A Museum Professional’s Reality Check

Mark Walhimer Emerging Museum Professionals, Mark Walhimer, museum staff, Well being Leave a Comment

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For those working in museums, celebrating knowledge, preserving culture, and inspiring curiosity drew us to this field. But as many of us know firsthand, the reality can be much harsher than those lofty ambitions might suggest. Institutional bureaucracy, lack of funding and support, and power imbalances that enable exploitation are far too common.

Over years of work at museums, I found myself in this situation. Basic needs like funding for software, hiring staff, and getting IT support were an endless battle with obstructive administrations. Requests went unanswered for months as I tried to build museum’s infrastructure with little administration backing.

However, my driving passion was mentoring students and giving them opportunities as curators and museum guides. So I persisted, learning to navigate politics through active listening, reading motivations, and deciding when to push and when to pull back to protect my interests.

That meant drawing firm boundaries when administrators tried to exploit my expertise for their personal “pet projects” without compensation. I refused to provide free consulting or access to materials I created while nurturing meaningful educational work with students.

It was a harsh awakening to how expendable my labor was to leadership. My generosity and passion were taken for granted through constant requests for unpaid work, even as my standard wages required me to take a second job. My input would be discarded if it didn’t serve certain agendas.

Through it all, I had to develop a level of pragmatic detachment to insulate myself from toxicity and exploitation. If the institution were unwilling to change its model, I’d focus on modeling better behavior – upholding principles like mutual respect, accountability, and visitor-centric service for my students.

It took a conscious effort not to become completely jaded or burn out tilting at windmills. I had to carefully decide when to speak up and when to preserve my energy for the work that truly mattered to me—being a passionate mentor.

I’m still honing the resilience and self-awareness this requires. Knowing when to be malleable and pick my battles versus when to stand firm in my values and professional ethics is an ongoing process of balancing self-preservation with staying true to my “why.”

I share these realities not to disillusion but to prepare others for navigating toxic museum cultures. Persevering with integrity in imperfect systems takes strategizing beyond passion. It means developing emotional intelligence, setting clear boundaries, and nurturing the next generation of professionals with sustainable mindsets.

Our core missions and the legacy we impart to students and emerging museum professionals can outlive institutional shortcomings. By protecting our craft and modeling ethical principles, we ensure that those whose passion we stoke will uplift the diverse richness of human knowledge and culture.

It’s not an easy road, but it’s wildly fulfilling when you learn to navigate the realities patiently. I’m still on this journey, but I’m choosing to share my truth in hopes that my experiences can provide an insightful reality check for others.

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