USF's Museum Blog

Alumni Connect: Oakland Museum of California

Editor’s note:  For this post, Melissa Zabel (MA, 2015) sat down with museum studies assistant Karina Prigge to reflect on her experiences as a graduate student at University of San Francisco and her museum career.

Please tell me a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in the great state of Michigan, and as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I began pursuing a career in education. I wanted to teach high school physics, so I earned my degree in secondary education and my teaching certificate. After graduation, I took a position in the university’s Physics Demonstration Lab, instead of heading directly into classroom teaching. In the Demo Lab, I took care of the demonstration materials, showed professors how to teach with the equipment, and used the demonstrations for outreach.

12.11.2015 explanations

Melissa Zabel in action at the Oakland Museum of California

How did you come across museum studies?

Through my work in the Demo Lab, I discovered my passion for informal education rather than traditional classroom teaching. In 2012, I moved to California and started teaching part-time at the Oakland Museum of California. As a Museum Educator, I designed and taught field trip workshops to elementary students. My experiences at OMCA exposed me to the wide world of museums, and as I discovered by desire to continue working in the museum field, I also uncovered gaps in my knowledge of museum work. I wondered how nonprofits work, how museums care for collections and design exhibitions. And I wondered how my work at OMCA fit into the larger field of museum education. To pursue these questions and to further my career as a museum professional, I decided to earn my Master’s Degree in Museum Studies from the University of San Francisco.


Oakland Museum of California


Your capstone on the Evaluation of 21st Century Skills in Museum Field Trips pushes for new measures to enhance the kinds of field trip curriculum. Are the 4 C’s of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity being met at OMCA?

We’re working on it. It’s a process. It’s a goal. I work within the Learning Initiatives department at OMCA, and this spring, we’re working on a plan for the next five fiscal years. Our department head created a philosophy and framework to guide our planning process. The 4 C’s are included in that framework. The strongest evaluations are designed concurrently with new programming, so I’ll let you know what we find out!

11.20.2015 making paint

Melissa Zabel teaching children how to make paint at the Oakland Museum

What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of your job?

In my current position as a full-time Museum Educator, I have to say the most rewarding part of my job is working with kids and teachers. I teach art and science workshops to groups that come in for field trips. I know that many of our art students don’t have art regularly in school, so it’s very rewarding to allow students to express themselves creatively. We offer science programs that teachers wouldn’t often be able to run in their own classrooms, so it’s rewarding to give students their first experience with dissection and to continue teachers’ work on scientific inquiry.

I think one of the most challenging parts of my job is the scheduling logistics of being a Museum Educator. I teach during the school day, because that’s when we see field trip groups. Sometimes I need to work a public program in the evening after teaching, because we see families later in the day. Since I live in the Sunset in San Francisco and work in Oakland, it can be challenging to have a four hour break in the middle of the day. Every job certainly has its quirks.

03.09.2014 squid dissection.jpg

Never a dull day:  Melissa teaches kids how to dissect a squid at OMCA

What is the current exhibit at OMCA?

OMCA houses three permanent collections, so we have a Gallery of California Art, a Gallery of California History, and a Gallery of California Natural Sciences. (We’re all about California if you couldn’t tell.) One new, temporary exhibition called Altered State: Marijuana in California opened on April 16th and will remain up until September 25th. Later this year, Californians will be voting on the legalization of adult recreational use of cannabis, so this is the perfect time to get informed about the science, the politics, the economics, and the history surrounding marijuana in our country.


OMCA’s current exhibition: Altered State:  Marijuana in California

The exhibition includes four live plants, which are actually really beautiful. I also love the way the curator and exhibition designer juxtaposed scientific papers on the impacts of weed on the human body with audio recordings of people who use medical marijuana.

As a Museum Educator, I’ll be making hemp bracelets with families during our weekly Friday Nights @ OMCA, and that’ll be a lot of fun. Hemp bracelets bring me back to my childhood.

th-2How do you maintain the work/life balance?

I feel very lucky in this regard. My most immediate supervisor is sensitive to my workload and capacity to take on new projects. I very rarely need to do any work when I’m not physically at the Museum.

If you could have done things differently at USF, what would you have done?

One of the things that drew me to USF was the compactness of the program (only 16 months).  Looking back, I wish I would have extended my experience and taken more courses. The semester after I graduated, they offered a course in museum education that hadn’t been available while I was taking classes. Also, I now realize how useful the course on museums and the law would have been. I often think about the legal issues of working with kids and rights to the images we use for visual aids and in-gallery resources.

What was the most rewarding experience during your time at USF?

During my first semester, I took a curatorial class. We designed and installed an exhibition called Reformations: Dürer & the New Age of Print in USF’s Thacher Gallery. The show featured prints by Albrecht Dürer and other works on paper from the 15th and 16th centuries. Since my background is in physics and education, I had much to learn in a short period of time about art and history. It was very exciting to be able interact with the real objects from the Reformation and to be able to think creatively about how to relate the stories of these objects to visitors’ lives today. One of my classmates and I had the opportunity to be project managers for the show. When the class divided itself into teams resembling museum departments, we facilitated communications between teams and our professor as well as coordinating timelines. I had never worked in a gallery before and I enjoyed participating the processes of curation and installation.


Melissa helping to install a the Reformations exhibition at Thacher Gallery at USF

Any advice you would give to the upcoming graduates of the program?

I would recommend keeping up with your classmates and professors. They go on to do so many different and amazing things. Also, take advantage of meeting the guest speakers and other young museum professionals. This is the perfect time to do so!


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