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On the thrill of museum work

by on June 29, 2012

June 30 marks the final day of my two-year term as director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

I’ve mixed feelings about giving it up. On the positive side: I’ve learned a lot. I think I’ve done some good work there. Most importantly, I think the museum has made a good case for its value to the university, which is what I set out to prove.

On the other hand: running a museum is all-consuming, even if it’s only supposed to be a part-time job. Other things I should have been doing have not been done as well. The book I had planned to write has not been written. And I’m tired: I’ve been running an academic center, a museum, and an MA program all at the same time. It has been a long two years.

The great appeal of museum work, I think, especially compared to academic work, is this: things happen. New objects appear. Exhibits open. Deadline loom. Decisions need to be made, and when they’re made, they have an effect. A physical effect, because museums are about things.

Part of this sense that “things happen” comes from the centrality of artifacts to museum work. The physicality of artifacts shapes not only museums products – storage and exhibits – but also the nature of the work in museums. Objects are demanding in a way that ideas are not. Neglect climate control and mold appears, overnight, or inexorably, over years. Neglect security and artifacts are stolen. Neglect cataloging and catalog updating and objects disappear into storage. Slight accessibility, and you can’t make a case for having artifacts at all, and without artifacts, it’s hard for an academic museum to make a case for itself.

Another, equally important part, comes from the public work of the museum, the “let’s put on a show” aspect. You announce a new exhibit. Suddenly a dozen or more “to do” items appear on your calendar, connected by strings of “must be done befores” and “must be done bys.” Museum workers have new work to do – not that the old work went away. Management becomes more than ever a balancing of the short and long term (both of the time of museum staff, and the life history of the artifacts).

And it’s not just that things happen: things happen publicly. The appeal of “let’s put on a show” is not just about the rush of activity, from the careful planning at the start to the –how to put this? – the controlled panic – of the day before opening.

And the third part of museum work: ideas. Especially in anthropology and history museums

It’s the many ways that things, ideas, and the public interact that make museum work so interesting, so all-consuming. Museum artifacts, on the one hand, and the public, on the other, are so very different, in every way. They have different time frames. They demand different physical conditions. The museum visitor demands things from artifacts that the artifact provides only reluctantly. The museum worker stands between these two opposites, trying to satisfy both. Interest, all-consuming, work; but also difficult, and almost impossible to succeed. Museum educators are much taken with the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow,” the idea that people are happy when their work is challenging, pushing their limits. Maybe that’s because flow, pushing the limits of our capabilities, is what we do all day.

Thrilling, but as I said at the beginning, tiring.

So I’m looking forward to taking some time off. I’m planning to write about museums – not about museum directing, but about museum curating. I will be switching blogs, and writing about that as I go.

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