Our guest post today is from Mark Schlemmer, Assistant Registrar for Collections at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. He has an MA in Museum Professions with a concentration in Museum Registration from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Prior to his museum life, he worked in Europe for many years, ten of which were spent in Spain where he managed the Legal Translation Department of the Barcelona Bar Association. He is an avid traveler and amateur photographer. His current dream destination: Istanbul. I met Mark at the AAM Conference in Minneapolis this last year; he was the only person who came to talk about the blog during my “open hours” at the Museum Expo, and he had a mission. He wanted to raise awareness for a group of EMPs that most people don’t give much thought to, a topic that’s been very meaningful in his own career, and I jumped at the chance to have him contribute a post. I want to thank Mark for writing so honestly about the topic and sharing his story. I think it’s illuminating for all of us, regardless of where we are in our career.
Who do you think of when you hear the phrase “Emerging Museum Professional?” If you’re like me, you immediately conjure the image of an engaged and ambitious twenty-something, perhaps a person just out of college or grad school, someone eager to make their mark and form a professional identity within the non-profit cultural sector. Of course you wouldn’t be wrong to think in these terms. However, that’s not a completely accurate picture. By definition, I’m an EMP, but I fall well outside of the expected demographic. I am in my first years of museum work, but I’m also a mid-career changer who redirected my professional life when I was in my late-thirties. I already had an established career in teaching and translating, but found myself pining for an entirely new work life. My experiences as an EMP do echo those of most of us just starting out in the museum world, but there are some distinct differences and challenges that impact someone who is entering this field for the first time when they are in their thirties, forties, or even later.
Like many of us, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in order to solidify my knowledge base, update my academic credentials and hopefully give myself a competitive edge over other job applicants. I chose my university program very carefully after discussing my goals and aspirations with those already in the field. I knew that my interests and skill set placed me in the registrarial field of museum work, so I sought out a program that would let me focus on this area. In the fall of 2006, I started classes in the strong registrarial track in the MA in Museum Professions program at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. It was at this time that I encountered the first challenge that my younger colleagues didn’t have: returning to academia after about a fifteen year absence.
That first grad school paper was agony, but after a few months things definitely came easier once I got used to producing and processing opinions and ideas again. The reading load was also a bit of a shock, but again, I quickly adapted to the frenetic rhythm of university demands. Luckily, my program was a good mix of students who were right out of their undergraduate studies and those returning to school after a break of many years. I had allies in the program that understood and empathized with the collegiate hiccups that the more traditional students didn’t seem to have. I had anticipated that the transition into grad school would be a somewhat grueling ordeal, but I was entirely surprised by the next difficulty: getting an internship.
One of the requirements of my MA program was to complete an internship and we all know that landing one is not exactly easy. After the first semester, my classmates and I eagerly went about applying for these coveted summer jobs. Over the next few months, I sent out about thirty different applications. I felt my resume was strong and my experience relevant, but I couldn’t help wondering why I wasn’t getting any offers. Was I doing something wrong? One of my colleagues was interning in the registrar department of a museum I had sent my application to. Upon receiving my resume, the supervisor asked my friend if she knew me. During their conversation, the supervisor said that she liked what I had to offer, but was completely reluctant to hire me as an intern solely based on my years of professional work. She said I had “too much experience” and doubted that someone who was previously a manager could be an effective intern. It was an unjust argument that I unfortunately heard over and over.
Luckily, I finally was able to convince someone that I would indeed be a capable intern and that even though I did have years of work experience, I was more than willing to undertake the tasks typically assigned to a very junior staff member in order to learn the ropes in a new field. Through the contacts I made at that internship, I landed an interview for a second one at a different museum. Not surprisingly, the registrar there, who would later become my boss, voiced the same doubts I was now accustomed to hearing. I convinced her that I knew what I was getting into and projected myself as an intern with added bonus skills rather than one who would resent the work with which he was tasked. Clearing this hurdle helped prepare me for the next major one in my quest to become a museum professional: landing the first job.
Getting a museum job is perhaps one of the most challenging things any of us will go through. The number of viable applicants more than surpasses the number of available positions. I landed my first museum job, in fact the one I still hold, at the museum where I completed my second internship. Through mostly luck (I can admit that!), a position opened up in the registrar department just as I was completing my studies. I interviewed, was hired and started work in July of 2008 as the Registrar Assistant for Collection Exhibitions. I was thrilled to be gainfully employed in a field that I had painstakingly sought out after many years in another professional field. I loved the work I was doing, but was surprised to discover an emotional challenge I hadn’t fully anticipated: starting anew at the bottom rung of the career ladder.
In retrospect, I should not have been surprised by this. I thought I was well prepared for such a radical shift, but logic and feelings don’t always align well. I knew the position I had was clearly at the level I needed to be since registrarial work is so very specific to the museum world. I had the theoretical background and some applicable experience through my internships, but I needed to gain a lot more insight through on-the-job training. Initially, I struggled with this emotionally. I doubted myself for taking what seemed like huge step backwards with respect to my overarching professional path. I felt compelled to justify to others, myself included, why at almost 40 years old I was no longer a management-level employee. I loved the museum work I was doing, being connected to incredible art and bringing exhibitions to fruition, but I frequently felt a pang of, well, regret. It took me a long time to truly convince myself that I didn’t care what other people thought. I was working in a field that totally thrilled me, filled me with awe and rewarded me with such a high level of fulfillment that the title on my business card was completely irrelevant.
Four years into my professional museum life, I now work as the Assistant Registrar for Collections at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. I’m a mid-career changer and an EMP who still grapples with how to better combine my past professional life with my current one. However, I now look at it as an opportunity to exploit rather than a difficulty to overcome. Some of my grad school colleagues were able to more seamlessly connect their past and current professional lives, and I commend them for it, but I also know that my experiences are not unique. For those of us who are coming to museums (somewhat) later in life, the obstacles of returning to school, landing an internship as an “older” applicant and forging an emotional acceptance of starting anew professionally are challenges we all have to deal with. Fortunately, the rewards are many. Additionally, groups like the local AAM-EMP affiliates around the country exist to help make all of us, even those of us with gray hair and receding hairlines, feel integrated and supported in our leap into the incredible world of museums.