklyn Historical Society as the Education Administrative Assistant in 2019. Her research focuses on the role and effectiveness of museum-based distance education in serving rural K-12 educators and speaks more broadly to the role of distance ed in providing more equitable access to museum resources for low-access communities.
5 thoughts on “So what am I supposed to do now…?”
Know our cultural advocates are working tirelessly (literally with little sleep) to protect the very artistic interests you describe in ongoing and upcoming legislation. Keep watching the inclusion of so many cultural/creatives in further legislation. And we hear and see you! Thank you for all your study! We need the next generation in this field!
Thank you for sharing this! It’s always helpful – and reassuring – to know that there are people fighting to protect the arts and culture world. Best wishes as you navigate this strange time.
Thank you, Ms. Lewis for this thoughtful piece. As a mid-career museum professional, I’ve had many of the same “what now?” kind of thoughts myself. Having spent years living with poor job security (along with some of the other pathologies of the museum world), this isn’t the first time I’ve been here, but the scope and scale is like nothing I’ve seen before.
Like many others working in museums at that time, the crash of late 2007 (bringing the Great Recession) was not kind to me. There were waves of layoffs and downsizings that left a lot of us to fend for ourselves. The recovery period was not brief, and many still have a lasting dent in our financial well-being that probably won’t be fixed without subtantial lottery winnings.
Today it feels like we’re doing it all over again, only with even deeper impact and greater uncertainty. I do believe that museums will emerge from this crisis, and that the things we’re learning now have the potential to make us stronger in the future. COVID has exposed and made clear many of the structural vulnerabilities and inequities in our nation and our world, and it’s doing the same for museums. I’m hopeful that there will be many needed conversations going forward, and it will be important to be sure that emerging museum professionals are part of that dialog.
Thank you for sharing your experience as a mid-career professional. I find myself wondering how many people left the field/profession as a result of the 2008 recession and how many will do so now (voluntarily or by necessity). It’s hard not to ask oneself if pursuing a museum career is really the best idea right now, and I can’t say I have an answer to that just yet.
In the meantime, I echo your hope that conversations around vulnerability and inequity in museums (and the US) continue to inspire *real* change in our field.
Best wishes as you navigate these challenging times.
Thanks for your response, Zélie –
The 2008 recession definitely tossed more than a couple of museum professionals out the door. Some of us tried to leverage our experience to continue serving the museum sector as independent contractors, with varying degrees of success. I imagine that others moved on to other fields, at least for a while, and some may not have returned.
What’s really striking to me about the impact of the COVID crisis on museums is that it’s acting somewhat like a great synchronizer. Anyone who has spent much time in the museum sector has experienced that sensation of the rug being pulled out from beneath their feet. Our funding gets cut. Our grants don’t get renewed. That major donor doesn’t come through. In many instances, our jobs are temporary to begin with (there are lots of 1-year or 2-year contracts out there). These individual tragedies play out every day in museums. But with COVID, it’s like those kinds of career interruptions are all happening to nearly everyone all at once. That makes it bigger and deeper, (and scarier), so everyone is paying attention.
I have many hopes for the post-COVID future, but one of my greatest for museums is that their leaders will turn an introspective lens toward their staff and the financial structure that supports them, bringing a renewed vigor and focus to sustainable museum careers.
Good luck and stay safe!