The interview

So… I never really thought about it before, but museums are substantially different sorts of businesses than schools. And this translates into the awareness that directors of education at museums are apparently first and foremost guardians and defenders of historical objects, and secondarily responsible for educating the people who come to see them. Meanwhile, teachers assume that people will come to see them (usually on a pre-set schedule), and you had better have something interesting, unusual or important to talk about for the relevant 40 to 50 minutes. And you had better be prepared to do that six to eight times a day, week in and week out.

I think it was the most interesting interview I’ve ever participated in. I had a clear sense that I was at a disadvantage starting out. I’m not a professional museum person, but as a gamer and as a person connected to the world of games, there was a guess that maybe I could help the museum make contacts with people who could make games for the website; who could bring gamers into the museum; who could help the museum expand its online offerings in the form of digital imagery, podcasts (web cameras in the conservator’s lab?). But I didn’t know, for example, how much budget cuts affected the museum’s relationship with schools — you can’t very well expect busloads of kids to show up at a museum if the transportation budget in most school districts is taxed by higher oil and gasoline prices. So you have to figure out how to reach more kids one-on-one, and more parents. So that becomes an issue of advertising, and creating public programs. All of which ties into admissions fees, and becoming known in the community. So connecting to schools through outreach programs.

But artifacts can’t leave the museum. They’re museum pieces, for god’s sake. And the notion of creating a traveling exhibit that could go into a school lobby for 2 weeks clearly horrified my interviewer. “accompanied” was the word she used. “The objects would have to be accompanied. And round the clock security.” or words to that effect.

So you have this treasure house of beautiful objects. Tools of war, tools of diplomacy, tools of shock and awe. And you have schools, which are usually quite ugly. An exhibit that leaves the museum and travels around the country can earn the museum $thousands. But that exhibit doesn’t bring local students and teachers to the museum. A traveling case of lesser objects, that can go in a school lobby for a week, could bring in $hundreds a week… and potentially $thousands in visitors’ tickets… but only if the cost of guarding it doesn’t exceed the cost of renting it to a school. Bringing 30 kids to a museum costs (with 5 chaperones) around $300 … + bus expenses, + substitute teachers for people whose classes need coverage. So you need to create an exhibit that can get loaded into a van at 5 am, travel to a school within 2 hours of the museum, be on display in a lobby from 8am to 3pm, and make it back to the museum by 5pm. It has to be low-maintenance, portable, and can’t cost more than 2 school visits for 30 kids… or $600 to the school hosting it for a week. So can you mount a museum exhibition that can pay for itself, take out insurance on itself, and transport itself, for $600 a week? And will the museum conservators and educators and guardians-of-objects allow it?

But such a display, with the museum name on it prominently, will be seen by… what, 300 students…. 500…. 1000? Maybe something like a convention booth… no actual objects on display, or a couple of reproductions but nothing valuable… and a lot of mounted photographs, high-quality. Come in, set up for a day, “hi kids, I’m here to tell you about armor…” Downloadable slide-shows, perhaps, and annual continuing education conferences to train teachers to give the slide shows.

The museum is also in transition, just like my school. I probably have more chance of getting hired if there’s a new E.D. by June; if the interim chooses me, she’ll go with a safer choice, probably, and it makes sense. Let a new E.D. make the risky choices…

In some ways, I didn’t learn some things that I would need to learn from a school. For one, I think if I make it to a second interview with curators and suchlike, and other staff, I’ll have to have a more elaborate list of questions than I had for this one. And I’ll have to have a better sense of what my alternate viewpoint might bring to a museum. It’s a matter I’ll have to consider carefully in the near future.

10 comments

  1. I’d have liked that…

    I’d have liked that, but in truth I didn’t have a whole lot of time. I came up for the interview, grabbed a cup of coffee, and came home to work on stuff for school because we have a major conference here today through the weekend. This interview was very much a case of filling a window open for a very short time.

  2. In the hope that you get a second interview (or maybe just for your own interest), the main text my museum studies course used was “Interpreting Objects and Collections” Susan M. Pearce, ed. Routledge, 1994. Flipping through it now, it’s more about philosophical choices and ways of thinking about collecting objects than practical concerns. There’s also a pretty good history of collecting in it. you may want to look for it.

  3. Museums have one resource that’s very easily and cheaply transported and makes an even greater impact than bits and geegaws:

    Expertise.

    One person passionate about their subject giving a presentation to smallish groups and talking with them about it would have more impact than any number of pictures and displays. If they have some reproduction props, even better, but portray a museum as a place full of people with cool stories and weird knowledge and kids will want to talk to them.

  4. LOL! I just figured out where you applied! When I was reading through I was like “Oh!”. So yeah, still keeping fingers crossed for you.

  5. Many many years ago, the Higgens Armory Museum did a hands on demo at MassConfusion I, a gaming convention at Clark.

    I believe everything they brought was a 19th century reproduction or newer.

    The demos:

    Volunteer puts on padded glove. Has a sheet of (I think modern) chain mail placed on top. Demonstrator whacks it with the edge of a sword, to show that it doesn’t cut through chain.

    Volunteer puts on a suit of 19th century reproduction half-plate. Does pushups, moves around, etc.

    Volunteer is asked to lie flat on his back in the armor, and complies.

    Demonstrator pulls a halberd out from underneath a tarp, points it at the volunteer, and starts charging.

    Volunteer leaps up and runs away. So much for “couldn’t get up without help”.

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