For the past few weeks, I have been busy, busy, busy undertaking a full-time placement as a collections assistant. I have been de-installing exhibitions and then installing exhibitions, nesting objects, moving objects, packing objects, measuring objects, photographing objects, condition reporting galore (!) and basically anything the collection team needs. On top of the very practical, useful, real-world things I am doing, I have also come across some things that you really can’t learn in a classroom. Those little things that you only find out through actually working in a museum or gallery. So, I thought I would put together a list. These are “The Top Eight Things You Totally Didn’t Know About Working in a Museum and Probably Should.”
One: Have breakfast.
Early mornings commuting to work means breakfast sometimes gets skipped. But this can be perilous. Come morning tea time you are either just shy of passing out; can’t resist gobbling down the cake someone has brought in for someone’s birthday; or, your colleagues have had to listen to the call of your rumbling, gurgling stomach for the past half hour as you have tried to hide it through coughing, shifting noisily in your chair, or starting a conversation. Trust me, breakfast is always a good idea.
Two: Work attire.
I can’t begin to think of the number of times I have heard the saying “dress for success.” Yes, it’s tired. Yes, it’s very cliche. But, if you don’t carefully plan your outfit you are going to have a bad time. Reading a book can’t really prepare you for the reality of working in a collection store. Nobody tells you about the struggle to find appropriate everyday work wear to cover a day wandering in and out of a temperature and humidity controlled room. My placement coincided with the start of winter. Naturally, I brought out my collection of merinos, scarves, woollen jumpers and leggings, perfect for those chilly, early morning starts. But, within minutes of vigorously carving out foam, or moving a crate, or walking up and down to the mezzanine level, those three layers of wool are feeling like a really bad idea. Layers and rolled sleeves are key.
Three: Be strong.
Not in like a personal affirmation “Keep Calm” kind of way but in a literal, you better be strong because you will be carrying heavy crates with precious artworks and you really, really don’t want to drop them kind of way.
Four: Office etiquette.
My experience so far is that GLAMs people operate on coffee and morning tea is a big, big deal. It’s when everyone comes together: technicians covered in saw dust and paint splatters; curators with a stack of books; collection managers blinking in the harsh light of day. If you can brew a pot of coffee and contribute to answering the daily newspaper quiz you will go far in this sector.
Five: Six degrees of separation.
We hear all the time about how small New Zealand is. But that has nothing on the GLAMs sector. Six degrees of separation is far closer to two. Maybe three for a newbie like me. This makes for fun connect the dots conversations and a little bit of networking. Getting to know someone in a professional way as you work with them is one-hundred-million times better than cold approaching them in a crowded exhibition opening.
Six: Learn names.
This is something I suck at big time. I am definitely a faces, not a names person. Often I will meet someone and all I hear is: “hello my name is [ocean waves/train horn/crickets]…” Just a huge blank where the name should be. And it’s not like university where you still play name games at the start of each year and then the entire class has to reintroduce themselves to each guest speaker. Every. Single. Lecture. (Thanks, Conal). Nope, usually it’s a quick walk around the office, usually on your first day when you already have information overload but are trying to act cool. So be prepared, every day, to learn some names.
Expert tip: it’s really, really, helpful when a place puts their staff on their website and even more so when it has a photo!
Seven: Jack of all trades.
It seems that when you work in a museum people are handy at a whole lot of things and don’t mind pitching in, especially during busy exhibition change-over. If you can cover boards in calico and wield a staple gun, or re-cover mannequin necks in black adhesive felt (I have perfected a technique and am happy to share if anyone finds themselves faced with this), or any number of probably quite random but immensely useful tasks, you are an asset.
Eight: Things do not always run to plan.
Be flexible. Something that can’t be taught in a classroom is dealing with unexpected changes in a project. At university, you are given a list of things you need to do for the semester. All your lectures and assignments are laid out at the start of the year and you know exactly what you need to do and when you need to do it, to do a good job. It is pretty straight-forward. Occasionally, you might have to deal with a change of due date, like when your lecturer unexpectedly gives the whole class an extension for the essay Yay! But this seems to happen far less frequently in the real world and most likely you are going to be told you have less time, not more. There always seems to be something that pops up that you need to deal with. Maybe you planned to spend the day condition reporting the exhibition that needs to start installing, like yesterday. Nope! You must spend the day on the phone and answering emails. Five more objects to go in the show that opens tomorrow. No problem. That loan you were really hoping for is denied. Shit. What’s in the collection? Adapt, be flexible, stay calm.
When you work at a museum.
When you work at a museum it is sometimes tough, sometimes frustrating, busy, draining, thankless, stressful, etc., etc.
…. but mostly: