by Meka Manchak
I started in the museum field in 2009. The Great Recession was in full-swing and museums—like a lot of industries--were not hiring. I interned, unpaid, for a full-year before catching a break and landing a full-time position working in exhibits at a history museum. I stayed at that museum for five years gaining experience, chasing new opportunities, and trying to learn as much as I could from my museum-veteran mentors.
Then my career got thrown off track a bit—as it does for a lot of people. My husband got a great job opportunity in a different state, we had a baby shortly before we moved, and my mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness. When I left my full-time job, I planned to take a break—maybe six months or a year—to get accustomed to my new circumstances and then dive right back in to the work of developing engaging and important exhibits at a new museum in a different state. I never thought that four years later, I would still be without a full-time job in the field. The reality of re-launching my career was much harsher than I could have imagined.
Was a career in museums worth all this trouble and headache? Should I cut my losses now and find fulfilling work elsewhere? I was seriously considering these questions. Everyone knows museums don’t pay well and jobs can be hard to come by. What was keeping me on this path?
I applied for the Wanda Chin WMA Scholarship in an attempt to find out. The theme of the Tacoma conference was “Inspire.” And that’s just what I needed. I wanted to feel inspired to continue on the freelance path until something full-time became available. I wanted to feel inspired to not cut my losses and look elsewhere. I wanted to hear about the work of other museum professionals and feel inspired to do similar things. The conference did not disappoint. I felt inspired, motivated, and galvanized every day I was there.
In the opening keynote session, we heard from Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham who developed Museum Hue as a way to disrupt the homogeneity of the museum profession. I was inspired by the way she spoke about actionable steps museums can take to communicate support for social issues. We need museums to be inclusive of all our lived experiences—not the experiences of just one group of people.
In the session Museums, Social Justice, and Civic Engagement in the Land of Enchantment, I was heartened to see the way museums in New Mexico have approached social justice issues in their exhibits. I appreciated the speakers’ acknowledgment of the things they could have done better. They gave the audience pointers for developing their own exhibits on sensitive topics. We cannot shy away from hot button issues because they might make some people uncomfortable. I was impressed to see how these museums reacted to current social issues that were affecting their communities with beautiful and influential exhibits.
From the Guidelines for Collaboration between Museums and Native Communities session, I picked up the idea of “co-laboring.” While collaborating with different communities, it is important for museums to listen to people and trust in their knowledge. They need to create a space for these communities to speak for themselves and labor alongside the museum staff in creating exhibits and programs.
My favorite session of the conference was Beyond the Plexiglass Ceiling: Women’s Roles in Exhibition Preparation and Installation. The organizers formed small break-out groups which facilitated thoughtful discussion on how to engage more women in exhibit fabrication. As a woman in the museum exhibit field, I’ve often felt out of place during fabrication and install. I am eager to learn but feel self-conscious about my lack of experience and skills. Talking with these women was a boost to my confidence. I felt motivated and encouraged by the women I met who are lead preparators and installers. It was also cathartic for all of us to share examples of how we’ve felt marginalized as women in this specific aspect of museum work.
I am so thankful for the Wanda Chin Scholarship which enabled me to attend the WMA Annual Meeting. My love for museum work has been reinvigorated and I am amazed by all the great work museums in our region are doing. I am inspired to stay the course—find ways to be involved in museum work without a full-time job and continue searching for the right position. I believe museums inspire communities and can be agents of social change. WMA Tacoma reaffirmed that vision.