On my first official day at the Iziko South African Museum, during my first meeting with Hamish, he mentioned I would be sharing an office with another American intern from Harvard. As excited as I was to have someone to keep me company in my isolated library office, a tiny part of me feared the stereotype associated with Ivy League schools: a pretentious, entitled student who considers their admission to a prestigious university verification that they are an expert on everything. To my relief, Victoria Wilke has proven from the first minutes of introduction that she cannot be defined by that description.
Part of the reason Victoria defies the stereotype – which I realize is just an exaggeration of a select portion of the Ivy population – lies in the story of how she arrived at Harvard as a graduate student. As an undergraduate student as Southeast Missouri State studying anthropology, Victoria spent time working at archeology sites and museums in the Midwest. After graduating in 2005, she spent more time working at museums in Missouri, but quickly realized she “hated living in the Midwest.” Her plan of action: pull out a map and “move down the coast applying for jobs.” Eventually Victoria’s plan worked when she received a job offer from the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnography at Harvard University in 2009. As much as she enjoyed working at an archeology museum, when her current boss (and former mentor) asked her to apply for a better position at a different Harvard museum she couldn’t resist. And so Victoria transitioned into her current position as Curatorial Assistant to Collections Operations at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Soon after moving to her new job Victoria found herself applying to the Masters in Museum Studies program at Harvard, which her extensive résumé easily earned her a spot in.
At this point you may be wondering why does a Harvard graduate student already working at a top tier institution end up on the other side of the globe. As Victoria puts it, she’s “not married to Boston.” Part of the Masters program requires an internship and her passion for travel spurred her to find a position abroad. Oddly enough, finding a position abroad wasn’t as easy for her as you might expect, something that makes me all the more appreciative of the opportunity I have to be interning alongside her. Eventually though, Victoria found Dr. Robertson at the South African Museum who eagerly agreed to her coming to visit.
As Victoria has just begun her career recently she doesn’t feel have many significant accomplishments to boast about. However, she is “proud of where [she is] and the connections [she has] made.” Additionally, she has set goals for herself that encourage me to believe she will be successful in the future. She aims to one day be the Director of a Natural History Museum somewhere in the world. Furthermore, she intends to “hold her museum to the international standards being set by the Society of the Preservation of Natural History Collections.” In that regard I see a common thread between her and Dr. Robertson.
Despite her short career, Victoria still has faced challenges. As with so many other young college graduates in the United States job opportunities are limited. She comments, “Schools are churning out students, like me, without giving a perspective of the dismal job opportunities.” However, she feels that among museum studies students she fares much better. Amongst the students in her Masters classes at Harvard, up to “90 percent WANT to work in museums.” That means a majority of her classmates don’t have positions like hers at an institution yet, something I find extremely intimidating.
“‘I’d love to work in museums’ – people always say that,” Victoria shares when asked to offer advice to someone entering the museum profession. According to her, people find the idea of working in a museum appealing, but don’t pursue a career there. She says the “networking is key.” Victoria’s main suggestion for someone entering her profession is to just find a job, any job. Volunteering at a museum to earn valuable experience, or find a job at the front desk; that is where you “start to meet people.” That’s how she met her current boss and worked up the chain in the Harvard Museums.
My interview with Victoria brought a youthful perspective to museums, particularly in the United States, that I didn’t get through my conversation with Hamish. Her honesty highlighted the struggle most students in America face when searching for a permanent position. She made it very clear that most museum specialists find a position and don’t leave, hence the limited openings for eager young graduates to fill. However, Victoria also made a point to dispute the consensus most museum professionals have shared with me: a career in museums is a simple, but rewarding life. In her opinion you can have the best of both worlds. I appreciated hearing that settling doesn’t need to be your attitude towards a career in museums. Sure you won’t make millions, but “if you’re ambitious you don’t have to settle.”