Helen M. Shannon's interest in museums was initiated by visits to the St. Louis Art Museum in grade school. Her career in museum education began at the same institution by working in their Teacher Resource Center. In 1976 she started at the Detroit Institute of Arts with responsibilities for school and teacher programs. In 1987 Ms. Shannon moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, as head of the Office of Public Programs, she led a team of 20 people who organized adult and out-reach programs. Believing that directors are crucial to making education central to museums, from 2001 to 2006 she served as Executive Director of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton.
Ms. Shannon holds degrees in art history: a B.A. from Stanford University, an M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a doctorate from Columbia University. Her teaching career has included positions at Rutgers-New Brunswick and at Sarah Lawrence College. She has spoken at museums and colleges, as well as at academic and professional conferences on such subjects as the state of museums, the influence of African art on American modernism, and the history of African-American art.