Welcome back, friends. I know that I am very biased on this topic, but I feel as though working in a museum can be one of the most exciting, interesting, and fulfilling careers. While most people have an idea of museum work being tedious, slow paced, and all-around unexciting, there can be some incredible points in the career. I’d like to share some of my own and share with you how museum work can be fascinating and much different than what you may expect.
A number of years ago, a prominent museum educator and writer posed a question to the museum community: what was your most meaningful moment during your career? I remember seeing it and feeling compelled to respond. I ended up sharing my story, which became the introductory story in her book. When I was in graduate school, I managed a museum that was associated with a Japanese American internment camp during WWII: Camp Amache in Southeastern Colorado. I spent my time updating their exhibit space and working with the museum’s collections. During the annual open house, an elderly man and his granddaughter came in. I welcomed them and showed them around. Prior to leaving, we talked and I learned that he was actually born in the camp! He shared his sadness that he had no records of his birth or any associated documentation as much was lost when the camps were shut down. Luckily, the camp had run its own newspaper, of which the museum had many editions of in the archives. He told me his birthday and I looked through, sadly finding that the day in question did not have a newspaper printed. The next newspaper, printed just a few days later, ended up having exactly what we were looking for. We were able to find documentation of his birth announcement along with information about his parents and other relevant information. He and his granddaughter were so happy they cried, and I did as well. It was an incredible and emotional moment, and one that solidified in me the desire to work in museums and preserve the history that can mean so much to those who seek it out.
Now, admittedly, not all of the stories that I have are this emotional or meaningful. That being said, I have had the opportunity to work with many incredible pieces of history, many of which have been memorable and impactful in some way. While at the Dallas Holocaust Museum, I had the opportunity to work with a candelabra from Spain in the 1500s. This candelabra had numerous secret compartments and was used to house all necessary items for a Seder meal held during Passover. During this period, Jews were heavily persecuted in Spain (as well as other areas) and needed to hide their traditions and beliefs. The candelabra had been passed down the family lines until being held by who would become a survivor of the Holocaust. Working at this museum also provided numerous opportunities to work directly with and learn from Holocaust survivors, several of whom are still alive today. Few experiences are as profound and meaningful as hearing their stories of survival and resilience.
Lastly, working at my previous museum, I had the opportunity to work with objects related to a local magician, the Great Nicola, who was world-renowned and on par with Houdini (a contemporary of his). During research, a story came up of his owning an elephant gifted to him by an Indian prince. He allegedly brought it back to Illinois, where it died and was buried in town somewhere. Calling upon old professors and contact, I worked to bring out an archaeologist with ground penetrating radar in an attempt to locate the elephant. Amazingly, we came up successful and found the location of where the elephant had been buried approximately 85 years earlier.
As you can see, museum work can be quite interesting. Is it like the life of Indiana Jones? No, though we do enjoy the movies. Is the work tedious and repetitive? Yes, at times it certainly can be. Is the work meaningful and impactful? A resounding yes. What museums do is important, there is no doubt. We are a dedicated lot, museum professionals, and we care about what we do. I hope that you find our work meaningful as well and that we can impact your life in a positive way.