Upon beginning graduate school, I received a list of books that I needed to purchase for my classes. Among the litany of expenditures was a membership to the American Association of Museums. Frankly, I was annoyed that I had to shell out $50 from my student loans for an organization that had little to do with my life. Looking back, getting involved with a professional organization from the outset was a good idea and a savvy way to stay involved with my new career. But before you go overboard joining different groups, I have just a few thoughts.
1. Scope out all of the organizations that you might be interested in joining. Since joining can be a costly endeavor, it pays to understand what you are getting into. There are dozens of professional organizations that might appeal to you and your chosen field, but only a fraction of them will really be of help. While I think that AAM is a great organization and highly recommend joining, it really doesn’t help on a local level. Investigate museum associations in your area. Each region of the country, most states, and many large cities have some kind of association that helps you network with colleagues and offers professional development. Also, be sure to check out organizations that appeal to specialty areas like history, education, visitor studies, exhibitry, etc. They are generally less expensive than larger associations.
2. Budget for membership fees. I have heard that it is smart to budget 5-10% of your salary for professional development which includes memberships, classes and conferences. If your museum pays for professional development, you should count your blessings. Most institutions pay only partially for such affiliations and frequently only to top level staff. Think of it as an investment in yourself and your career.
3. Get involved. You don’t pay the admission fee at Disneyland and then hang out on the bench in front of the Matterhorn all day. You have to get involved to see any benefit. Attend meetings or conferences, volunteer for committees, and introduce yourself to your colleagues. While the main reason most people join professional organizations is to have access to job listings, only those who get involved will learn about the opportunities that go unannounced.
4. Don’t over commit. For most young professionals, being over committed is more of a problem than not being involved at all. Be judicious with how you spend your time. Don’t volunteer to sit on several committees. You will do yourself and the organization a greater service by doing a great job at one or two things than doing a half-ass job on three or four (or more) things. Understand the scope of your commitment and, if necessary, get permission from your supervisor at work. Every museum benefits from heightened prominence when its staff is serving on professional organizations. Often your museum will allow you to do your service during office time.
5. Rotate. It is easy to get entrenched with one organization because you like the people and have made good contacts. But, it is important to find new challenges and to get a different perspective. After being involved with an organization for 3-5 years, look around for a new place to get involved. Ask your colleagues to recommend an organization for you to try out. By all means, stay in touch and remain a member with your old organizations, but focus your energy on a new enterprise to diversify your skills.
Working in a museum is a fun and rewarding career, but all too often we get discouraged or exhausted by distractions and obstacles inherent with each individual institution. Professional organizations provide crucial opportunities for professionals of every age to connect with peers, seek advice and advancement, and reinvigorate their minds. Now, if I could only listen to my own advice.