100 Things I Learned from almost 20 years in the Museum Field

Seema R.
Seema R.
Dec 15, 2019 · 8 min read
museum professional in silly costume
museum professional in silly costume

I just realized in 2020, I’ll have 20 years in this field.

In that time, I’ve stood in a basketball arena at half-court in a waterlilies costume, danced badly on video for AA baseball team, and almost threw out the first pitch at a AL game. I’ve driven a sprinter van and turned down owning a city bus. I’ve crawled on a catwalk high above a modernist auditorium. I’ve admonished a famous photographer for dropping trou and peeing in front of me. I’ve given tours to Supreme Court Judges and toddlers. I’ve laughed with famous artists and writers. I’ve ghost written for so many people I’ve lost track. I’ve been on television with a one-eyed owl and a danced with a Bee mascot. I’ve met with televangelists, Senators, and patriarchs.

I’ve been alone with so many famous works of art, I’ve lost count. I’ve seen the backs and the bottoms and the insides. I’ve heard the secrets I can’t share. I’ve heard the back stories and asides. I’ve seen the makers marks and the marks of the makers. I’ve spent untold hours looking, just looking, at objects.

I’ve taught so many people, a moment in their life, a blip. I’ve written thousands and thousands of words about collections. I’ve said even more. I’ve watched scores and scores of museum professionals grow and blossom. I’ve deaccessioned, accessioned, and fostered collections. I’ve helped create a school. I’ve designed a van that drives around town with my handwriting. I’ve made apps and interactives.

I’ve been silly, serious, happy, intensely unhappy, gaslighted, honored, lauded, demeaned, supported, exhausted, exhilarated, and incalculable other feelings. I’ve made the mission my raison d’etre. I’ve hated the mission. I’ve been able to separate the mission and myself. I’ve remembered my sanity is more important than any job.

I’ve made things that mattered to people, even if they never knew my name. And, museums have mattered to me.

So with such career what have I learned?

