Friday, 29 April 2016

Y is for…Yesterday. Or yen.

So, yesterday’s post didn’t happen. I didn’t have an idea for X, since all I could think of is X marks the spot, so it would have had to have been about trails through museums. Not exciting enough to blog about, and brain death happened during two and a quarter hours of dance class. Brains can only hold so many dances. I am currently learning four.

Someone asked me once what my perfect job in a museum would be. To be honest, I like doing a little bit of everything (except answering the telephone- I absolutely HATE talking on the phone). I’m also a very hands-on person. Usually, when people ask what your career aspiration is, the expected answer is Director. I have no wish to be a director. The idea of schmoozing and doing policy and planning sounds so awful. I like interacting with the public and other museum people, I like doing education stuff and I like collections work. I’m introverted, so networking is one of my ideas of hell. The idea of working in an office, not doing any of the bread and butter museum work makes me want to heave. It sounds SO BORING.

So my big ambition in life? I want to be a curator.

Ok so it’s on the most ambitious career path. I’m mostly there, as an assistant curator. But I would love to be a curator of a small or medium size museum, where I can still do the curatorial stuff (my favourite), but get to do a lot of the hands on stuff I do now. I’m not someone who wants to be in the work limelight. I want to be passionate about the museum and collection, and to make sure my museum is the best damn museum we can make it. Anything less than that (or even more than that) would not suit me.

Don’t get me wrong, the opportunity to work at a national museum in a curatorial capacity would be awesome. I wouldn’t pass that up. But I love that no two days are the same. I like that we have to be creative, because the budget for a temporary exhibition is either £100 or nothing. I prefer the difficulties of a small museum over the bureaucracy you sometimes get in a large one. But I still love the large ones.

Maybe not the most ambitious life plan, but it sounds like a happy one. And that, my friends, is what I truly yen for.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

W is for...Weird and Wonderful

So, I’ve tried this whole adulting thing lately. As in, make lunches the night before, do the dishes, wipe down the kitchen and set out my clothes for the morning. All this means is, by the time I get home, make dinner, eat it and then clean/get ready for the next day, it’s 9pm and all I want to do is get in bed. This adult crappola sucks. Can I be 6 again?

So apologies about being a bit sporadic. And that this will be a short-ish post. It’s being done during my tea break. So no time for editing!

Anyway, on to todays’ topic: Weird and Wonderful.

I’ve mentioned before that museums started off as Cabinets of Curiosities, and many museums that evolved from these personal collections have some weird-ass shtuff.

They are also my favourite things.

It can be anything from shrunken heads to poison darts from Papua New Guinea to weird medieval weapons. Museums, especially social history and very especially ethnography museums, will have some interesting bits and pieces on display. We can include natural history museums in this, as many natural history museums have ethnographic or ancient history specimens. Have you ever been to a natural history museum and they have mummies? Or Native American displays? Or a set of African statues or shields? For some reason when museums as we know them began, ancient history objects and ethnographic objects were considered part of natural history. Which is why some of them will have a real mix of objects in them.  

I love the weird and wonderful stuff that was part of day to day life. It’s things like the First World War hardtack biscuit we have where I work. It’s weird, it’s a little gross to think of something that’s 100 years old might still be edible, but during WW1 it would have been a common thing to see. Like trench periscopes. Or things like the penis tree in medieval era books. Or even coprolite.

What is the oddest thing you’ve ever seen in a museum or heritage site?

Friday, 22 April 2016

S is for...Stewardship

I know that a lot of the A to Z blog has been about the stuff in museums. This is for the very good reason that the main purpose of the museum is stewardship. By stewardship, I'm referring to making sure that the objects in the collection are around for as long as possible.

There are several different ways that museums do this. The first, and most important is called preventative conservation. This is why we wrap objects, put them in boxes, and do our best to control the temperature and humidity of the storage facility. It's why we check for insects, try to keep everything clean and tidy and not squashed. When something is on display, we make sure that it is properly supported, that the cases are the proper type of case (air-tight, made of conservation grade materials, sometimes with UV resistant glass or at the very least shatter resistant), with environmental monitoring equipment and the correct light levels. This is all done to try to mitigate the damage of time, insect damage (which can be horrific) and environmental factors.

