The first interview for the Cooperstown Graduate Program (CGP) and the Museum Masters Review as a whole! This individual attended the CGP in 2002 and now works as an Executive Director at a small art museum. Huge thank you to her for providing answers to some additional questions about her experiences in graduate school.
Why did you choose the Cooperstown Graduate School?
I wanted a program that was specifically focused on museums and museum management, covering all aspects of museum work. I also really liked the practical aspect of it. Most of the programs I investigated were very specific to a certain kind of museum or didn’t offer anything nearly as comprehensive.
I loved the idea of the field trips and the in-service days. Each class takes several week long field trips (you learn the real meaning of museum fatigue on these). But in every case, you are visiting real museums, meeting with their staff (building connections with them), and seeing how actual museums function. When I was at the program, every Friday was an in-service day. We either had guest speakers from the field (or related ones) or did day trips to area museums or in NYC. During the day trips, we would always meet with the staff. Sometimes, we would volunteer on a particular project they had going on.
The alumni network is a huge advantage and also a big part of why I selected the program (and has proven to be a wonderful advantage as I’ve grown in my career). I know I can call anyone who went to the program, regardless of when they went and where they work, and be able to have a conversation, simply by saying I went to CGP. The importance of this awesome network resource cannot be understated with the program. I’ve gotten job interviews based purely on the fact that the person interviewing was a fellow CGPer.
Also, several of the other programs specifically told me they were designed “just like Cooperstown.” I thought it made more sense to go to the original than another program modeled on CGP.
What was your favorite class and/or professor and why?
It’s a small program, so you get to the know all the professors extremely well. Dr. Cindy Falk (who is still there) was my favorite professor. She was brand new at the time, so she was learning as we were. I felt like we were in it together! Some of the people teaching are museum professionals, not professors. We learned from the people on the front lines, as it were. Some were better teachers than others, but it made a difference to hear from people working on the day-to-day details of museums. I’m still in touch with them as well.
I cannot say that I had a favorite class, actually. I really enjoyed each of the museum classes. I enjoyed some more than others, but there really wasn’t one I can think of that stands out. The classes were designed to prepare us for a real-world career. We laughed about it then, asking just how much did we really learn doing all this project work for area museums? As soon as I got into the field though, it was apparent just how much we learned.
What particular skills were taught in the program?
We got the theory basics, but it was mostly real-world, practical experience. The projects I did there were real experience for actual museums, not just what-ifs for the ideal world that zero museums actually inhabit.
A few examples: The class project for the exhibitions class was to create a real, full exhibit at a museum or organization. I used the text I’d drafted for the exhibit to apply (and successfully get) a job as an Exhibit Developer. Also, networking and donor events are a huge part of the reality of working in a museum or non-profit. Cooperstown hosted numerous ones, large and small, usually with alumni (very forgiving of mistakes!), that allowed us to learn and practice those skills. And oh my, have I used those skills since!
The skills I learned there are applicable at any kind of museum, or even non-profits in general. Since graduating, I have worked at a living history museum, an arboretum, historical society, and I’m now the director at an art museum. I’ve done special events, education, exhibitions, and now administration (which means a little of everything!). These are very different organizations, but the skills needed to be successful at each are the same. The individual museums are just different.
We had budgeting sessions, as well as classes on how to read spreadsheets and financial statements. There were classes on museum education, exhibitions, collections management, administration, social history, and material culture.
We were also strongly encouraged (and in some cases required) to do several Independent Study classes and Internships. We could focus on whatever we wanted for those. I selected one on fundraising and grant-writing and another on conservation.
Did you complete a thesis or capstone project? If so, what was your topic?
I completed a thesis project. At the time, I was debating continuing as a PhD (since changed my mind), so I focused on history. My topic was women’s activism in the 19th century, using William Henry Seward’s wife and sister-in-law as case studies for what was going on at the time. While the topic was history focused, I worked extensively with the Seward House Museum (one of my thesis advisors was actually their executive director at the time). I was able to blend both historical research and museum work.
Where were you and your classmates in your career? Just out of undergrad, or coming from an entry-level museum position, or coming from outside of the field, etc.?
This was one of the things I really liked about Cooperstown and that I felt set it apart. It’s also something I know they work hard on. My classmates and I were a mix. I was just out of undergrad, as were a couple of others. I had worked in several museums already, however. A few of my classmates had been in the field for awhile. Others had entry-level museum experience. We all had different backgrounds. Some had backgrounds in business, others in history or social sciences. One had been working for a fundraising company for several years. We were also from all over the country. The mix definitely made for interesting discussions!
Related, who would you recommend your program for?
