What was I Thinking?

Overnight I’ve gone from being the exhibit writer to, um, well, I don’t have a title anymore. Moved from my cubicle to, well, um, I don’t have a workspace anymore. I just show up at the museum collections storage room door, knock, and, once admitted, stand around until the tasks for the day are doled out and divvied up. Then we scurry off to unpack boxes, take empty boxes to recycling, hand off objects to and from the photographer, do data entry, and shelve the unpacked objects. I don’t know what I was thinking, but when I was told about this collections inventory project, I pictured a whole lot of data entry. And there is that. But, since I never worked in this museum’s registration department, my login doesn’t give me the ability to enter or modify data into the database. Made sense when I was in the exhibits department. Now? Not so much. But they won’t change it because I’m just temporary. So while I envisioned that I’d be maybe sitting around in a cubicle, doing a ton of data entry with this inventory project, instead I find myself being asked to help unpack giant boxes, haul objects up and down ladders, and vacuum using the world’s clunkiest vacuum cleaner. Even when we’re all standing around waiting for the next task, I’m standing around. All of it requires a lot of energy and it’s making it hard for the newly pregnant me to stay awake past 6:00 4:30 p.m.

Though I’m trying to stay focused on being grateful that I’m still earning a paycheck, all that I can think of is that I left museum collections management to go into exhibit development. And now I find myself having taken a step backward at just the moment when I’d made an agreement with myself to take a big leap forward out of museum work altogether. Not to mention that since I’m pregnant, this is exactly the wrong time to be moving into a role that literally requires heavy lifting from time to time. (I mean, I haven’t been asked to help move a piano or anything, but if and when that happens, I’ll have to figure out how to decline.) But that’s not even the biggest of my worries. It’s that I am on borrowed time. I am hurtling inexorably toward motherhood and, even sooner than that, unemployment. (For real this time.) By all measures, I need a (more permanent, long-term, benefits-eligible) job as soon as possible. The longer I wait, the more I’ll be showing, and while I see the baby bump as a deal-sealer for any potential employer: ‘I’m a sure-fire bet because I got another mouth to feed!’, apparently what potential employers see is: ‘NO chance she’s gonna stick around and work here after the baby’s born.’ I need to (1) find a job I’m even remotely eligible to apply for, (2) craft a cover letter that demonstrates that my years of experience in museums is directly applicable to cookie baking, dog catching, or what have you, and (3) land an interview, all before I start showing. And any one of those takes time. Precious time I’m running out of while I stand around in my new post hoping nobody asks me to help move a baby grand today.

So while this new gig is keeping unemployment at bay, it’s also coming at a cost of not getting me any closer to answering “Well, what’s next, then?” (Not to mention taxing the very little energy that I have.) Time spent on the clock is time not spent trying to nap figure out what I can do with my life. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

The End is Near. Or Is it?

As I said in my last post, I am scheduled to be laid off next Friday. But it turns out I need to revisit what I said there. As it turns out, I *was* scheduled to be laid off.

The head of the museum’s registration department came to me, and said that her department was working on a collections management inventory project and could give me some hours until the inventory was complete. Meaning I could delay the arrival of the inevitable final paycheck for a few weeks. Despite me being completely and utterly out of give a sh*ts about museum work – and museum collections management work specifically, not to mention working for this museum in particular – I need a paycheck. So while I said that yes, I would take her up on her offer, I also sensed that this was one of the first of the many, many sacrifices I would make as a new parent: my pride. My work in my position as exhibit writer is over, I will now (effective tomorrow) be reporting to work as a member of the museum’s registration department. A temporary employee, but an employee receiving a paycheck for a few more weeks. And that’s all that counts right now.

Now What?

Next Friday is scheduled to be my last day at the museum. And, not coincidentally, in museum work.

After my boss told me a few months ago that my contract was not going to be renewed, I did a lot of soul searching. I’ve been working in trying to work in museums for more than 10 years. Every career move I have made was with the goal of securing a stable, long-term position in a museum, but no matter how hard I’ve tried to make this career path work for me, it just hasn’t. I stumbled on the notion of working in a museum as a college student, and thought it was my dream job. I thought it would be fun to study artifacts and research the past. I thought that my work would have greater meaning – that I would get to make contributions to a larger body of knowledge. And I thought it would be more creative and therefore, more engaging than your typical 9-5 office drone work.