Then there is conservation. It's not the same as restoring an object; the difference is that conservation is something that can be UNDONE. Restoration is when you completely return something to the condition it was in when new. Museums are really only supposed to do things that are reversible. Restoration is not. The exception is generally with large things such as cars and airplanes.

We also change things out of displays every five years or so. It's why many museums have double or triple of everything. This way we can minimize the damage the occurs when an object is on display (damn you light damage!), while still displaying objects important to the collection and story.

Preventative conservation and conservation are incredibly expensive. To put it in perspective, a £2,000 budget will buy you a roll of acid free tissue (that will last about 6 months), probably around 25 boxes and around 400 melamine envelopes for photographs and documents. That might sound like a lot, but I work in a museum with 56,000 objects, about 15,000 of which are photographs. The tissue will last about 6 months, the 25 boxes around 4 months depending on circumstances, and the 400 envelopes about a week. Yeah. So that two grand is not going far.

Conserving materials can also be quite expensive. We had three photograph albums conserved, as the binding was falling apart. £2,000 later we have photograph albums we can display. But it is worth it.

Museums are expensive to run. But we take certain things very seriously.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Q is for...Quite Bad at This!

Life has gotten in the way a bit since Saturday- giant house cleaning and sorting, trying on bridesmaid dresses, work; not a really good excuse but I barely looked at a computer screen for personal use in the past 5 days.

Service will resume as normal tomorrow.


Friday, 15 April 2016

M is for...Movies

The number of times I have been asked if “it’s like Night at the Museum” is scary. As in, if I was given £1 every time, I would have many, many pounds. I might start charging. It’s like asking an archaeologist if their job is like Indiana Jones. It’s not. It was the most disappointing part of Archaeology 101 at university. And to be honest, if work was like “Night at the Museum” I would have left in a real hurry.

Films give us an unrealistic attitude towards many things in life, or at least makes sweeping generalizations thought to be true. Do I wish Hollywood would make a realistic film about museums? Good Lord no. That’s like asking an office worker if they wish Hollywood would make a true to life film about the day to day happenings in their office. Don’t get me wrong, we sometimes have things happen that are something out of sitcoms. But for the most part, it’s just work. And I do love the first “Night at the Museum”- I saw it in the theatre with a group from my Museum Studies course. It was hilarious. The one thing it got right was the Director of the museum. Yes, I have met/worked for people like that. Thankfully, none of the statues, fossils or taxidermy became alive at night.

A few other myths/weird questions I get asked because of movies:

1        Hahaha do you get lost in your own museum?
Umm, no. Most people don’t get lost in their place of work, although I have worked in a museum where the store areas were a labyrinth, which you could get lost in the first days. We have our fair share of oddballs, but for the most part they aren’t that ditzy. And where I work is tiny and in a circular building. It’s not possible to get lost.

Museum work is glamourous.
I’ve said it before, but for the most part no. There is a lot of museum work that is really the opposite- lugging around boxes in a basement doesn’t scream ‘glamour’ to me, but maybe my standards are too high.

We work in museums because we’re odd and don’t like people.
Actually, this one is kinda true.

 It’s really easy, anyone can do it.
Look, this annoys me. Some of it is simple, common sense. I mean, it’s not hard to answer people’s questions when you know the answers. However, unless you have had the proper training (ok you could probably pick it all up in a single book) you can actually accidentally destroy something. Writing text is a pain in the backside sometimes; you’re limited by using non-specific language, within a word limit as well as trying to keep it at an average reading age. The amount of research that goes into one panel can be astounding. We do try to get it right, so we check a lot of sources before putting something to text. There are also whole books on how to display objects properly. Yes, it’s something you can learn on the job. But just step in with no training? Not best. Not to mention most of us have Master’s degrees in this, so it’s just insulting.

You’re ____, you can’t possibly be interested in ______. Just insert some type of stereotype/ageism/sexism.
The only words I have for this are very sweary.

All this said, I do like movies that have museums in them. Even when they're wrong.

What’s the worst assumption you’ve had made about your job?

Thursday, 14 April 2016

K and L are for…Kids and Learning

 So, I didn’t MEAN to put these together, but as I got into bed at 11pm last night (after watching ‘The Help’) I realised that I hadn’t written a blog. Oh well. Kids and learning do go together, so at least it’s not a stretch this time, right?

