There’s been a few of these “leaving the museum field” articles floating around lately, most recently the results of a survey on the topic posted on the Alliance Lab blog. Chalk it up to morbid curiosity, perhaps, but having just left full-time employment in the museum field myself I can’t help but read these when they come up.
In the interest of helping others with their own decision, I thought I’d offer a few insights into my own experiences. Your mileage will vary, of course, and your experiences won’t be exactly like mine, but I think it’s always helpful to get a variety of perspectives when thinking about a career-altering change.
I knew it was time to leave when I realized I wasn’t excited about a single damn thing I had coming up.
This wasn't exactly some big moment of epiphany, it was more of a slow realization, and an ironic one at that. See, I’d spent a good chunk of my tenure as a planner of public programs trying to convince people that scholarly lectures were not the be-all end-all for museum audiences, and at last the idea seemed to be sinking in. A couple of my most intractable colleagues suggested—of their own volition!—that maybe a lecture wasn’t the way to go and could we please think of some other options for their exhibitions? YES!
I should have been over the moon about all of this. Finally! New ideas! Things that appealed to more than just the regulars! Thinking about what audiences want instead of just trying to find the most impressive academic to invite!
But I wasn’t. The ironic thing was, all of these NEW programs took a lot of thought and planning, much more so than the old standards, and I was getting crushed under the weight of it all. Instead of being happy about new, cool ideas, I was just getting more and more tired trying to keep up. I’d take days off to make up for weekends spent at work, but instead of relaxing and recharging I’d just be worried about what I needed to get done the next day. I'd wake up hours early dreading the day ahead of me. And if anyone asked me “how’s work?” I couldn't figure out how to answer because I felt like I’d burst into tears.
Hello, burnout, my old friend.
I’d experienced burnout before, after a summer of particularly intense programming that included me working almost every weekend for three months straight. I was terrible at saying no and asking for help back then, so I just planned everything anyone suggested and figured I’d handle it… somehow. I thought I should be able to, it was my job after all, so I didn’t bring up how much stress I was under.
It took almost a year of self-work and going to a therapist to get out of that period of burnout. So I knew the feeling well when it came back the second time.
It should have been better. I knew strategies to cope this time, and what I needed to do to help myself. I worked on re-framing, manageability, better communication; I read books on time management and stress; I even signed up for a mentoring program to try and kick-start my enthusiasm again.
It should have been better, but it wasn’t.
As the Alliance Lab survey points out, employees should recognize burnout and take steps to help themselves. I was doing this, but I think this line of thinking is only useful up to a certain point. Where I was really running into a wall was that personal measures aren’t always enough. There were institutional factors contributing to the problem, and those I had very limited ability to address.
The second time, I did what I was supposed to: I asked for help and I communicated how I was feeling, even going so far as to literally put “do not burn out” into my personal goals for the year during my annual evaluation. But while I was trying to deal with my own increasing burnout, my department was hemorrhaging staff and not replacing them. As more and more responsibilities fell on fewer and fewer staff members, everyone else's nerves frayed too. There wasn’t anyone who could back me up or take anything off my plate without stressing themselves out further as well.
The biggest issue was that no matter how many times I seemed to bring up these problems, whether on my own behalf or anyone else’s, the only answer I got was just, “Hang in there.” Eventually, I ran out of energy to say anything. I just kept my head down and tried to keep from crying on the train ride home at night. I had a brief flash of optimism when it looked like some hiring might finally happen and I was offered a move to another position NOT doing programming. But there wasn’t a timeline for when I’d take on this new role or when the hires would happen, just more of those nebulous “Eventually!” replies, and the more I thought about it the more I realized I wasn’t particularly excited about those responsibilities either.
By that point even just walking through the galleries left me cold: I’d look at works of art I used to love and resent their mere presence on the walls. When did I start hating art, I wondered? The passion that had brought me to the field in the first place, sharing the joy of art with other people, had vanished. Even if my job really does change and I don’t have to do programming anymore, I thought, how am I supposed to work in a museum if I have to fake enthusiasm for art all the time?
From the mentoring program I did and from talking to colleagues at other institutions, I knew that the things that were making me unhappy were endemic to the field. I’d likely run into similar issues elsewhere, and the realities of museum salaries meant I'd never find a position making enough money to justify uprooting my life and my husband's. It felt like the stress was poisoning every other area of my life, from being able to do something as simple as make weekend plans all the way up to the unexpectedly rocky journey of starting a family, and I could no longer find reasons to justify staying.
So I put in my notice, and I left.
Now that I’m out, I haven’t regretted the decision once. Even after just a few months, the enthusiasm I once felt for art has rekindled. I’ve got some ideas percolating for future projects of my own along museum-y lines, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find myself really enjoying the occasional freelance museum projects I’ve taken on for my old employer.
It’s been a big change, to be sure, but it isn’t the earth-shattering shift I thought it would be. Before I left, it felt like I was throwing away not only all the work I’d done to get into the field in the first place but all the support and encouragement I’d gotten from mentors and colleagues over the years as well. I blamed myself for not being good enough, for not being able to handle it, for not speaking up more for myself or doing more. (Even writing this I still sort of expect someone to jump out and point their finger at me and shout, "You just didn't try hard enough, boo on you!" THANKS, BRAIN.) When I put in my notice I struggled with the guilt of leaving my colleagues to pick up the slack for yet another empty spot on the staff roster, and there were definitely times where I thought, “What am I doing, how can I even possibly consider this???”
It felt like the end of the world even thinking about leaving. But it wasn’t. If you’re reading this and finding resonance with your own situation or feelings, I hope it helps to know you’re not alone, and that you’re not the only person experiencing this. And if you ever need a listening ear, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Even though I ended up leaving, I will forever appreciate the amazing people in this field who were willing to listen and help me. I hope I can return the favor if you need someone to listen, too.