The following is an interview with Tania Said for the Museum Studies program at George Washington University. Tania graduated in 1998 with a M.A. in Museum Studies and concentrations in administration with audience development and visual culture (interdisciplinary between American studies, anthropology, and art history). Thank you to Tania for answering these questions about her experience in graduate school.
Why did you choose the George Washington University?
I chose GWU because it is in a city with a high concentration of museums and as a result, its internship placement program seemed excellent.
Where did you end up interning? How did that internship while at GWU affect your career?
The internship was for the Washington Project for the Arts program of the Corcoran Gallery of Art with Nadine Gabai-Botero. The internship was integral to where I am now as it was my only other direct art museum experience and it gave me the chance to work on exhibitions, marketing, programming, special events, and more. Then after my internship I was invited to serve on WPA\C’s community outreach committee which introduced me to a lot of marketing and funding types too.
What was your favorite class and/or professor and why?
Three classes: Project Management taught by Martha Morris, then deputy director of the National Museum of American History, because it was imminently practical with a lot of workplace theory as well. The required project gave students an opportunity to interview a museum colleague about the mechanics of accomplishing a project. I remember those details well even now, years later.
The other class I liked was the Politics of Culture, which was taught through American Studies. This class was the beginning of my understanding that the status quo is not the only solution.
I also liked my Curatorial Research and Planning class, which was taught by Dr. Lonnie Bunch, now director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He was an excellent lecturer who could tell stories I still remember today.
What particular skills were taught in the program?
At the time, the GWU Museum Studies program was very project-based since it was taught by many local and regional museum professionals (one professor came by train every week from Winterthur in Delaware).
Did you complete a thesis or capstone project? If so, what was your topic?
No thesis or capstone, just final exams for all subjects.
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.?
Several people were just out of undergraduate, but many of us were emerging museum professionals; we appreciated that the GWU Museum Studies program could be done part-time, which I did from 1995 – 1998 while originally working for the American Alliance of Museums, then Institute of Museum and Library Services, and then eventually the Corporation for National and Community Service. If I could have done the Museum Education program, I might have, but it required being a full-time student for one year and I liked working in the field too. GWU’s Museum Studies program is also very expensive (private university), so working at the time was a way of defraying some of the cost.
Related, who would you recommend your program for?
Students wishing to work in the museum field in a small or mid-sized museum where knowing some about as much of museum operations is helpful. I would recommend it less so for someone interested in curatorial or exhibition development as there is not such a great opportunity for studying one area deeply.
Was housing provided for grad students or did you find your own housing and was it a challenge?
No housing was provided. Washington, DC, has extensive housing listings so the main challenge was affording good housing in a safe area.
Any other insider information you would like to provide about your program or university?
Since so many professors are working professionals, learn networking from day 1. Every impression counts and being adept at conversation about the field and related issues will serve any student well.
Any advice for those looking into graduate school and beginning a career in museums?
Balance the cost of the program with your potential to earn a salary in the museum field and where you wish to work. A career in museums “buys” a middle-class life typically so be comfortable with that idea. In addition, remember that a lot of museums, especially at small or mid-sized museums are place-based meaning it could be you who has to un-alarm and open the doors when you would rather be working from home.
Here’s a thought for men and women thinking about having a family: remember that depending on what museum job you have, it is not always conducive to having a family. Exhibitions have to be opened on time, and programs are offered most typically in the evenings and weekends when most people are available to attend during their spare time, which may take time from your family. And if you want to change the world through museums, remember it’s possible but harder through established institutions.