Introducing Ilene Frank who graduated from the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta in 2001. She currently works as the Chief Curator at a historical society. Thank you to Ilene for answering these questions about her graduate school experience.
Why did you choose the Cooperstown Graduate School?
I was accepted to another program as well but that program focused solely on Museum Education. My experiences working at Historic St. Mary’s City prior to going to graduate school showed me that unless you are working at the largest of museums, you often end up in jobs that at times include curatorial, administrative, education, programmatic and fundraising duties. I wanted a graduate program that would provide training and experience in the full range of museum work.
What was your favorite class and/or professor and why?
I took the American Folk Art class taught by Paul D’Ambrosio because I did not have an appreciation for folk art and I thought if I was every going to get one it would be through him and through New York State Historical Association’s (NYSHA) collection. I was right. And to this day, I am so thankful I took that course. My eyes were opened to the richness of folk art and I often find myself using information from the course. It was also through that course that I had my first visit to what is now one of my favorite museums of all time, the American Visionary Art Museum.
What particular skills were taught in the program?
So many: label writing, exhibit curation, museum administration, program development, audience development and more. But you still had to make the program your own. You have to take advantage of opportunities that come your way in graduate school, and create experiences if they don’t naturally exist. For instance, I worked with an 11th grade English teacher for a semester working folk art into the curriculum, including visits to the Fenimore Art Museum. It was a fantastic experience to work so closely with a teacher and see where and how museum education and classroom education complement each other.
Did you complete a thesis or capstone project? If so, what was your topic?
Yes, my thesis was on Community-based Museum Programming for Adolescents. Mostly after-school or summer programming where the teens came out of their free will and not due to a teacher planning a field trip.
Where were you and your classmates in your career?
It was a mix of people who had some museum-work experience, some who came straight from their undergraduate program, or came from outside of the field.
I graduated from college in 1996 and started graduate school in 1999. In between, I worked for a year as a meeting planner for a very large clinical chemistry association in DC. Nothing to do with museums, but excellent preparation for managing multiple tasks at once, good office skills (communication, working with customers and colleagues) and realizing I really didn’t want an office job. I then worked for 2 years at Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC) as the Research Assistant in the Archaeology department. I had worked there off and on during college and was thrilled when I was hired full-time. I actually went to work at HSMC thinking I would one day pursue graduate studies in archaeology, but thanks to some great mentors and my own reflection I eventually found myself drawn more to museum studies. And the rest is history.
Related, who would you recommend your program for?
If you are asking if I think you should work before going to graduate school, then the answer is a definitive yes. Graduate school is an investment, but can be costly. Make sure the degree is something you really want and need.
Though the program is known to be generalist, was it geared toward a certain type of museum or work in a specific department?
While generalist it was focused on History museums (historic sites, etc.). It has recently added a track for Science Museums. It may be the first program devoted specifically to science museums.
Was housing provided for grad students or did you find your own housing and was it a challenge?
Housing was not provided. Cooperstown is a small town and the program helped match students with vacancies. Many owners are used to renting to the students during the academic year and then rent to summer tourists the rest of the time. I was fortunate to have a 12 month rental. In fact, I had friends who over the summer stored stuff at my place while we did internships across the country.
Any other insider information you would like to provide about your program or university?
Any advice for those looking into graduate school and beginning a career in museums?