But what I found instead was that the reality of working in museums never aligned with what I’d envisioned. Studying artifacts? Hardly! In order to study any artifacts, you have to be able to find and identify them, so my task  more often than not always ended up being cataloguing the artifacts. Read: mind-numbing repetitive data entry. Hour after hour. Day after day. Week after week. Ad infinitum. I guess I could take comfort in the fact that my work was making contributions to a larger body of knowledge, but, after a few months hours of tedious data entry (and let’s not forget printing, cutting out and applying tiny, tiny catalog labels to the objects), I started to realize that unless I got additional tasks that would use something other than my lizard brain, I was going to lose my mind. So museum collections management wasn’t for me. I wanted to work on developing exhibits, but it turns out that kind of work is nearly impossible to find, nevermind get. Building the exhibits themselves was out of the question – at larger museums, those are done by outside firms, and even in smaller institutions, you need someone who has, at bare minimum, carpentry skills. And if you could see me with a drill, you’d now be laughing so hard you’d be pissing yourself. So while the execution of a vision isn’t my strong suit when it comes to museum exhibits, concept development is. And those jobs in exhibit development? At least as scarce as…no, I would argue scarcer than exhibit design jobs. So when I finally landed one, I found myself in a tiny, understaffed, woefully underfunded museum where, sure, I got tasked with thinking about and planning the big picture of our museum exhibits. Along with just about everything else, leaving me almost no time to do any of the work that I had come there to do. The only other time I found myself in my desired role was, well, now. I was hired to write the permanent exhibits, which I did, and now that they’re done, I’m laid off.

Let’s do the math. In the 10 years since I finished my M.A., I’ve had a grand total of just over 5 years of gainful employment in my field of museums. If this were baseball, I’d be in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, that meant that for 5 of the past 10 years, I spent just as much time stubbornly chasing down a foolhardy vision of a career as I did working the short-term positions that I successfully pieced together in my chosen field. I’ve been working at making a career out of a dying career path, one that is over-credentialed and woefully underpaid, all for the sake of fulfilling some childish vision of a “dream job.”

In my experience, it’s called a dream job because it is some romanticized fantasy – a reverie. Now that I’m waking up, I find myself in a daze, having given over more than a decade to something that just wasn’t really there. I have worked in positions that had advertised the need for advanced degrees and specialized skills when the day-to-day responsibilities turned out to be manning the front desk cash register and answering the phone. I took short-term and contract positions with the hope that they would turn into more, but inevitably each would come to an end as funding ran out. All along the way I found myself thinking , “If only I [fill-in-the-blank]” [had a Ph.D., knew more about ancient pre-Columbian textiles, became an expert at HTML5 applications for web-based exhibitions…you get the idea], I would at long last achieve the dream job I’d always hoped for. I finally ended up with a great title (exhibit writer) and overlooked the teeny tiny minor detail that it was a short-term contract position.  I have given it my all. In the end, my 10 year pursuit has come at a high opportunity cost: the chance to have had a decade of better pay, retirement benefits (paid by someone other than me out of my meager take home pay), and professional growth and advancement in a career path that offered continuity instead of the punctuated equilibrium that has been my ‘career.’ I’m taking this layoff as a sign: that it is time to move on.

To what? I don’t know. I fear that I have over-niched myself to such a degree that I wonder if I can identify, nevermind market, any transferable skills to move on to something else. All that I’ve learned is that museum work isn’t what I want to do anymore, but I haven’t gotten any closer to figuring out what I do want to do.

How do we Get There?

My inquiry into the museum’s past helped me understand where the museum was and where I think it should be. Over the past couple of days, that distance has grown exponentially as I mentally list all of the steps that have to take place on my end to make that happen.

Museum exhibits and educational programs are the public face of the institution. They are, in effect, the museum’s identity. The most any average visitor interacts with a museum is typically a visit to the website and a brief tour of the exhibits. If the museum’s website is static and uninviting, what makes the person want to come see more? And then once they get here, if the exhibits are dated, boring, and racist Whitey-centric, then what does that say about the institution? Since that’s not the message I want to get across, the museum desperately needs new exhibits.

