This is the first interview for Seton Hall University featuring Gillian Suss. She graduated in 2009 and currently works at an art museum as a Collection Management Assistant. Thank you, Gillian, for these answers!
Why did you choose Seton Hall University?
I chose Seton Hall because it felt like the best “fit” for me. I really wanted a program that would provide me with hands-on learning opportunities, and I believe that the registration and collections management courses at SHU did that. I was also able to save money while going to SHU by living at my parents’ house and through a part- and then full-time assistantship with the program.
What was your favorite class and/or professor and why?
I think that my favorite class was Object Care with Katie Witzig. If we weren’t learning practical skills with Katie, we were visiting museums, libraries, historic houses, and private conservation studios to learn from the men and women who worked there.
What particular skills were taught in the program?
I focused my studies at SHU on museum registration and collections management and mainly took courses to that effect. I learned basic object care and handling (box making, book binding, environmental tracking) as well as the basics of creating registration documents for a museum including condition reports, deeds of gift, and collections policies. In addition, one of my favorite courses was an education course where I learned a lot and during which I feel I gained the resources I might need if ever tasked with creating educational programming.
Did you complete a thesis or capstone project? If so, what was your topic?
Yes, I wrote a thesis on caring for western musical instruments in museum collections.
For your thesis, did you do a case study of a museum who keeps western music instruments in their museum? What’s the worst/best thing you can do for them?
I did not do a case study specifically, but I interviewed curators at the MFA Boston and the Met; musical instrument conservators at the Met, the National Music Museum and Colonial Williamsburg; and musicians actively performing in modern and early music ensembles and with modern and early instruments. In the mid 20th century, the question of playing these historic instruments incited many heated responses, especially after the early music movement gained strength. For the most part, those responses were black and white – you should either play historic instruments or not play them at all. Today, however, it’s much more grey. Today, collections look at the condition of the instrument as well as the history and possible future of the instrument (as well as donor wishes) when choosing to play or not a play an instrument.
I think that the worst thing you can do for any instrument in your collection is ignore it completely and allow it and its music to die, unloved and in an unsafe environment for it. The best thing you can do is understand its history and work to share it with others whether through performance using the instrument or through writing about it. Instruments tell stories through their music and it’s important that we share them (in ways that are safe for the objects).
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.?
When I started at SHU there was a mix of people at many different places in their careers. Some, like me, started the program immediately after college, while others had been working for years (or decades) or had had families. However, since I was in graduate school at the height of the recession (2007-2009) I think that a lot more people were beginning to enter the program immediately after college.
Related, who would you recommend your program for? Any particular focus or for those interested in theory vs. application?
It has been a few years and I know there has been some turnover in faculty, however, I would definitely recommend SHU for students interested in collections management and registration – those students interested in practical courses more than theory based courses (I think this is true for students interested in museum education as well).
Was housing provided for grad students or did you find your own housing and was it a challenge?
Housing was not provided for students. What made finding housing difficult was that South Orange is not an inexpensive place to live due to its close proximity to NYC. However, everyone seemed to be able to make it work.
Did you or any of your peers work while pursuing their degree?
Absolutely. As I said above, I was lucky to live at home and have an assistantship with the program, therefore keeping my expenses low, but many, many students worked while pursuing their degree. SHU courses were for the most part held at night so that students could work during the day. There were also some Saturday courses or trips.
Any other insider information you would like to provide about your program or university?
I think that the adjunct faculty at SHU were the real gems of the program because they were the people actively working in the field. They’re what made the program really special.
Any advice for those looking into graduate school and beginning a career in museums?
My main advice for anyone looking into graduate school is to be open minded and unafraid. Be open-minded about your career – yes, you want to be a registrar, but don’t ignore classes in finance/development/education. Especially with the current economic climate, having broader experiences makes you much, much more employable (this is from years of being un/under-employed after grad school). Be unafraid to talk to people in your field and reach out to them – make friends, volunteer, talk to people, ask questions. Form relationships and then keep up with them. It has been invaluable for me to be able to reach out to people I once interned with or worked with to ask questions. Networking is hard and scary and uncomfortable, but 100% worth it.
Thank you again for these answers! If you have a question or feedback, comment or contact me! If you’re interested in the program, check out the blog post and their website.