Elizabeth Gunter Furman Alumni

Liz Gunter '07

— Director of Programs & Marketing, Upcountry History Museum

I think it is hugely important to be honest with yourself about what fits and what doesn’t. And to allow yourself the discomfort of walking away from something everyone says you should do in favor of challenging yourself to find that unique place that is meant for you.


Personal/Professional Journey

How did you find your way to where you are today? Share a little about your professional journey.

As a child, I read the book "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" by E.L. Konigsburg. I was captivated by the story of two children running away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were able to touch everything and explore the galleries long after the visitors to the museum had left.

After being informed by my mother that I was not allowed to run away, she offered the suggestion that I might one day work in a museum and have the same type of access to the "things" that make museums interesting. From then on I was determined to work in a museum.

At Furman I studied history, art history, the classics and education. Upon graduation, I was accepted for a one-year externship with Furman's Special Collections and Archives. This wonderful program allowed me the hands-on experience I craved and surrounded me with people who helped me explore graduate school options.

I was fortunate enough to be hired on at the end of that year as the University's collections manager, responsible for caring for the unique art and antiques owned by the University, including the two historic houses—White Oaks and Cherrydale.

During my time working with Furman's collections, I was accepted into the Master of Arts in museum studies at Johns Hopkins University.

With my Furman experience and my master's degree under my belt, I began work at my first museum, The Children's Museum of the Upstate. It was not the type of museum I dreamed of working in, but my almost five years there gave me amazing experience, allowing me to grow and expand my view of museums, particularly through work with professional organizations.

Three years ago, I joined the Upcountry History Museum team.
Was there a catalyzing experience be that critical meeting, research or discovery, being recruited, failing, starting over, or major event, that shaped your career? What advice would you offer someone in the same situation?

There are two major events that I feel shaped my experience and career. During my time at Furman I was continually pushed by various people to become a teacher. I was told museum jobs were rare and I would be better off teaching history. I listened and began my course work in secondary education.

During my senior year, I was student-teaching social studies with 150 seniors. I loved my students, but hated teaching in a school system. I knew I wanted to be in a museum, regardless of the risky job market.

I remember one day walking in front of Duke Library and just having a breakdown. I sat down on the steps and called my parents to say I wasn't going to be a teacher. I wasn't sure exactly what I would do or how I would do it, but I wasn't going to finish my secondary education coursework.

By the time I hung up, I was scared because I didn't have a plan, but I felt a huge burden had been lifted by being true to myself and allowing myself the opportunity to explore the unknown.

The second event came in grad school. I was in New York City for a term. Our class was at Museum of Modern Art for the day working with their education department.

Toward the end of the day, our professor had us each pull a card from a deck. On the card was the name of an artist and a piece they had on display in the museum. We were given five minutes to prepare and then had to lead a gallery discussion on the piece.

I was not a student of modern art and was terrified. I pulled a piece by Jackson Pollock. As I began my gallery discussion, I realized that more and more museum guests were joining my group. By the end, we were all laughing and the entire gallery was focused on this one piece.

Just as I had known a traditional classroom was not the right place for me, this was one of those moments where I knew I was in the right place. I had found my niche. I think it is hugely important to be honest with yourself about what fits and what doesn't. And to allow yourself the discomfort of walking away from something everyone says you should do in favor of challenging yourself to find that unique place that is meant for you.

Within the field

When providing advice for professional development, what are some tools or resources one should consider?

The museum field has countless professional organizations that are hugely helpful, especially for someone new to the field. The big one is American Alliance of Museums (AAM). They really set the best practices for the field in the United States. They also produce a wonderful magazine, "Museum," which is a must-read for staying in the know.

There are also regional and state organizations that are wonderful resources for networking and building skills. Professional conferences are always great to attend for meeting colleagues and expanding your professional network.
How would you recommend someone interested in the same career/vocation pursue a similar path?

There are many different aspects of museum work. I think it is important for someone looking to join the field to learn the differences, as you get on a path in the field early on.

I recommend looking at job postings for current museum positions. Sometimes a title can be misleading. Really consider what the responsibilities are of the position.

Job postings often also list requirements. This is a great way to learn what degrees or certifications would be most helpful. For instance, art museums are going to look for very different skillsets and educational degrees than science museums.

I would also suggest visiting museums and talking to the staff and volunteers. Unlike other fields, the museum field is focused on the general public. Anyone can visit museums, so make sure you go out and explore those around you if you think the museum field is where you would like to work.

What are some challenges you face in your industry?

Most museums are nonprofit organizations, which means they rely on grants, donations and sponsorships to stay open.

Museums nationally are facing funding issues. There are museums across the country that are being forced to close because of financial challenges. At the same time, there are new museums opening every year.

It is important to stay up to date on the financial stability of museums and your community as you consider job prospects.

For someone just getting started

What do you wish you would have known getting started in your field?

I wish I had known more about the different career paths within museums from an earlier time. I'm lucky to have stumbled into the path that fits my personality and skillset, but I think many people just like the idea of museums and don't think about long-term career planning.

I think this is one area where networking with those who have been in the field longer and utilizing resources from professional organizations can be a true benefit to those starting out.
How could Furman help with getting someone started?

Internships! Furman has a wonderful internship program and I think this is hugely important for students considering the museum field. I wish I had received more encouragement to explore internships as an undergrad.

I have loved mentoring Furman interns at the museum over the last several years. Museum work is in part academic work (research and writing) and it can be taught in part in a classroom (best practices and theory), but there is an aspect of museum work that is physical.

From the physical act of moving though galleries for a tour to building storage boxes to hanging art, the physical aspect is what many students are lacking when they arrive at a museum. Internships are great ways to learn more about the physical side of museums, making the transition from student to professional much easier.

Furman University

How has your liberal arts background shaped your career path or supported your success?

Museums may fall into categories (history, art, science), but in truth, they are all liberal arts institutions. Museums blend various subject matters through exhibitions that cross disciplinary lines.

My liberal arts background helped me be a more well-rounded scholar and prepared me to explore the variety of topics that I now deal with in exhibitions.
What extracurricular activities helped you develop professionally?

I will forever be grateful for my four years as a Furman Ambassador. Entering Furman, I was very shy and hated public speaking. I decided to push myself by applying to be an Ambassador and loved every minute of it.

Yes, it is where I honed my walking backwards skills, which I still use when leading museum tours. But more so, it made me comfortable meeting new people and communicating a key message, while finding ways to make personal connections with my audience.

This is a skill that is exceptionally helpful to me in the museum world and I think would be beneficial to almost any career path. Never underestimate the power of communication. It can truly make or break any experience, especially job interviews.

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