This post is part of our Alumni Spotlight series. For this installment, we spoke with Danielle Sakowski (Class of 2020) about her path through Museology and where it has taken her since.
Like a lot of museum people, I had some foundational experiences with museums early on where I would visit museums, often through school programs. I had this incredible sense of awe at humanity, and felt an inspiration to learn in a way that I didn’t really get in many other places. Throughout my life I also had a passion for archaeology and thought that would connect me to working in a museum in some way.
I went on to do my undergraduate degree in archaeological sciences, but found that wasn’t quite the right path for me. I always imagined I was going to work in a museum, but of course I found out later that you don’t have to be an archaeologist or a mammologist or whatever to work in a museum!
Once in the program, what were your primary areas of focus? What do you remember as being important aspects of your experience?
When I started in Museology, I had a strong inclination towards archaeology and objects. So, like a lot of Museology students, I entered the program really interested in collections. But then I found throughout the program that I was actually very interested in a lot of other types of museums and the work they do. So, I started finding out that not only did I love natural history museums and places with archaeological collections, but I also thought children’s museums were amazing, and science museums, and gardens… all these different types of institutions. I also discovered that I was interested in many different areas of museum work, like grant writing, management, programs, community engagement, exhibits etc. So, for example, when I started with my thesis, I got into the realm of working on climate action within museums, which was another trajectory that the program guided me towards.
What are some of the most important things you learned in your time in the program?
I think the program helped me to develop my critical thinking skills in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. It helped me focus on the types of questions I was asking, and being thoughtful and intentional about those, rather than focusing so much on an expected result. And that’s something I could apply to so many things in life, not just professionally.
Can you tell me a bit about what you’ve been up to since graduating?
I graduated in 2020, and that year was hard for everybody. Everybody had their different things they dealt with, and for me that was graduating into a world where a lot of museums were closed.
So one thing I did was reach out to (my now-boss) Sarah Sutton. She is kind of a powerhouse in the whole push towards sustainability in museums, and I used a lot of her work as a resource for my thesis. I reached out just to say thank you and to offer to help with some projects she was doing through her then-consultancy, Sustainable Museums, which as of 2022 is now the non-profit, Environment and Culture Partners (ECP). For about two years, I volunteered and did some contract work with her, and just this January 2023, I was hired onto the ECP Team.
During that time when I was volunteering with Sarah, I was also working at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum (BIHM) as a volunteer coordinator and in Development. I did a lot of different things there, and the people at BIHM were incredibly supportive and took a lot of time to mentor me. My time there was invaluable and I’m so grateful for it.
Now that you’ve been out of the program for a few years, are there any ways in which you think differently about your experience in the program than you did when you graduated?
There was an idea that kind of permeated the air during my 2 years in the program, which is the idea of being a “jack-of-all-trades.” That was something people said all the time, and I remember hearing that and thinking “I don’t know if I’m interested in that…,” but in a lot of ways that’s what I’ve become. Since graduating, I’ve only worked on small teams, and it’s required me to wear a lot of hats. I’m not saying I’m good at all the things that I’ve done and do. I’ve spent a lot of my time learning to do new things, but I enjoy the variety and the satisfaction of gaining a new skill. It’s a good fit for me. So I appreciate that the program prepared me for that, even if they did so on a subconscious level.
You mentioned you’ve just started a new position with Environment and Culture Partners. Can you tell me a bit about what ECP does and your role there?
I’m ECP’s Program Manager, and I assist with several of our projects. As I mentioned before, I wear a lot of hats. I answer project participant questions, communicate with our partners, promote projects, research, and write. I also get to help generate ideas about where we’re going, what we’re doing next and why.
We do a lot of different things! One effort that we’re really excited about is called the Carbon Inventory Project. It’s part of a larger project that’s all about benchmarking energy use in cultural organizations and getting the first U.S. cultural sector carbon footprint. We know that museums use a lot of energy for collections, for powering spaces… and that directly relates to carbon emissions.
Once we know where the cultural sector is at, then we can start reducing energy consumption, and mitigating carbon emissions. Not only would this financially benefit institutions (which it would), but, more importantly, we believe that museums have a duty to speak to the public about climate change and what humans can do about it. We know that museums are one of the most trusted institutions over, for example, government or news media. So, with that powerful voice, we can really help drive some change in this issue.
What do you love most about what you’re doing now? What are you most excited about going forward?
I never thought I would be able to engage with climate change on this level. I thought my influence would never go farther than in my personal life, changes that I could make in my own lifestyle, house, and family. And that never felt very powerful. Now I feel like I have at least a little tiny bit of power to effect real change.
I also love being connected to so many different types of institutions and museum professionals. I love museums, and I get to meet a lot of different people doing all different types of exciting projects and work. It’s the best!