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Joining the Fray: Emerging Museum/History Professionals and the Future of our Fields

by Hope Shannon, PhD Student, Loyola University Chicago and Committee Chair, AASLH EHP Group on

SEMC EMPs, courtesy James Quint

The establishment of new emerging professional groups in museums, history, and related fields, as well as outside of our sphere, has become something of a phenomenon in recent years. The National Council on Public History (NCPH), the International Federation for Public History (IFPH), and AASLH (that’s us) have all founded emerging professional groups in the relatively recent past, as have other professional organizations, like SEMC. This post shines a spotlight on two emerging museum professional (EMP) groups: the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC) EMP Affinity Group and the Chicago Emerging Museum Professionals (CEMP). CEMP, an independent group, and the fledgling National Emerging Museum Professionals (NEMP) are also fairly young—CEMP emerged close to ten years ago, while NEMP was founded more recently.

I talked to Kristin Emery and Anne Cullen of CEMP and to James Quint of SEMC to gain an understanding of this trend and what it means for the future of museum and history work.

What kinds of projects have you undertaken?

CEMP: We have two sub-groups: the CEMP group and AdvocacyForum, which is a collaborative project between #MuseumWorkersSpeak and CEMP. This sub-group is meant to facilitate dialogue and projects about issues of diversity, labor, and other critical issues faced in the field. CEMP also hosts events that we like to think of as “Networking+,” that is, networking events with a little added value. Sure, we could host happy hours at bars in the Loop (because events have to be centrally located!), but we try to add value to the events. We’ve hosted two book club discussions with pre-circulated readings, a lecture at the Chicago Design Museum about how to start a museum from scratch, and a trivia night, among other things—all events that will allow for people to make meaningful connections and have substantive conversations around topics that are relevant to our field.

AdvocacyForum’s programs have more of an activist bent. We facilitated a series of dialogues in which participants identified the most pressing issues facing our field, then brainstormed actions that could begin to address them. We have developed and implemented a salary survey, whose results will be made publicly available. We have also begun thinking about ways to collect stories, orally or written, about museum worker experiences. There are other projects in the works, as well, so stay tuned!

SEMC: We are primarily focused on organizing EMP events and activities at the SEMC annual meeting held each fall. The Program Committee approves the sessions to be presented at the annual meeting and it ensures there are adequate numbers of EMP-targeted sessions included on the agenda.  The program for the conference includes career tracks and has added an EMP track to provide suggestions on sessions that would appeal to EMPs attending the conference. In addition, there is an EMP happy hour to provide a networking opportunity for EMPs to meet each other and SEMC council members who govern the organization.

 

AASLH’s EHP’s gather for a happy hour at the 2016 Annual Meeting in Detroit

What role do you see EMP groups playing in the museum field more broadly?

CEMP: These groups give voice to those who are just coming into the field. Often, the “rules” are dictated by those at the top, while those just coming in are fresh out of school, having just read the newest literature and are ready to make an impact. EMP groups can stand together and advocate for the newer members of a field that is very hard to break into, and that privileges the standard, middle-class, highly educated person in its labor practices, though it may pay lip service otherwise. It also provides an avenue for EMP’s to get involved and collaborate with each other to shape the field and build resumes (let’s be honest, that matters!)

SEMC: EMPs bring a high energy level to the museum field. They have passion, talent, and drive to influence the direction of our field in the coming years. EMP groups must be the voice for those who are entering our profession and often need the most help. While professional development is important at all levels of our profession, emerging professionals are trying to build their professional network at the same time that they gain new skills. Unlike staff at other career levels, EMPs may not have a network of colleagues at regional institutions to lean on for advice or idea-sharing.


What advice can you give to emerging museum professionals who are interested in forming EMP groups in other professional organizations?
  

CEMP:

  • Come up with a mission. It will help to guide your group and make for more intentional, substantial programming;
  • Collaborate! It is important to involve as many voices as you can, though finding a model for this can be difficult. Reaching consensus often takes a lot of compromise.
  • Do things! Vis a vis the previous point, at some point you’ve got to stop talking and start doing; start small. Some of our most successful events have been the simplest ones. Don’t get bogged down in trying to plan a really amazing, elaborate event. Having people in a room to talk about a specific topic can generate so many good ideas and goodwill in a museum professional community, so don’t worry if your programs seem simple.
  • Maintain a consistent online presence/voice. Communications are seriously so important! We have a Facebook group AND a mailing list to try and reach as many people as possible, but find what will work best for your group.

SEMC:

  • It is important to consider what the EMP needs are in the community or region before establishing a group. Some EMPs may want networking opportunities, others will look to gain new skills, and some may want to engage solely for career advancement or job opportunities. Graduate students at colleges and universities will naturally have very different needs than EMPs who have already found jobs and are looking for ideas and support in their current job roles.
  • Another factor to consider is if there are other groups out there that may be competition for your activities or may be able to complement them. Does EMP group need to organize a session for registrars if there is already a registrar group? Would it be better to partner with them to organize a workshop that targets EMPs? If your community already has strong active young professional groups then does an EMP group need to focus on networking? Probably not if many of them network through other organizations. One of the best things about people who work in the museum field is that all you really need to do is provide them a space to gather and they will carry on conversations for a long time.

Interested in becoming more involved in an emerging professionals group? Check with your professional organizations to see if one already exists (you can find more about AASLH’s Emerging History Professionals Affinity Community here). If it does, join, support, and volunteer. If it doesn’t, take the steps necessary to set one up and join the growing body of voices representing the next generation of museum and history professionals.

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