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Does Size Matter? What to Consider About Working at Small vs. Large Museums

by Jennifer Torres, Collections Acquisitions Specialist (Lendlease), National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. on

When it comes to choosing a museum to work or intern at, many questions may come to mind. Where is the museum located? What type of objects does the museum collect? How many staff members are employed full-time? What’s the museum’s operating budget? What are the museum’s short and long-term goals?

A recent job change had me thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of working at a small museum compared to a large one. The answers to the questions above will vary greatly depending on the size of the museum. Of course, what defines a small and a large museum will differ among individuals, and it may vary geographically as well.

After graduate school, I landed a job at a small archaeological museum doing collections care work. I was one of three full-time staff members. My experience there was invaluable to my career and I enjoyed every minute, but it was vastly different than my previous experiences and my current job, almost all of which were at large museums with hundreds of staff members and objects in their collections that numbered in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Having worked or interned at both large and small museums, some important considerations in choosing where to work were made apparent to me.

Opportunity for Growth and Promotion

Typically at smaller museums, there is a smaller staff and therefore fewer positions to transition into. Larger museums tend to have more opportunities for interns and staff to move up the ladder, or move into a different department of the museum. Many would agree that larger museums also offer more stable jobs, as funding for positions is usually consistent. However, working at a small museum provides opportunities for learning new skills outside of one’s area of study or expertise. For example, although I had worked with the collections at the small museum I was previously employed at, I also did visitor services work, special events planning, and social media outreach. People who work at small museums tend to “wear many hats,” meaning that they have many roles and daily tasks.

Workplace Dynamics

Jennifer Torres and colleague Julia Grasso working together on a project at the National Museum of American History.

In my experience, working at a larger museum typically meant I worked on a team of people who all did very similar tasks to achieve the same goal. This makes sense, as large museums usually have a larger number of objects to care for, more exhibitions, and more visitors, among other things. Collaboration and working effectively with others is an essential skill to have, and one that I particularly enjoy.

When I accepted a job at a small museum after graduate school, I found that teamwork was still important, but the goal was much wider in scope. Each of the three staff members had a very specific set of skills and expertise, which contributed to the overall success and day-to-day operation of the museum. It was during this time that I was able to focus on and hone specific skills that have had a profound impact on my career. While working at a larger museum, I was able to work closely with others on a team to achieve a goal, whereas the small museum gave me the opportunity to work independently on projects and improve certain skills. Both are advantageous for one’s career.

Connections

Generally speaking, larger museums have larger staffs, and therefore more opportunities for connections. However, when I interned at a large museum, I was often times one of many interns and sometimes felt lost. While I certainly met a lot of influential people, I found the connections I made with people who work at smaller museums were more impactful for my career. They were more likely to remember me and the details of the work I did under their supervision, and were always willing to write me recommendation letters and help me with any career advice I needed.

These points are by no means a comprehensive listing, but rather starting points to consider before deciding what type of museum is a good fit. The best piece of advice that was given to me is to try to intern or work at museums of all sizes, and see what works best for you.

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