Whenever I meet people at conferences, I always ask one of my favorite questions: “How did you get involved with small museums?” I find that relatively few people set out with the idea of a museum career. The variety of pathways is fascinating because they reveal the passion we each have for this work.
As this online community develops, I will encourage our blog posters and forum participants to share their personal stories of how they were drawn in to small museum work.
I’ll ask because I think these stories help remind us – on those days when the toilet backs up or the tour bus shows up half an hour early – why we do this work. They remind us of why it matters. I think of these as “Chicken Soup for the Museum Person’s Soul,” to borrow from that 1990s inspirational series.
So here’s my story:
I was an unhappy graduate student studying Developmental Psychology in Illinois. The academic world encourages (and some would say requires) specialization. I was studying how children learn to map spatial concepts on to prepositions in English. I spent my days observing kids watch rubber duckies move on, next to, or under tables. The idea of life among the duckies, of studying this one thing for the rest of my life, was not enthralling.
But then I took a long road trip with my fiancé. He studies utopian communities and wanted to spend the afternoon at the Oneida Community Mansion House on our way through New York State.
Fortunately for me, the museum was closed on the day we planned to drive through, so he had arranged for a personal tour with the director.
As we walked through the historic site and she talked with us during lunch, she shared her passion, not so much for this one site – this one slice of history – but for the many things she got to do in her job. She was excited about the science of conservation, as she imagined the best ways to preserve the book collection. She was interested in researching and writing about women’s roles in the Oneida community. She was planning a joint fundraiser with the local symphony on the museum grounds.
Here was a job that involved a lot of learning and a wide variety of work. My interest was piqued. I asked her what her educational background was: International Relations. Her degree had absolutely nothing to do with the core of her museum work – history, nonprofit management, fundraising, or conservation. That was just what I hoped to hear. She was smart. She went to conferences, workshops, read a lot and learned on the job. This was something I could do.
Fast forward 10 years, one volunteer position, two assistant directorships, and one director position later, and now I get to help folks who were just like me…people who have stumbled into this field for love of history, love of community, love of artifacts, and love of learning. Nobody’s story mirrors mine, and nobody’s passion is quite the same. But I work with people who love what they do, and that makes me excited almost every day to wake up as a part of the small museums community.
What’s your passion story? How did you get started in small museums? I invite you to post your story in the comments area below!