I’ve been asked a lot recently what I want to do with my career. It’s a thinly veiled professional version of “what do you want to do when you grow up” that is a common internship rite of passage, but I’m used to it.
It’s a fair question too, especially from people in my current workplace as I’ve only recently returned to the organization and the local museum community after a year away (I wasn’t working while finishing up my MA and then took the summer working in museums in the Yukon).
The issue is, I don’t quite know. Or perhaps a better way to put it: I want to do it all.
I want to do EVERYTHING!
I view myself very much as a generalist, both in my life and in my profession. I am passionately curious about more things than I can name. I’m also greatly influenced by whatever gets put in front of me. Ask my mom and she’ll tell you dozens of stories of me as a child (or heck, even as a young adult) suddenly wanting to be or do or learn something based on what I had just seen on TV or read in a book. I played the violin for five years after watching Music of the Heart. FIVE YEARS, Meryl Streep!
Many of my interests relate to the general subject area of military and social history in the 20th Century, such as aircraft design, politics, and tourism, but I will explore just about anything. For example, I’ve recently spent my lunch breaks listening to my museum’s natural history curators talk about everything from Ice Age DNA sampling techniques to the hardiness of native potatoes and their connection to climate change warnings. Last week I also read the entire Wikipedia page for Ancient Carthage, just because. My work interests involve sharing those stories, working with people, collaborating, and being creative.
When it comes to museum work, I want to do a job that allows me the freedom (or the opportunity) to explore those random interests while doing tasks that fuel and are fueled by that collaboration and creativity, with people at the heart of what I do. From past work experiences I already know I don’t do well in a room on my own, but I also know I have the same curiosity about work as I do about subject areas. I’m fascinated by what my archivist colleagues do, amazed by the work of my learning friends, jealous of the curators’ focus on one topic, and wishing I had the creativity to work in exhibit development. And so I must find a job that allows me to be around people, sharing those tidbits of knowledge, collaborating, creating and exploring, and just generally being a generalist when I need to be.
The Perpetual Intern
This inherent curiosity has led me to feel, at times, like a perpetual intern. I have been a co-op student or intern six times with five different organizations, and along with regular summer jobs and contracts I’ve rarely had a job similar to the last one. I’ve done everything from historical research to marketing, tour guiding to digital media production.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful for these opportunities as they’ve broadened my horizons and let me gain experience while getting paid and getting more support and mentorship than I would have gotten as a regular employee. But they are all internships and temporary placements, 4-6 months long each, and even I am starting to wonder “will I ever have a real job?”
My variety of subject areas and positions – and frankly, the lack of obvious progression in a particular field – has led me recently to ponder the generalist’s/my own place in museums. What is my career path? How do I get there? How can I continue feeding my curiosity as a generalist while gaining specific experience in my chosen field?
What DO I want to do when I grow up?
In my next post (or two?) I am going to explore what it means to be a generalist in museums. I think it is important to define the museum generalist. To do this, I am going to compare specialists and generalists, I’ll attempt to re-frame generalists as experts in their own right, and I’ll discuss what the future holds for generalists in this field. I’ve asked a random selection (ok, it’s not so random) of colleagues and international contacts to provide their ideas and help me unpack this vague yet important topic.
By the end of this undertaking I hope to spark a conversation about being a generalist in museums, and maybe how to support them. And, just maybe, answer the question of what I want to do with my own career.