To Be Inspired and To Inspire: CAM 2018 Works Its Magic

To Be Inspired and To Inspire: CAM 2018 Works Its Magic
Blog with reflections from the California Association of Museums Conference in Palm Springs
By: Carolyn Hope Lopez, 2018 CAM Fellow

The 2018 CAM Conference, Modern Museums: Relevant & Resilient was the first museum conference I attended. The chance to participate could not have arrived at a more perfect moment. During a time when I felt discouraged by the museum field, the CAM conference reminded me that there are museum professionals doing amazing work who are willing to help emerging professionals. 

In May 2017, I graduated with my master’s degree in museum studies with a focus in collections management from George Washington University. Immediately after, I began an 8-month internship with the J. Paul Getty Museum in the registrar’s office. This was an incredible opportunity to receive right after graduation. It was also paid, which is hard to come by for museum internships. I felt extremely lucky, to say the least, to be able to come home to Los Angeles, California, and start my career at such a prestigious museum and to be compensated for my internship. 

These feelings, however, were pushed aside by the beginning of 2018, when feelings of anxiety cluttered my mind. I asked myself, “What is my next step?” Looking at museum websites, searching for collections management jobs in Los Angeles, I was discouraged by the lack of openings I felt qualified for. The opportunities that were available seemed to require more experience and skills than I had. I knew that one day I could apply for those positions, but I knew that I would need more training. Or, was I just underestimating my qualifications? And, if I did see something I felt qualified for, how would I craft the perfect cover letter along with a polished resume? 

In addition, I was beginning to feel the financial pressures of living in Los Angeles and student loan providers were contacting me for their first payment. Knowing full well that the nonprofit world of museums meant a lower salary, I did not realize the strain it would put on my life until now. 

Soon I found myself drifting to various websites for companies unrelated to museums and cultural institutions. “Could I do this in the meantime? Do my skills transfer? How long would it take me to get back into collections management? Is this the right move?,” I asked myself.

Not to mention, the museum field is both historically and currently predominantly white, in its leadership, staff, and visitors. There are not many Latinas in the field, let alone in collections management. Coming fresh from a graduate program that also reflected this lack of diversity in both its faculty and student body, I still carried a feeling of being out of place and on my own. 

Putting all these worries on the back burner, I prepared for the CAM 2018 conference. Since this was my first conference, I did not know what to expect. Who was I going to meet? What was I going to gain? How would I present myself? “Wow,” I thought, “I have to write a mock cover letter for the first session and it will be workshopped by a panel of museum professionals!” Although the fear of the unknown made me extremely nervous to attend the conference, I was put at ease and comforted by the team behind the CAM Fellows program. 

After the first 2 sessions, Prepare to Impress: Institutional Research for Cover Letters and Interviews and Getting Your Foot in the Door: Mastering the Elusive Interview, I was relieved to finally get answers to the questions that had constantly haunted me when applying and interviewing for jobs. The impressive panelists for both sessions were encouraging and frank in their opinions on resumes and cover letters. Attendees were also able to break out into groups and work one-on-one with some of the panelists to review resumes and cover letters, and to practice interview questions.   

After the sessions, I had a long conversation with panelist Michelle Powers, who took the time to read through my resume. As she crossed out, circled, and jotted down notes, she encouraged me to be confident in my achievements. She then went on to tell me not to apologize for the areas I was lacking in, but instead to be excited about the opportunity to learn. 

Leaving the first 2 sessions, I felt more confident and motivated to rework my resume and write cover letters that would highlight my successes and prove why I would be a valuable addition to an institution. Furthermore, I realized that I am in an amazing place to take advantage of the connections I do have, and not hesitate about reaching out to other professionals for words of wisdom. Regardless of my feelings of being alone, there is an entire field of museum professionals who can help me. 

Feeling better about my job search, I started to attend various discussions on diversity, equity, and outreach. These were conversations I had yet to have since I graduated from my master’s program, and I was reminded of how much these discussions mean to me. Sessions such as The LatinXperience Study: An Experiential View of LatinX Engagement in the Arts in California and Our Responsibility: Diversity, Equity, and the Role of the Museum Community inspired me to have these difficult conversations at whatever institution I find myself in. I should not only participate in, but lead discussions like this and share my own thoughts and experiences. 

One session at the CAM 2018 conference that had a significant impact on me was Meaningful Community Engagement: Existing Outside Your Walls. Presented by Daniel Aguirre, Community Engagement Manager of the Fleet Science Center, this wonderful presentation gave a glimpse into a yearlong program that encouraged a Latino community to discover and connect with the power of science in their everyday lives. A story during this session that really resonated with me was about Steve “Masa” Wade, a 60-year-old man who left school during the 5th grade and committed his life to building low riders. After being asked to lead a presentation on the engineering of low riding, he refused, asking, “Who am I to teach anyone anything?”

This is common feeling shared by underrepresented communities regardless of their achievements and qualifications, and I immediately knew what Masa meant by his statement. Despite the work I put into earning my degrees and participating in many rewarding internships, I still feel the pains of the “imposter syndrome,” that someone, someday, was going to figure out I do not belong here. Of course, this is not true by any means, but these feelings have been built up over time by racism, inequality, and lack of representation of my community. 

Since I chose to write an article on this session, I was able to connect with Aguirre after the conference and have discussions regarding these concepts and the work he is doing to break down these walls. 

With my career focused in collections management, I often find myself in storage rooms and back offices, away from the public and other departments of a museum. Sometimes I find myself being comfortable in these spaces and forgetting what I can do outside my walls to better the field and my own community. Aguirre has inspired me beyond words to remember what it is that I am passionate about. Having accomplished so much, it means nothing to me if it is not shared with my community. I very much wish to inspire and support others, especially those in the Latino community, to find a career in museums. Although the road may not be easy and and can be very discouraging at times, it is a unique field–one that preserves, presents, and engages with the world’s art and cultural heritage.  

By the end of the 2018 CAM conference, I left with many of my earlier worries settled. These worries were replaced by a new motivation to not give up on the museum field or on myself. I met professionals who were willing to continue these conversations and support me in pursuing my career and my passions. Thus, I want to offer my support to any other museum professional who is feeling the same feelings I struggle with. This blog post is a reminder that someone is out there sharing your struggle. You are not alone. Hopefully, you find comfort in my story, just as I found comfort in the 2018 CAM conference.   
About the Author/CAM Fellow:
Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Carolyn Lopez is a recent graduate of the George Washington University Museum Studies Graduate program. She currently interns at the J. Paul Getty Museum in the Registrar’s Office.