Book review: A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career

By: Renee Montgomery

Book review: A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career, AAM Press, 2012

Greg Stevens and Wendy Luke have done a terrific job editing this new guide, with advice running the gamut from first jobs, to mid-career considerations, to even layoffs.  For starters, the book addresses the pros/cons of museum studies schools, grad school, volunteering and internships during these tough economic times.  Various on-the-job skills are described:  writing, communication with bosses, managing teams, and managing from the middle.  Some of the material is generic – e.g., resume, interview and networking skills, performance evaluations -- but  never before have so many of these topics been addressed in a single volume from the perspective of the museum industry.  The book is very good at stressing one’s value to the museum’s priorities, for example, this quote from a job interview:  “I used to work at the museum shop. Every morning before the store opened, I had a checklist of prep work I needed to accomplish – restocking, cleanup, sign changes, etc.  I would prioritize my work based on what would have the greatest positive impact on visitors, do that work first, and then follow up with the rest of my list.  The store . . .  is the first thing people see when they come in.”

Chapters are dedicated to becoming a director, working for a federal government museum (SI), working in a small museum, and becoming a museum consultant.  There are some good lessons such as understanding older or younger generations of employees, the technique of “painting pictures” (meaning graphically envisioning your three-year future), and the Japanese concept of “Kaizen” (how a few minor steps can add up to significant change over time).

It’s the diverse personal stories that really make A Life in Museums, however, for example, Wendy Blackwell describing how her customer service experience as a Grand Central Station railroad worker transferred to her current job as educator at the National Children’s Museum, DC.  Also the story of Patrick McMahon working up from a guard to Director of Exhibitions and Design at the MFA Boston.  My favorite though was Greg Stevens’ own account of his bumpy high and low career track:  “’Why museums?’ That’s what my mom asked me when I announced to her . . . I was considering leaving my rewarding . . . job . . . for graduate school in museum education.” “What will you do, educate museums?” his friends asked.  Thirteen years later, Greg is now Assistant Director of Professional Development for AAM, leading seminars and publishing helpful material.

Definitely a good book to keep on hand for staff.  A fabulous present for interns.  $29.95 through AAM bookstore to AAM members.


Renee Montgomery is Assistant Director of Risk Management at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she has worked in various capacities since 1979.  She holds an MA in Art History, various certificates in international business and fundraising, and has served as Chair of the AAM Registrars Committee, and on the AAM board.


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