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.