My first museum job was greeting school children in front of The Museum of Science in Boston. Each morning, my team and I herded hundreds of children, along with their teachers and chaperons through their museum visits. Most schools, if they’re lucky, can offer their students one field trip a year. For many young students visiting a museum is the highpoint of their year; something they have worked hard for and imagined for a long time. It’s one thing to learn about sarcophagi, it’s another completely to see them, especially if you are a child!
After we greeted the children, helped them inside, collected and stored their jackets and bags, we shuffled them in and out of a traveling exhibition about Egypt called Quest for the Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt. It’s no simple task to calm a large group of school children. There could be 100 of them to one of you. Imagine that for a moment. Often, each child’s attention is anywhere but on you. Plus, you’re competing against all the sights and sounds of the museum, including other school groups and visitors.
On top of that, the job paid close to nothing and didn’t even cover the rent for the dingy attic I was renting. Despite the headache and long days on my feet, I knew this opportunity was an immense step towards something bigger, especially when compared to my previous employment as a busboy for Legal Sea Foods. The highlights of my career there included confusing the variety of cooked New England sea fare – all accompanied by steamed broccoli, rice, and lemon wedges – and my crowning achievement of confusing Cindy Lauper’s order. Apparently management cares about such things.
I had found a field that I loved, and each day brought new excitement and adventures. It was Night at the Museum pre Ben Stiller. I learned first-hand how families interact while learning at the museum, and how children play with or around the exhibits, how they imagine, how they learn. I was making important observations that would come in handy later in my life.
Since the Museum of Science, I have worked at other museums and in many different roles. Each opportunity was unique, but often I came back to the idea that I wanted to see museums become places where my friends and I could hang out, not where we were forced to feel like we were at a library. I thought that museums weren’t fulfilling their role and wondered how they could and what such a space would look like and how it would run.
I realized that this was a crucial issue to be resolved to ensure the survival of museums. I decided to become an expert on the topic in order to be a part of the movement for change by earning a Master’s in Museum Studies from Harvard University’s Extension School. During my final year in the program, I wrote a thesis entitled, “Becoming Hip: Art Museums and Young Cosmopolitans.” I had done much of the research for it already, starting at the Museum of Science and continuing with other institutions I worked for, interned with, studied and visited. My thesis is my vision for what I think our historic museums should morph into and my blueprint for getting there.
I haven’t yet flipped the museum world upside down, though I’m certainly trying. I have come to learn that great progress is being made in museums all around me and that there are many brilliant people working in the trenches alongside me. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself at your local museum. See you there!