Atlanta museum turns to UNI alum to help make exhibits engaging

As a child growing up in Cedar Falls, Emily Schroeder fell in love with museums. But it wasn’t until she was a University of Northern Iowa student that she realized  it could be a career. 

The UNI alum is now an exhibits designer for a natural history museum in Atlanta. The job is a dream come true for Schroeder ‘19. 

“I’ve had an interest in museums since I could walk,” she said. “I didn’t even think that it was a real career option until I got to UNI and I started volunteering and interning with the UNI museum.”

UNI now offers a certificate in museum studies and, while it wasn’t available while Schroeder was a student, she took many of the required courses. Schroeder credits these classes with giving her the foundation needed to be successful in a museum setting.

“I learned about these issues with museums in the classes I was taking,” she said. “[The new certificate] speaks to the excellence of education and how well UNI adapts to what is needed for students to succeed. I think UNI offers a really great education. They keep [the programs] up to date.”

At UNI, Schroeder majored in studio arts and minored in art history. In 2015, she volunteered with the UNI museum to help photograph their collection and was later hired as a graphic designer for the museum. The experience not only helped Schroeder realize she could turn her love of art into a career in museums, but helped her connect with what she loves about the industry.

“I think a huge part of art that I like is the fact that it’s actually really a language. It’s steeped in culture and history ,” she said. “Being able to be a part of not just preserving that history but presenting it in a new way that reaches people is super important.”

Finding new ways to engage with people is especially important in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic shifted the focus of her new job — when the Fernbank Museum shut down during quarantine, she was tasked with deep-cleaning exhibits, including dusting off large model dinosaurs — and required her to rethink how exhibits are displayed. 

As the museum reopens, Schroeder has been tasked with creating floor plans for upcoming exhibits, so that allow for physical distancing and designing signage displaying guidelines for visitors. 

While Schroeder credits UNI with her success, Associate Professor of art Kenneth Hall, who Schroeder named as a mentor throughout her time at UNI, praises Schroeder’s unique blend of skills.

“She is very conscientious, very focused, very detail oriented … she’s also very creative. It will give her a bit of edge to have the strong creative background,” he said. “It’s rewarding to know she’s in a place where she’s going to be able to use her creativity to curate things in unique ways.”

Hall said he felt a sense of pride in helping Schroeder develop her talents. Schroeder says the entire department comes together to support students.

“I had a lot of influential professors. I could name everybody in the art department, honestly,” she said. “They were all very supportive of us students and hearing all of their feedback from what I was making and the implications of that [helped with] expanding my knowledge base.”

Hall said this dynamic speaks to the unique culture across campus.

“As a department, we really look at teaching as our highest order of business. I’ve visited a lot of other colleges and universities and I don’t think I’ve ever come across an art department that has that passion for teaching that we do,” he said. “That … happens elsewhere at UNI, but it doesn’t happen sometimes at larger universities. We have a beautiful passion for teaching.”

Now that Schroeder’s found success in her field, she’s ready to help share some of the lessons she learned. When asked what advice she would give students aiming for professional success during this uncertain time, her answer reflected her own experiences breaking into a competitive field.

“The museum field in general is hard to get into. There’s a lot of competition now… with specific degrees for museum studies a lot of institutions are requiring those. [The museum studies certificate] definitely gives students a leg up and a much better opportunity to get into this field,” she said. “Have people look over your resume. I spent about 8 months job searching and I actually redid my resume halfway through my job search and I started getting a lot more interest. Talk to your professors, your support group — and don’t give up.”