For those who prefer to work in a more “behind-the-scenes” capacity, the public history profession offers a variety of options that do not necessarily require much interaction with the public at all. A museum exhibition project manager is not one of those options. This position would, however, provide an exciting and rewarding career to anyone who is energized by both individual projects and social interaction. I learned about this career from an exhibition project manager currently working at one of our nation’s most renowned natural history museums.
My interviewee (who shall remain anonymous) did not anticipate having this particular career—or even a career in the natural history field at all—when she was pursuing her education. While she claims that she always had a personal interest in natural history, her undergraduate degrees were in art history and material culture. She went on to obtain a Master’s in History Museum Studies expecting to find employment at a living history museum, a field in which she worked and gained experience during graduate school. Her background in solid history as opposed to natural history, however, has most likely been an asset to her and to the museum; because natural history encompasses so many different narrower disciplines, it allows for people of varying interests to work together on projects, making the projects themselves more diverse. The people with whom my interviewee works closely, for example, have backgrounds in areas such as anthropology, paleontology, and education.
As exhibition project manager, my interviewee describes her primary responsibility as “coordinating” exhibitions that the museum hosts. This task includes organizing an “internal team” for each exhibition to develop projects and conduct marketing and PR related to the exhibition. The exhibitions can be permanent, temporary, or even traveling exhibits, but my interviewee works most frequently with the permanent exhibits due to her personal knowledge of the building’s architectural and spatial requirements. In addition, her job requires a great deal of interaction with the public. While she does work some with museum patrons, her public role extends mainly to the news/media side of the public; for example, she participates in interviews and makes television appearances to promote new exhibitions. “The job is half people skills and half museum skills,” she says.
One of the advantages of this job is the wide range of opportunities that it offers. While project managers are assigned to a specific project, they can “rally” for a project in their area of interest or expertise. The position is also dependent on visitor experience and interest, so projects related to non-permanent exhibitions change frequently, allowing for a great deal of variety. Also, since the museum is large, it is able to host numerous projects with a vast scope.
The only frustration with this career that my interviewee cited–a frustration which all museum careers face–is the issue of funding. Her particular museum is privately endowed by its original donor, but funds still have to be raised for specific projects. As with all museums, funding is not always a certainty and must be consistently sought after.
Despite this frustration, she emphasized that her job is genuinely fun for the opportunity it provides her to work with other people who are highly passionate about sharing their interests with the public. For those who are interested in pursuing a career in this field, she offered the following advice: first, know what types of projects you are interested in working on so you can be sure that a prospective museum will appeal to you with the opportunities it offers; second, consider what level of public interaction you are comfortable with. Because of the highly social nature of this particular job, she emphasized that you can not be in a “bubble” in her position; you must be willing to interact with people.
Much like a history teacher or professor spends time planning lessons and catering to student interest, the museum exhibition project manager organizes exhibits and tailors them based on public interest and response. Perhaps a career as an academic historian is not so different from that of a public historian after all…though it may carry less risk of running into a reanimated Tyrannosaurus.