What Does Success as a Museum Worker Look Like? - Interview VII with Marieke Van Damme

Marieke Van Damme - Museum Worker, currently Executive Director of the Cambridge Historical Society

Marieke Van Damme has worked in non-profits for over 15 years, starting as an Americorps VISTA volunteer in Alaska. Her museum career began in collections and evolved into historic site management and administration/ fundraising. She is currently the Executive Director of the Cambridge Historical Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2014, Marieke launched Joyful Museums, a project studying workplace culture. She tweets from @joyfulmuseums and co-hosts the podcast Museum People. Her museum areas of interest include workplace culture, gender equity, and making history relevant.

What Does Success as a Museum Worker look like?

I’ve spent enough time working in museums and talking with other museum workers to know that success is a personal construct. In the past, success might be defined by your contributions to a journal, books you've written, or promotions within your museum. That still exists, of course, but with the changing nature of the workplace, your success--your happiness, your engagement, your well-being--will be defined by you. Some museum workers I know don’t long for the teaching gig; they are informal mentors in the field and much prefer it that way. They find community and connections on social media. Instead of working for one museum for long stretches at a time, they move from one museum to the other, or string together part-time gigs (the need for such a employment model is one that needs to be examined, but that’s for another time). Success to many museum workers, especially emerging professionals trying to break into the field, is oftentimes being able to pay rent and student loans.

What are your thoughts on fame in the arts?

If fame means more people knowing about the amazing work people in museums do to make the world a better place everyday, then I’m all for it!

What is your approach to rejection as a site of success?

Rejection and failure are part of any career. As long as we create environments for people to use rejection as an opportunity to grow, we can regard it as healthy and universal.

Any thoughts on income and financial stability and success?

Anyone going into museum work to become rich and famous needs to take a hard look at job postings (only in theory though, as most job postings perpetuate income inequality by not listing salary ranges). “Success” in museum work doesn’t bring significant financial stability unless you are at the top of your organization or have learned how to insert more hours into the day so you can pick up a side gig. This is a serious issue our field needs to reconcile before we’ve become too privileged to carry out our missions effectively.

How do you define success in the arts?

Personally, it is an understanding that the work I’m doing is making the world a better place. I also need to work in a supportive and collaborative environment that rewards creativity and critical thinking.

Do you have role models for success and who are they?

The museum community is small, so I won’t call out people by name for fear of leaving someone out. But there are so, so many colleagues I really admire. Those that have stayed at their institutions for years because of their intense dedication to the mission and their ability to not give up when times get hard. Those who have gone independent (or left the museum field entirely) because it takes courage to strike out on your own. Those who constantly challenge the status quo even when it is hard or tiring or unpopular because that’s a job in addition to your full-time job (and we all work more than full-time already). Those who no matter what will always meet up with you to talk you through a difficult time or a question you have. I’m lucky to know and have worked with so many remarkable people!

Which advice on success would you give your 18-year-old self?

I wholeheartedly agree with Warren Buffet that investing in your own education is the best thing that you can do for yourself. This doesn’t have to be formal education, but you do have to challenge yourself to always be learning. Also, know that perceptions of “success” is subjective and personal. Your idea of success changes as you get older; that’s normal.

Your thoughts on success in the arts and race/gender

Museums have a long way to go before its workforce better represents the people we are meant to serve. Our problems are many: often our boards and leadership positions are held by people of privilege, those who identify as women face gender discrimination on a regular basis (even in a field dominated by women), and there is no reliable pipeline for people of color to enter the field, just to name a few. I encourage anyone interested in learning more about these issues to check out  Gender Equity in Museums Movement (GEMM), Museums & Race: Transformation and Justice, and #MuseumWorkersSpeak as starting points for some of these issues. Also, the American Alliance of Museums has the Center for the Future of Museums, an LGBTQ Alliance professional network, and recently hired a Director of Inclusion, so we, as a field, are starting to talk more about these issues. Other good news: museums are filled with people dedicated to making the world a better place through the humanities and sciences. We’re a smart, plucky group who knows how to get work done in spite of limited resources, discrimination, and our society’s backward approach to non-profit work. This is what gives me hope for our future! Onward, friends.