A Summary of the Past Presidents’ Student Reception  on Careers in Museums and Collections

Society for Historical Archaeology 2021 Virtual Conference
By Julia A. King, Patricia Samford, and Mark Warner

During the Society for Historical Archaeology’s (SHA) 2021 Virtual Conference, the SHA held six “virtual” Past Presidents’ Student Receptions over several days. During these sessions, which were each an hour long, students were able to engage SHA’s leaders in conversation and explore a wide range of career paths in historical archaeology.

The following is a summary of the discussions from the session on Museums and Collections. The panelists for this session were Julia A. King, Patricia Samford, and Mark Warner.

  • Julia A. King is professor and chair of anthropology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. King received her B.A. degree from William and Mary, her M.A. degree from Florida State University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She was the founding director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory and has written about archaeological collections management. She is a past president of the Society for Historical Archaeology and served as the first Expert Member in archaeology on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. In 2018, King received the J. C. Harrington Award from the SHA.
  • Patricia Samford is the director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in St. Leonard, Maryland. She received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from the College of William and Mary and her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She has served on the board of the SHA and is currently the SHA Newsletter
  • Mark Warner is a professor of anthropology at the University of Idaho, He received his B.A. from Beloit College (WI), M.A.A. from the University of Maryland, and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. He has led excavations in many parts of the United States and is the immediate past President of the Society for Historical Archaeology. 

In early December 2020, SHA sent students who registered for the 2021 Virtual Conference a survey with a list of questions about careers in historical archaeology. Students were asked to select the career type(s) of their choice and then select the top three questions they would like the session panelists to address in terms of these career paths. Students were also asked to add their own questions for the session panelists.

During the first half of the session on careers in Museums and Collections, the panelists discussed and responded to the following survey questions:  

What types of work experience and non-academic training are needed for a career in museums and collections (this was the most popular question)?

The panelists recommended that students should seek out internships and volunteer opportunities that will give them the types of experience that they need to be competitive in the job market. Internships (both paid and unpaid) are usually preferable to volunteering, with the intern being afforded a more rounded experience in the field along with some responsibilities. The internship will often include a special project that could be turned into a future publication or conference paper. The types of experiences you can expect in a curation internship would include work with collections accessioning, tracking collections through the use of databases, digital media management, conducting conservation assessments, and budget management. Don’t be afraid to ask your internship mentor for different opportunities beyond just washing and labeling artifacts—think about gaining skills such as photographing or illustrating artifacts or learning Photoshop.

How should a emerging professional structure their resume or CV to pursue a career in museums and collections? 

The panelists note that it is important to keep in mind your career goals when structuring a resume.  If you want to move into collections as a profession, highlight that experience and make sure it doesn’t get lost in any archaeological fieldwork experience you might have (although having fieldwork experience is an important skill to note). Be specific in your resume about the types of collections experience you have. Be sure to mention if you have volunteer experience.

Your cover letter is also important when applying for a position. Take the time to do a little online research—figure out who the letter should be addressed to. If that person has a Ph.D., address them as Dr. Do research about the institution so that you can describe how you might contribute to the program for which you are applying. And be sure to read your cover letter and resume carefully for spelling errors and grammar. Don’t just rely on the spell check function in Word—it misses a lot![i]

What types of courses are needed for a career in collections? 

The panelists agreed that any class that provides you with hands-on collections experience is a must. At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Julie King has designed a practicum class during which students work with orphaned collections[ii]—cataloging and analyzing the artifacts and preparing a report on the findings. But you also need to understand why we do archaeology, so taking method and theory classes is also important. Seek out classes that give you experience in understanding and identifying the material culture of the region where you wish to work. You may also want to seek out independent study classes, where you can work closely with a professor to design and tailor your own project to gain a particular set of skills or knowledge.  While often not offered at undergraduate institutions, any classes in collections management and preventive conservation are very useful.

What are the job market prospects for museums and collections institutions? How will impacts of the pandemic (e.g., staff being terminated and museums closing) affect career prospects long term?

The panelists point out that the job market in collections is certainly better and more stable than it is for the academic sector. There will always be a need for people to manage collections, especially since regulations regarding cultural resource management (CRM) are unlikely to be changed substantially, and CRM work generates collections, which need to be managed. 

