Margaret Middleton is an American independent exhibit designer and museum consultant currently based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. With a degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design and over 15 years of experience in the museum field, they work at the intersection of design and social justice.
Middleton developed the popular Family Inclusive Language Chart in 2014 and consults with museums on implementing inclusive practice with special focus on age, gender, and sexuality. Their writing has been published in the Journal of Museum Education, Exhibition (NAME), Dimensions (ASTC), and Museum magazine (AAM).
Middleton currently serves as a Museums Association regional rep for Northern Ireland.
I owe my career to the generosity of all the established professionals who gave me advice and helped me get connected in the museum field when I was getting started. Now emerging museums professionals reach out to me and I welcome the opportunity to pay it forward.
Here is a simulated informational interview to answer the most frequently asked questions.
If you still want to talk, please don't hesitate to reach out. I'd be happy to chat with you.
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Q: How did you get started in museums?
A: I began as an assistant to the exhibit designer at Providence Children's Museum. I was a work/study intern while studying industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design. I graduated college at the height of the recession and considered myself lucky to get a job in a warehouse. When I was eventually laid off, I started volunteering at several museums, moved to California, and joined the board of Cultural Connections, a professional development and networking group for arts and culture workers in the Bay Area. The connections I made during my volunteer work and board service directly led to my being hired as the exhibit designer at the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose later that year. From there I went on to be the exhibit designer at Boston Children's Museum and after that I started my own design practice.
Q: What is it like being an independent museum professional?
A: It's different every day and that's what I love about it. I get to work with all genres of museums: history, art, science, and children's museums. I always enjoy the opportunity to meet clients in person and do a site visit, but most of my work is done remotely from my home office. I use Adobe Creative Suite and SketchUp Pro to create graphic files and 3D drawings. I conduct most of my meetings by phone.
Q: Do you have any networking tips?
A: Networking in museums is fun because the field is full of interesting people who love to share their knowledge. It's really just making friends.
Join your city, state, and/or regional museum organization. Keep up to date on local happenings and attend as many events as you can in person.
Attend conferences. Your regional conference is probably cheaper than a national one and it may be more useful to you anyway because you're more likely to see the attendees again in another context and you may run into people you already know. It can also be easier to network at smaller events. If you are low on cash, offer to volunteer in exchange for tickets. Don't skip the parties and meet-ups - that's where some of the best networking happens.
Go to museums. The more you see, the more knowledgeable you'll be and the more you'll have to talk about. If you are employed at a museum, use your business card at the front desk and ask to use their reciprocal admission policy for free entry. If you are in the United States, you can join the American Alliance of Museums and use the membership card for free admission to most museums. They often admit a plus one for free as well. If you usually go to a museum a month, the membership will pay for itself quickly. If you know someone who works at the museum, they may be able to put your name at the door for free admission and if you grab lunch with them, you may even be able to get in on their staff discount at the cafe.
Q: But I'm shy!
A: You are in good company: our field is full of introverts! It's okay to be awkward. Just say hi, smile, and own it. Prepare a quick sentence about yourself that explains who you are and what you do. If you really struggle to meet people at an event, here are some strategies I use:
wearing something interesting like a button or a t-shirt with a slogan or a tote bag with your favorite work of art on it: it can make a good conversation starter for someone who wants to talk to you. Bonus points if you wear something related to a program or exhibit you worked on.
live-tweeting the event: another attendee might recognize you from your profile picture (just don't forget to look up from your phone)
volunteering: sometimes I find it's easier to interact when I have a job to do
speak: counter-intuitive perhaps, but if people see you on stage they'll ask you questions and introduce themselves afterward
get a wing-person: discuss your networking goals with a friend and they may be able to make some introductions for you