Program Perspective: How to Successfully Teach for the 21st Century Museum

By Adrienne McGraw

What skills and attributes do museum professionals need to possess to successfully
work in the 21st Century museum?

A question like this is always on the minds of museum studies university faculty. We want provide the best education for students so that they contribute to relevant, adaptive, and sustainable museums, which in turn best serve and collaborate with communities. To do this, we as faculty have to be relevant ourselves, provide evolving curriculum, and consistently evaluate our work. The basis of our curriculum should be guided by the needs of the museum field, and so we need to ask this question with start of every new school year.

As part of our current curriculum assessment, John F. Kennedy University Museum Studies Program partnered with a colleague on campus with expertise in Concept Mapping to find answers to the complex question of what skills and attributes are needed in today’s museums. Concept Mapping as a research methodology pulls together the perspectives of multiple stakeholders, presents data visually, and shows how individual data sets relate to each other and the larger concept. Here, the stakeholders were museum professionals from across the nation and the data included distinct skills and attributes they feel are needed to work in today’s museums.

Dr. Sean Fitzpatrick, as the primary investigator, designed the research protocol and guided us through the process, which ultimately resulted in enhanced learning outcomes for our program. An online survey of museum professionals nationwide was conducted between April 6–March 16, 2014 and we received 78 responses, with 358 individual answers that were sorted out to about 100 unique skills and attributes statements.

The fun part included a convening of 16 colleagues who joined us to sort the statements into categories or concepts as they saw fit. These esteemed sorters ranged from recent museum studies graduates to seasoned professionals with three decades of experience. They included people working in all departments, at all levels, and in a variety of institutional settings and disciplines. Honestly, we were astounded by the brainpower, expertise, and passion in the room.

Following the sorting activity, Dr. Fitzpatrick went off and crunched all the data from the individual sorters’ categories and developed concept clusters for us to review. As a faculty we met, had deep discussions about all the concepts, and finally determined that there were five groups of statements that made the most sense to us in terms of concept cohesion.

Directly from the museum field, we heard that the answer to “What skills and attributes do museum professionals need to possess to successfully work in the 21st Century museum?” boils down to, not surprisingly to these categories:

  • Community awareness & engagement
  • Communicating content
  • Business literacy
  • Tech & media literacy
  • Personal traits (This finding showed that these are “soft skills” ranging from the ability to be good communicators to possession of high emotional intelligence.)

Results from the concept mapping research project showing the clusters of responses to the question: What skills and attributes do museum professionals need to possess to successfully work in the 21st Century museum?

During our sorting session, we also asked colleagues to look at the results of the survey—the 100 statements—and determine if the skills and attributes museum professionals need to posses are teachable, and how important they are to our work. Here’s where it gets tricky. The concepts that are seen as the least “teachable” are also ranked the most important.

It is not surprising, that “personal traits” were seen as most important, yet least teachable. So what then does this mean for museum studies curriculum? How can we model soft skills? What are the tools to help students develop in areas where they may not naturally be inclined?

Another interesting finding was that the very work done by museums—communicating content—ranked lower in importance. Perhaps respondents simply take for granted that museums just do this, and recognize it is more important to stress the importance of community engagement.

None of us working in museum settings should find any of these surprising, but for all museum studies faculty, these concepts should be reassuring (yes, we know what we need to teach) and provide an assessment opportunity (but are we doing it and doing it well?). Further, we should also ask if museum studies programs are the best and only places for this learning to occur. Are curriculum and training standards needed? What can learned through other degrees, internships, apprenticeships, mentoring, and good old-fashioned on-the-job training?

At the upcoming WMA 2014 Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, a session will delve deeper into these issues and more. Our overarching question will be:

What is the role of Museum Studies in the field and how are we still needed and relevant?

University faculty, a recent graduate, and an HR recruiter will engage in a critical discussion about Museum Studies from the practical to the philosophical. We invite you to join our Session on Wednesday, October 8, 2014.

Richard Toon, PhD, Associate Research Professor, Director Museums and Museum Studies, Arizona State University
Adrienne McGraw, Museum Studies Program Chair, John F. Kennedy University
Adrien Mooney, Registrar, Utah Museum of Fine Arts
Terri Leong, Staffing Administrator, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Moderator: Keni Sturgeon, Director, Science & Education, Pacific Science Center


Adrienne McGraw joined the faculty of JFK University Museum Studies in 2010 and was appointed Program Chair. Previously, she was the executive director for Exhibit Envoy, a statewide nonprofit that develops traveling exhibitions and has served as director of education for several history museums and historic sites in California. She has authored educational curriculum, curated exhibitions, and is a founding and current committee member of the Green Museums Initiative for the California Association of Museums.



Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Just want to see if you are a robot.