  1. People will give money to educate kids. But many funders won’t give money to turn on the lights. Who cares if its hard to educate kids in pitch black galleries?
  2. People who name galleries aren’t always interested in what is happening in those galleries. But, sometimes that can be the best for operations and all involved.
  3. People who give unrestricted funds are a blessing. May they proliferate in the new decade.
  4. People who give small amounts of money can be incredibly entitled, and people who give large amounts of money can be completely selfless. And vice versa. Money and humanity are not correlated in predictable ways.
  5. Members can make staff feel valued or crummy, and it takes all kinds. (“I’m a member” can be a triggering phrase for ex-FOH staff).
  6. Members often get way more in benefits than the cost of the annual membership, because museums believe money in the hand is better than money in bequests. (Actually, we like all kinds of money.)
  7. Membership is not usually a young person’s game.
  8. Membership managers usually end up doing many tasks that would qualify as “other duties as assigned.”
  9. Most museum staffers find themselves doing “other duties as assigned” types of work at some point during their professional career.
  10. Some whole museum careers could qualify as “other duties as assigned”.
  11. Some of the most fun tasks I ever did as a museum professional fell under “other duties as assigned.”
  12. Some of the least fun tasks I did as a museum professional fell under “other duties as assigned.”
  13. Museum professional sometimes find themselves liking people who they would have hated in high school. These people become some of their best work allies.
  14. People will surprise you, if you let them. Some of these surprises will be welcome.
  15. Scare resources can feel like the norm. It can bring out creativity and ingenuity. It can also create anxiety and a hoarding mentality.
  16. Scarce resources often create a culture more akin to The Lord of the Flies than A Peaceable Kingdom.
  17. Animal Farm could have been a documentary about how some museums are run. All staff are equal, just some more than others.
  18. Change can come from the top, but its speed and success is often determined by the people at the middle.
  19. Change is often easier than you think. Not changing is often harder.
  20. Some museums can change and somehow still remain fundamentally flawed. Other’s use change as an agent of growth.
  21. Some museums make change feel like a threat to their very existence. Some museums understand that change is the only way to ensure their existence.
  22. Boards can be awesome or not.
  23. Education is the easiest thing to raise money for, but the department that often is the least richly funded.
  24. Educators are working hard, even if you don’t see them working.
  25. Educators often cite the mission as their reason for enduring low pay and lower respect.
  26. Most educators aren’t failed curators but successful educators who chose to make connecting with people their career focus.
  27. Free usually costs money.
  28. Museums somehow perceive teaching specialized groups, like university students, as harder and more prestigious, despite the fact that those students have been in school for years.
  29. Good gallery teachers are worth gold and often paid in pennies.
  30. It’s easier to impart content strands to a good gallery teacher than to teach a content specialist to be a gallery teacher.
  31. Museums give the least money and recognition to early childhood teachers. Preschoolers are usually functionally illiterate, but museums often perceive teaching these students is easy. Forget teaching babies — we assume those people teaching humans who regularly scream and kick to communicate should receive the least remuneration.
  32. Communicating with short, pithy text is hard.
  33. Curators transform thought into physical installations with the help of many museum colleagues. A subset of the people working on the installation get credit beyond their salary.
  34. Some curators are awesome and interested in their visitors. I love and respect those professionals.
  35. Curators can transform the way we see collections, history, and even the future. If we focus on exhibition attendance solely as a metric of success, we often hamstring this power of curators.
  36. A good editor is so insanely valuable. Those editors are rarely paid well enough.
  37. Registrars are often unsung heroes though sometimes treated like wardens. Their job is already hard. Try not to make it harder.
  38. Beautiful objects are sometimes cared for by less than beautiful people.
  39. Many people fight their corner for objects even when it hurts. It’s their job to say no, and they do it despite the emotional toll. It’s their career to do so.
  40. Caring for visitors should be everyone’s job. It’s doesn’t always feel like it.
  41. Most of the people who work in museums will not get name recognition for their work.
  42. Most people work in museums due to an inherent love of the field and the mission.
  43. Museum people are often not good at understanding what non-museum goers want.
  44. Mentors are essential throughout your career. You might not realize someone is a mentor until long after your paths diverge.
  45. Museum work is about find and losing friends. People move and transition constantly.
  46. Change is the only constant.
  47. Collections can sometimes feel like the elephant in the room or the raison d’etre. They are both, and more, and less.
  48. Most managers pretend like there are givens they cannot change. The truth is most organizations get to decide so much more than they do.
  49. Almost every museum professional assumes another silo has it better. Many of them don’t have it great.
  50. Museum people are often very good at critical thought.
  51. Museum people are often too good at being ultra-critical of other museum people.
  52. Museums are often run like corporations and an ivory tower. The mashup makes for some bad decision-making and bad pay.
  53. Museums are not utopias, though many people who work in museums dream of such a world.
  54. Leading museums can be more a sign that you’re willing and privileged enough to be able to move to gain a successively higher role than your ability to lead.
  55. You can be great for visitors and not so great as a manager.
  56. If you don’t reply to your staff’s emails, you’re not doing it right.
  57. The hardest part of museum work is the people not the collections.
  58. Pleasing visitors can please donors. But, pleasing donors, first, sometimes means not pleasing visitors.
  59. Most museum managers are better about managing collections, ideas, and content rather than people.
  60. Managers are often hired for their skills in other areas than management.
  61. Most labels are written for an audience (scholars) who don’t read labels.
  62. Most visitors don’t care about our history, our founders, or our minutiae.
  63. Most visitors are there to have a good time. Our work spaces and careers are just a day off for them.
  64. Guards are human. Not all museum professionals act that way.
  65. Some guards get they are actually front of house staff.
  66. Some guards enjoy the petty power they wield. Those guards can challenge to our need to create welcoming spaces.
  67. Most guards are into the content they protect. Their ideas about the collections they watch for hours and hours and hours are rarely well-used by museums.
  68. Front of House staff do so much for our field; we could do more for them.
  69. Technology doesn’t negate people; it requires people at every step.
  70. Technology doesn’t solve problems if you pretend you don’t have any.
  71. Technology often solves one problem while causing another.
  72. Technology isn’t a panacea. (Also panaceas are illusions.)
  73. Technology can be awesome. If it’s a drain, it might be due to the humans associated with implementing it.
  74. Technology is the future and the present, but not alone and not without people.
  75. Design is often concerned with issues other than comfort or accessibility.
  76. Visitors would prefer comfort and legibility to “good design.”
  77. Good design should actually be legible and comfortable. Most museum design is not actually good but instead “clean.”
  78. Accessibility isn’t a buzzword but a moral imperative.
  79. Opening the doors is only a metaphor unless museums make concerted efforts to be inclusive.
  80. Adding people of color to a toxic work environment isn’t about equity — it’s about optics. Diversity isn’t about optics.
  81. Museums need people of color to walk in the doors both to fulfill their missions and to appease funders. Some museums know they need people of color to walk in the doors to survive and thrive.
  82. People of color often don’t feel like they need museums because they don’t want to be used, treated badly, or sold.
  83. Museums often prefer to hold onto their norms than include more people.
  84. Change is often a four-letter word to museum staff.
  85. Many people who work in museums are interested in work. A few are also interested in making life hard for the other people doing the work.
  86. No one likes to be talked down to — not your colleagues, your staff, or your visitors.
  87. Some museum professionals choose to talk down to others to make themselves feel bigger. Those people probably feel kinda small somewhere deep inside.
  88. The best-laid plans rarely are what actually happen. If you don’t plan for the worst eventuality, it will likely occur.
  89. Boards like shiny new things more than visitors do.
  90. Some shiny new things draw visitors. Lucky organizations keep a small percentage of these magpie visitors.
  91. There is no singular truth. Not in interpretation, not in the ways people remember meetings, not in any docents retelling of a book they read.
  92. Simple isn’t a strong suit of the museum field.
  93. Enjoyable can also be a challenge for museums.
  94. Visitors most often see the people who make the least money and have the least hierarchical power most often.
  95. Strong museums are like ships; sinking them takes effort.
  96. It’s pretty hard to break a museum, but it’s pretty easy for a museum with a faulty organizational culture to keep limping along for decades.
  97. Museums will last longer than any one person who works there.
  98. Museums are businesses, in the end.
  99. People form connections with collections.
  100. Museums matter. But, they could matter more to our visitors if we are willing to make the necessary changes.

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