Panelists urged students to come to the Collections and Curation Committee meeting that is held at each SHA conference and to attend conference sessions sponsored by this committee. This is a good way to meet and network with professionals on the curation side of archaeology.  For networking opportunities outside of SHA, try local historical societies and local museums. While you might not be working specifically with archaeological collections, you will still gain experience with collections. Regional archaeological societies or avocational groups are also another source for gaining experience and networking.

Even if you really want to be a field archaeologist, it is critical that you understand what is involved with collections and collections management. When you are in charge of a field project, you need to think through the ramifications of what you’re digging up out of the ground and the likelihood that it has to be – or certainly should be – curated in perpetuity. You will need to work with collections managers and determine sampling strategies for materials ahead of time. You will need to think about what your conservation needs might be and figure those into the cost of your excavation so that all of these challenges don’t fall on the collections manager after the collection has been turned over to the curation facility. It is critical to have an understanding of what collections managers do so that you can be a better field archaeologist for the sake of those collections moving forward into the future.

Questions Posed during the Session

Panelists then invited session attendees to post additional questions in the Chat Box. One audience member asked whether opportunities for collections management and curation are different throughout the country. Mark Warner noted that, unfortunately, not as much attention is given to historical collections in the western states, with some archaeologists actively avoiding historical sites in the field.

Another question was how working with Native American Tribes fits into curation and collections management. The point was made by the panelists that there are almost 600 Tribes in the United States and that each Tribe will have its own ideas about how its members want to work with archaeologists (or not) and how they want collections issues addressed. Archaeologists will need to work with each Tribe individually to establish collections management policies. Archaeologists must recognize that Tribes may have very different ideas and thoughts about collections treatment, including the very idea of a collection, and that archaeological agendas, while certainly important to archaeologists, may not be shared by Tribes. It is also always important to recognize that federally recognized Tribes are sovereign nations – they are not simply descendant communities.

An audience member wanted to know if cold-calling museums and institutions was an acceptable practice, given that the pandemic had severely limited the number of job postings. Panelists noted that it never hurts to reach out to people to make yourself known regardless, even if it’s a cold contact. One suggestion was to contact institutions to see if volunteer opportunities are available, since getting that foot in the door can often lead to paying positions. The Small Museum Association (https://smallmuseum.org/) was suggested as an accessible organization with good contacts.  Also suggested for specific repository contacts is the Society for Historical Archaeology Repository Dashboard (https://sha-gis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/45981f6674c94278aa61cb290965f0a7).

Several other resources include:



A very affordably priced ($29.95) volume entitled Using and Curating Archaeological Collections edited by S. Terry Childs and Mark S. Warner (2019) has been published by the SAA Press.  Follow the link below for purchasing details. https://ecommerce.saa.org/saa/ItemDetail?iProductCode=CURATING&Category=A-SAAMON&WebsiteKey=b764b3f5-fd1e-4004-a990-89b6b82a096b

A Closing Note from Terry Klein and Terry Majewski:

We were very pleased with the results of this and the other career sessions. Exchanges between the panelists and attendees were lively and very informative, and several attendees acknowledged their thanks at the end of each session. We are looking forward to the next Past Presidents’ Student Reception in Philadelphia! It will be great to finally see everyone in person!

If you have any questions about this and the other career sessions, or future Past Presidents’ Student Receptions, please contact Mr. Terry Klein (tklein@srifoundation.org) or Dr. Teresita Majewski (tmajewski@sricrm.com).

[i] Case in point:  a former classmate prepared a report for work that included the word “public” in the title.  She ran spell check and ended up with a title that included the word “pubic.”  Don’t make a similar mistake!

[ii] An orphaned collection is a group of objects and/or associated records with unclear ownership that have been abandoned in a repository, museum, or other facility, such as a laboratory in a CRM firm. An initial glossary of collections-related terminology compiled by the then members of the Archaeological Collections Consortium was published in the “Opinion and Debate” section of the SHA Newsletter in 2015 (48[4]:4–6, Winter 2015), and this term was one that they defined.



Written by Mark Freeman

Website Editor