That Annoying Little Question

“So, what are you going to do with that?”

It’s a question anyone studying or working in the humanities is well-acquainted with. I get it all the time, especially now that my Ph.D. is all but completed. Friends and acquaintances use it to launch conversations we’ve most certainly had in the recent and distant past.

Sometimes it’s followed up with a few more questions: “Do you want to teach? Work in a museum?”

Well, yes, those are the two most likely professional destinations for individuals with advanced degrees in art history. I won’t begrudge the interlocutor – those are fair questions to ask. What bothers me is the tone. There’s a difference between asking questions for the sake of starting a conversation, and asking questions in the search for knowledge. The question of what an art historian does with an art history degree is almost always asked because the questioner truly doesn’t know what can be done with that degree. If they mention academia and museums, its often because those are the only possible fields they can muster.

(As an aside, it’s been over a decade since I’ve not been earning a degree in history, but in conversations with colleagues it’s quite obvious that my experience is not unique.)

It strikes me that these are largely monetary questions. I respond that, yes, I want to work in a museum or in some sort of field related to public arts education. Come on though, that’s really that’s not what I want to do with my degree. I want to tell stories, reach new audiences, inspire others the same way that art and museums have inspired me, and sure, I’d like to find someone to pay me to do so. That’s not an appropriate answer though, or at least it’s not the type of answer the questioner had in mind.

It can be difficult to respond that way, not in the least because it can devalue others – ‘I want to inspire future generations…what do you want to do with your accounting degree’ – and because it can be a difficult metric to measure.

 

That’s a handy segue into this article by Robert Stein of the Dallas Museum of Art on Medium, “Museums… So What?” which is a call for the development of tools and metrics which can clarify the impact museums have on their communities in non-monetary way.

As I’m applying for museum positions, many of which have financials at the forefront, Stein’s article is weighing on my mind. In particular, how other museums approach the justification their own existence, and how best to present a different set of values to stakeholders in the community.

Often museums either focus on their financial impact on the community – how many people walk through the doors, how much money that tourism encourages, or at the very least whether or not the museum breaks even – or argue that non-monetary social impact is immeasurable and thus we should just be taken on our word that we make a difference.*

*It seems true that some museums make this argument because they understand that, while financially self-sufficient, they truly don’t make a difference. We’ve all visited museums that inspire us, and museums which feel as tough they’re just existing as a vanity project. The goal is to avoid the latter.

Social impact is tricky to measure, and I’m not sure the best way to do it (nor does anyone else, hence Stein’s article), but it will be crucial going forward to allow museums to justify their existence. It will also be crucial in order to change the tenor of that pesky “What are you going to do with that?” question asked of art history majors worldwide.

Hopefully we can get to a place where the implicit value of the humanities to society is understood, and that question becomes one simply asked out of interest rather than confusion. The road to that place will be made easier through effective measurement of impact, as suggested by Stein, and may also be a function of time. The better museums are able to not only identify their impact, but use that data to better improve their offering and inculcate themselves more into the community  as a truly valuable resource, then the implicit value of the humanities will become a shared cultural value.

Luckily, I know that by that day I won’t ever have to worry about the dreaded question, because I’ll be living it.

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