Anyone looking for a broad-based understanding of what it takes to truly operate a museum would benefit. I’ve spoken with many others who went to other programs, and I honestly believe Cooperstown did a better job of preparing me for the real-world experience of working in a museum than most I’ve learned about.
Was housing provided for grad students or did you find your own housing and was it a challenge?
Housing is not provided. I think they’ve been working on it and may have more resources now, or even possible housing. They would help with housing lists, and current students are a huge help. The housing was reasonably priced, and none of us actually had trouble finding something during the school year. Finding something during the summer was more of a challenge.
Any other insider information you would like to provide about your program or university?
Because it’s a small program, they work very hard with students on their individual financial situations. They want you to succeed and not be constantly stressed, so they will help with the little things (helping you find a part-time job if you need one, for example) and providing various fellowships and scholarships.
There is a definite sense of community (which works best when the class works well together, which mine did, fortunately) and support. For example, we were there during 9-11, and the program admins let me make phone calls from the offices to my family because I couldn’t get a line out on my home phone. I know they helped other classmates with the same issue as well. You find ways and things to do to make the life there engaging: lip sync contests in the local Winter Festival, karaoke nights, pizza parties, costume parties, etc. We did a lot with one another, and I’m very good friends with a couple of the people in my class (and still in touch with all of them).
This is not the program to go to if you are looking for the big university experience. Even though the degree is technically from SUNY-Oneonta, we rarely did things with the university (we even had a separate graduation ceremony). I came from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (a huge research university), and it was a definite contrast. But I did not have a problem adapting to the smaller experience; they really try to ensure you know what to expect.
The program is not without challenges, but I know they work really hard when issues do arise. And they take feedback from students seriously.
The program focuses on diversity a fair amount as well. Whether it’s the range of experiences within the classmates or teaching students to evaluate a variety of different viewpoints, diversity is an emphasis in the program. They emphasize that museums are for everyone, regardless of race, age, ability, gender, finances, etc, etc. It could be uncomfortable, enlightening, sad, unnerving, or thought-provoking, but always, we were encouraged to look at the world through someone else’s eyes.
For example, each year, as part of the education classes, the students must design a program for people with Down Syndrome. (There is a home nearby that works exclusively with people born with Downs, where residents learn real-world skills and even train for jobs). It was challenging to create a program for people with such a huge range of abilities. Some were wheelchair bound and non-verbal, while others were highly functional. It was a big test to create something engaging for everyone, but we did it. Having one of the caregivers for someone who was supposedly non-responsive tell me that they’ve never seen that individual happier or more engaged, because of something we created, ranks as one of my all time favorite career memories.
The administrators of the home told us that before CGP came to them, they always felt that museums weren’t for “people like them” and that they weren’t welcome. That comment has stuck with me my entire career. At one of the museums where I worked, we partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association to create programs for people with the disease and their caregivers. I’ve also sent letters of invitation to special education teachers, making sure they know their students are welcome. My current museum often hosts tours for a program called Best Buddies, which pairs students with cognitive or developmental challenges with students who do not have them. The idea is to build friendships and understanding.
I know several of my classmates have done programming like that at their museums as well. Some focus on race. Others on economic status, immigration, or other areas. But for all of us, the idea is to promote museums as safe places for discussion and conversation, open to all. It’s not explicitly stated anywhere, but CGP definitely promoted that attitude among us.
Any advice for those looking into graduate school and beginning a career in museums?
Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! Get involved in local museums/non-profits. Find out what you like to do in the field. The best way to learn about museums is by doing.
Set realistic expectations for yourself and the program you want to go to. Find out more about each program and go to the one that is the best fit for what you actually want to do. There are a lot of programs out there, each with its own benefits and challenges. All programs are not for all people. You are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you (just like in a job).
When beginning a career in the museum world, know you have to build your skills. You are most likely not going to get your dream job right out of grad school. But keep it in mind, and take jobs that build you towards that dream job. And know the dream may change. I thought my dream job was to run an Education Department at a large history museum. I’m the Executive Director at a small art museum now, and I absolutely love my job. As I got more into museum work (starting at Cooperstown), my focus changed.
Don’t go into the field unless you love it. You are not going to get rich at it. Like any profession, it will be frustrating, and some days you’ll want to pull out your hair. But if you really love what you do, those frustrations, annoyances, and challenges will be worth it because you truly believe in what you do and know you get to work in an amazingly cool museum!
Thank you again for providing these insightful answers! If there are additional questions you would like answered about the Cooperstown Graduate Program or other graduate programs in the future, let me know. If you would like more information on this program, head over to the CGP blog post or their website.