Inside SEMC winter-spring 2022

The George Washington University Graduate Certificate in Collections Management and Care: Is it Right for You?

Madeline Calise, Registrar and Collections Specialist, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Melbourne, Florida

Inside SEMC – Winter-Spring 2022


What do you do when you luck your way into the museum world and find that your position, or the position you would like to have, requires some skills you have not yet acquired? Maybe you got your undergraduate degree in something different. Maybe you changed from a previous career. Maybe you got your degree in museum studies thirty years ago and now need a refresher or courses specifically in collections care. Maybe your institution has asked you to put on yet another hat. What do you do? You probably become an expert on training resources. You watch free webinars on YouTube, Google workshops, conferences, affiliation certificates, and contemplate a first or second MA in art history, public history, museum studies, or historic preservation. Maybe you just wanted to learn a little more about Integrated Pest Management because you found a mysterious roach on the floor, and it somehow led you down a rabbit hole of conservation degrees.

Before getting overwhelmed, know that you have options. I cannot tell you which program to choose, but I can tell you what I did when I found myself in a collections management and registration role. I got a Graduate Certificate in Collections Management and Care from George Washington University.

I started the program when I no longer had a general museum position where I was working with social media and guest relations and was now focused on collections care. For me, a full museum studies MA (which GW also has) did not make sense. I had a current role for which I needed a more immediate and specific knowledge base.

Ask yourself what do I need and want to know? You might need the whole kit and caboodle of the museum field. When researching, it was hard to find certificate programs that did not require you to be in a full-time MA program. Most collections care or other specialized certificates appeared to be concentrations. GW’s program is its own, stand-alone certificate. I was not in a graduate program, and never had been. A professional development program like this one was ideal. To my surprise, we did learn about funding and social media and events and such throughout the program, but specifically from a collections angle, which was more relevant.

If your first thought is finances, let me assure you, mine was too. Before getting chased off by tuition costs, take a serious look at scholarships and other funding, not just initially but as you go through the program. You might be surprised by what becomes available. Apply for financial aid and weigh your options. You know your own financial situation, just do not give up the whole endeavor before investigating further, for this course or for any professional development opportunity.

You might be weighing self-study versus enrollment. What I found was that webinars, forums, and online resources were great, but personally, it only got me so far. There is value in the structure of a class, the availability of professors, and discussion with classmates from different parts of the world. My classmates were people like me, working in museums with a desire to learn more about how we could improve our collections. We were studying the same concepts, but they had a different relevance to us based on our geography, type of institution, and scope of collections. It was fascinating to learn how my classmates applied the coursework to their facilities. The fact is, some classroom best practices are not practical in every scenario. It is interesting to see how different institutions apply what they can with what they have.

The best thing about this program is that it is designed for people working or volunteering in a museum during the program. What you learn in the course is valuable to your current position. I was able to do a risk assessment which would have been lower on my work queue if not for it being a final project for the class. It pushed me to get to some of those ‘you know we really should have a,” or “if we have time, it would be nice to get to” projects that are always lying around collections and exhibit spaces.

The full twelve credits are online, which is great: no quitting your coveted job and moving across the county. In 2020 when I was in the middle of the program, nearly all university classes went online. Lucky for us, our syllabus was not affected, aside from the fact that we then had to do some of our experiments at home, like dust monitors. We could never unsee what we saw on those little black strips. I for one have not stopped vacuuming. Fortunately, assignments can be modified if you do not have full access to everything. Some of my classmates worked in other departments and wanted to move into collections. Some of us were furloughed, let go, or otherwise lost access to our institutions during the pandemic. If we could not gain access to certain documents, there was always a way to make an assignment happen, even if it was doing a condition report for an item in our own home or looking at facilities reports from other institutions. The same processes applied, and we were able to get the full lesson out of it. If you have never taken an online course before, I would say that the discussions mimic an in-class discussion very well and the platform is easy to navigate.

You also might want to go this route if you need motivation. I like museum practice books, but I need some motivation to get through a whole textbook in my spare time. It is the same reason most people sign up for marathons instead of just running 26.2 miles around the neighborhood. You can’t ask all of the questions you need to fully grasp the concepts. With an official course, you have guaranteed feedback from experts, you have clarification on assignments, and you have built-in accountability.

t would be wrong for me to not acknowledge that name recognition and credibility is a part of selecting a school and program. It can be a factor for your resume, job hunt, or salary negotiations. The Museum Studies department at George Washington University is well established and there is a wide alumni network. Education is a large investment and a very personal choice. You know best what is valuable to you from a degree program.

I know, going back to school as an adult with a job and everything else you’ve got going on can feel next to impossible. But honestly, this course really helped me with my position and with feeling connected to my colleagues. I got to focus on and prioritize a specific skill set for over a year. I would not even know about SEMC if it had not been for my professor. My advice — go as far and learn as much as you have in you, if you want to. In doing research for this article, I found over two dozen online programs in the US, some MA’s, others professional programs. For me, someone looking to expand my knowledge of registration and collections management care, this course was the perfect fit. I hope you find yours.