Kids in museums. Yes, I have written about how much trouble they can get into BUT museums look at children as a distinct audience in themselves. The thought is, if they enjoy their experience at a museum as a child, they will come back when they’re older, and when they have kids bring their kids. The life cycle of museum visits. Most museums will have kid-specific events, trails or interactives. Some large museums also have a children’s play area, or even a special exhibition for children. Museums and other heritage bodies also do children’s slumber parties- adult ones too. Anyone up for Dino-Snores at the Natural History Museum?

Learning isn’t just about kids though. Learning and education are an inherent part of what museums and the heritage sector as a whole are about. Museums do outreach not only to schools, but to care homes, adult groups and to events. There are talks and lectures, usually on a theme within the museum or as part of an exhibition. They also will have the fun “after hours events”. Don’t kid yourselves, you know you’d learn something at a jazz and cocktail evening in a museum. Even if that is 4 drinks is 1 too many…it’s experience. It’s learning something.

As learning is so central to what we do, we have to make sure to pitch the text and exhibition in general to the widest possible audience. This means that the text in most museums are geared to the average reading age of the country you’re in. The average in the UK is 9, the same in the US. Also not many people will read every single bit of writing in the museum. It’s why there is sometimes very little information on specific objects- most visitors don’t want it. We try to keep it short and simple, since we don’t want visitors suffering from ‘museum fatigue’ too soon. But it’s why we have exhibition booklets, or audio guides or written guides. In some museums, learning and interpretation are part of the same department, or at least the learning team has a say in exhibitions.

The purpose of a museum is not only to record history or human knowledge. It’s there to teach you something. The children are the easiest, since you get a bulk coming in with school and they are there to learn. We try to get everyone to learn and to participate. A lot of museum work centres on the idea that we safeguard collections so future generations can see them and learn about the past.

So I will leave you with this question: what is something you learned at a museum, gallery or heritage site? 

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

J is for...Jobs

People have all sorts of ideas of what it means to work in museums. Some people think it's glamorous. Some people assume it's just like working in an office. Some people think it's like 'Night at the Museum'. But mostly, people just ask "What is it you actually DO?"

Well, I work in a really small museum, with a really small staff. As in, there is me (the assistant curator), the curator and a part time assistant curator. So my experience here is different than most places. The museum office is also the shop/admissions desk/site information desk, so if I'm there then a mix of regular office work (answering phones, emails, handling the rotas), answering the phone, answering emails, and answering visitor questions. I'll also be working on the museum database, or maybe doing research. I also am in charge of the uniform and photographic collections, as well as being the museum database manager. I might be adding items to the collection, wrapping objects...pretty much anything. I also do school tours, adult tours and talks when needed. I fish stuff out of the collection, or audit the collection. I do temporary exhibitions and change out the permanent displays. I do loads and loads of different things.

However, in larger or large museums, most people have a specific job and stick to it. So the education staff deal with all the education stuff (school tours, half term offerings, special events) and the collections staff deal with the collections stuff (accessioning, processing loans, auditing collection, object movement, database management).

In most museums, the job description is a pretty loose description of what you'll end up doing. A lot of times, you have to pitch in where you're needed.

As far as the glamour bit...ok sometimes it can be. I mean, I've gotten to go to exhibition launches and a breakfast launch of a grant programme at the House of Commons (their pain au chocolat is delicious and the coffee was served with cream. All in/on nice china). I've gotten to go on training courses in castles. Most of the time though, it's not really that glamorous. Sometimes it can be messy. Sometimes just gross. Trust me, when taxidermy is in a damp, warm environment it's gross. Or when plastic starts to degrade. Sticky, with a slight whiff of stinky feet. Other times you're cleaning up messes. Yeah, I have an MA and have cleaned up accidents, tidied up the dressing up box and helped clear tables in the cafe. But it's part of the job. We take turns with the gross stuff. Like any job, the glamour is for special events. Any other day it's like any other job. But with cool stuff.

For me, the best part of the job has been a combination of the awesome people I've met (we're an odd bunch, but we're nice) and the really really cool stuff I've gotten to work with.

Honestly, if it was like 'Night in the Museum' I wouldn't want to work here. We have a lot of mannequins.