Working at a Children’s Museum: What I Needed & What I Learned
Working in a children’s museum is not what I had planned on doing post-graduation. I had it set in my mind that I would work in an art museum or for an art-based organization, but not for a place that seemed to be a play center. I still want those things, but COVID-19 had different plans. I started there in July 2020. For the first few months, it was an ordinary experience at a new job. I was finding where I fit in with staff and was quickly placed on the Museum’s exhibitions committee (yay curatorial experience!). But within the last three months, I have started to feel frustrated, discouraged, and unmotivated because my career goals were not lining up with tasks or current position. I quickly realized that my frustration and such was rooted in not knowing what a children’s museum actually was. My experience in art museums was based on a different educational structure and professional mindset. My academic and research specialties are so incredibly supported by object-based education and interpretation. This being the case, I found it very difficult to transition my mind to working in a children’s museum. I needed to find common ground on which to build that mindset. And so, working at a children’s museum forced me to return to the question: “what is a museum?”
But also, “what does impactful museum work look like for me here?”
Rebecca Shulman Hertz, the director of the Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum in Illinois, published a three-part article series on her blog, Museum Questions, on the subject. In her articles, she dives into the question: why are children’s museums museums? In her discussion, she explains that children’s museums are spaces with curated experiences, designed specifically for childhood learning and enjoyment. They are meant to introduce the idea of museums to children and their families while broadening children’s understandings of the world, and to serve as safe spaces to play and learn.
So, why did I need to work in a children’s museum?
Towards the end of my master’s, I started to do a deeper dive into museums at their most general level, e.g., looking at the history of museums and why they were founded. This research brought up issues of colonization, racism, intolerance, and elitism. My goals post-graduation were to focus on DEAI and decolonization work. Children’s museums are not immune to these histories since they derive their origins and methodologies from other museums. The Museum at first seemed to operate so differently than what I was used to! However, since working there, it’s made me reevaluate what a museum is and what museum work looks like.
Working at a children’s museum has helped me to see ways in which we can use children’s museums as leading institutions. This is especially so when it comes to tackling difficult subject matter. If you can’t explain difficult histories to children, how are you meant to lead discussion with adults, especially those who are less likely to listen? The aim is to be an amazing space that combines interactive installation design, smart educational strategy, and play. If we can do that, we can also create meaningful experiences that have lasting impacts on the minds of our future leaders. And isn’t that what we are trying to accomplish through K-12 educational programming, regardless of institution type or size?
This isn’t all to say that working here has been all crayons and glitter. This transition has been draining and has made me question my abilities as a young professional. No one else on staff has worked at another museum, and so, attempting to implement standards or practices has felt like a losing battle. If you find yourself in a similar situation, know that you are not alone. Keep your professional standards and head up, dear friend. Know your worth and know that you are capable of so much.
We will find our museum homes soon.
Sarah Hixson (she/her/hers) is an aspiring curator and educator focusing on DEAI and indigenization work and incorporating activism into museum practices. If you have questions for Sarah, please comment below or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Rebecca Shulman Hertz. "Why are children’s museums museums?" Museums Questions: Reflections on Museums, Programs, and Visitors, 2015-2016. https://museumquestions.com/category/childrens-museums/