5 Things I've Learned About Working in a Museum

5 Things I've Learned About Working in a Museum

It's crazy to think I've been working in the museum and archival field for almost ten years now. I can actually think of myself as a mid career professional. Crazy right? Working in a museum can definitely be a unique experience. Through the years I've worked at small and large institutions of all different varieties. This means I've definitely learned and seen a thing or two throughout the years. 

Make it work 

This is probably the number one biggest life lesson I've learned from working in the museum field. I'm guessing that 95% of all museums are probably underfunded. That means you don't have half the money you want or even need to make all the amazing things you want to do work. Meaning you need to make it work come hell or high water. 

I've MacGyvered so many things in my life it's not even funny. Like on my last exhibit having to drill a hole into the top of the casework so we can actually get to the outlet inside. Then stringing the extension cord along the edge of the case ending up with me inside the case attempting to hook up my interactive since it had to be installed that way. You can totally flip through a bible from the 1860s and it's awesome but I definitely had to make it work!

People keep weird stuff

It's great when people donate to museums, especially when you're working in a history museum. People's personal items can really be wonderful additions to the collection. There are also the items that you get that you wish you hadn't. Like the half a dozen ventriloquist dummies that we had in our collection when I started. Lucky for me four were actually on loan and the person wanted them back when we moved.   

One of my items that I really dislike in collections is hair art. It's a very common item to find in local history  and house museums. This was especially popular during the mid to late 1800s. Since many house museums date to that time period you'll find hair art all over. Nope nope nope. It's a body part!! I'd much rather have to deal with the 33 year old bottle of Coca-Cola thank you very much. 

Doing what you love might not pay

Working in a museum and getting paid the big bucks do not go hand in hand. Half the time even getting paid medium bucks does not happen in the field. This has been a discussion that's been happening in the field for a few years now. I totally understand this discussion. You're looking at someone who graduated from grad school in 2009 (hello Great Recession!) and had to volunteer, intern and take contract work for five years just to get a full time job.

While things have gotten better for me the field as a whole is still woefully under paid. It goes back to the whole underfunded gotta make it work thing.

Old Stuff can kill you

Learned this one in grad school. Now you might be thinking about oh yeah I'm sure a lot of museums have firearms in their collections. Well yes that is true you can definitely find firearms in many collections but there are lots of other items in museums that can hurt you and you don't even know about it. One that I've encountered is acetate negatives. During my time at the Field Museum photo archive a good chunk of the collection was on acetate negatives. Early versions of these negatives were created on an unstable base so it deteriorates more than others, when it deteriorates it gives off a vinegar smell. That is not a good thing! You don't want to mess with that. 

Another thing I've encountered lately is the rusty nail. I have been working to unframe parts of our photograph collection that don't need to stay in frames or it's damaging to the image. Old frames mean old rusty nails. There have been more than a few times I've cut myself with them. There might have been one that few across Amy's desk and if she had been in might have gotten jabbed with. Needless to say I'm most definitely up to date with my shots!

You will do the unexpected

There is nothing that is off limits when you work for a museum. Whether it's cutting 250 medals from paper because you thought of a last minute Veteran's Day program you wanted to do or as some have told me cleaning out the bathroom. When people ask me what I do every day it can be hard to answer that question since some days we're doing the unexpected. Sometimes though that expected thing that comes up is not always the best. Such as being sideswiped by your controlling board of directors who has just given you an employee you didn't want and don't need. This one goes hand in hand with making it work. 

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