Exhibits are typically based on what the museum has in its collections. So in order to revamp the exhibits, I need to get to know the collections. Since only 300 of the 25,000 or so objects we have are catalogued, that’s a tall order. For several reasons. One, the items that have been catalogued might be nice to look at, but they aren’t necessarily significant or illustrative of any particular historical period or theme. That box full of 30 wedding veils has some nice examples of lacework, but unless I’m talking about women’s fashion through the ages or even domestic gender roles, I’m not sure I’m going to need them. Two, the items that are significant don’t necessarily meet our current mission. We have an amazing collection of contemporary Hopi decorated pottery. But the museum’s mission is to interpret the history of the local metropolitan area, and Hopi live about 250 miles away. Three, the documentation that we have is often problematic when it comes to provenance.  Just because someone said on their donation form that this is the quilt that Abraham Lincoln slept under doesn’t make it so. I’m a historian — I need proof. Four, the stuff that the museum has consists of unsolicited donations. So while we have some nice things, there are enormous gaps for which we have virtually nothing to exhibit. I’m glad that we have thousands of textiles, kitchen wares, and jewelry from the Victorian era. But most of the area’s history lies in the 20th century, and so far I’ve come across virtually nothing from the 20th century. (Could be because a lot of families are still passing down their 20th century stuff and aren’t ready to let it go yet. Could be that a lot of the 20th century hasn’t gotten to an age where it’s considered “historic” yet. And it probably has a lot to do with the urban influx of people from other places — most people who live here aren’t from here. But none of that solves the problem of having virtually nothing to “show” for the 20th century.) And five, how am I supposed to exhibit the stuff that lies so far beyond the museum’s purview that it verges on ridiculous? Why in God’s name, for instance, do we have a whale bone? Or a rare mineral from Michigan’s upper peninsula?

As you can see, improving our understanding of the collection takes time. There’s a learning curve for the information we do have, and then there’s thousands of items for which I’ll have to generate new information through research. And when my time is divvied up among giving tours to second graders 4 to 16 hours per week, staffing the front desk 8 to 16 hours a week, writing grants, endlessly frustrating meetings with the Boss, working as a bartender at fundraisers, and recruiting new volunteers, how the hell can I carve out the time necessary for brainstorming, research, and writing? Not to mention sleep.

One of the ways that I’ve proposed to make progress is to work on our website. Our website is pathetic. Static, dated, and whatever is the opposite of interactive. It is an embarrassment. Even in trying to promote us, it fails miserably. For the content on the museum’s collections, someone (my predecessor?) wrote the following: “All cultures and ethnic groups that have been instrumental in shaping the economic, social, and political development of Phoenix both prehistoric and historic, are considered part of Phoenix history and related materials are sought for the collection.” The fact that you feel the need to point out that diverse people are, in fact, part of the area’s history means that you’re officially old school. That’s a given! Saying it is like saying “I’m not racist. I’m aware that there are other kinds of people. Even the ones with brown skin.” If you really want to represent diverse cultural history, you wouldn’t talk about it, you would be doing it. And by the way, “economic, social, and political” are exactly the kinds of history I don’t do. I am a cultural historian and anthropologist — I look at things like food, music, religious practices, clothing, and cultural and community traditions. Economic, social, and political history are also officially old school. It’s the kind of history that makes people fall asleep. You want them to get excited about coming in as a result of stumbling across our site. You want them to feel like there’s going to be something fun and interesting to see once they get here. You don’t want museum visitors to feel like they can come in to take a nap.

I am by no means a web designer, but I have put together web exhibits and I’m really into the online environment. I’m good at research and content development. It’s a way to reach new customers 24/7, it’s a way to brand ourselves on the cheap until we can revamp our exhibits in real life, and it’s a way to delve into topics that we don’t go into in our static, boring, snooze-inducing exhibits. It’s a salvo, if you will. A beginning, not an end. A way to start dialogue, to attract new audiences, and to begin to be taken seriously. You can’t actually think that this web phenomenon is a passing fad. Which is why I taught myself stuff like Dreamweaver, CSS, & html as part of my skill set for museums. Not enough to do web design and development professionally, but enough to enhance the delivery of my subject knowledge. And enough to talk with web designers semi-intelligently about things like rollover effects, clean layout, RSS feeds,  limiting the use of distracting and unnecessary plug-ins, and mastheads. It’s not enough to be doing traditional in-person exhibits or writing articles anymore, you must have a decent understanding of the web’s potential, web 2.0 concepts, and a working knowledge of how to put these technologies and media to use for the benefit of your museum. When I talk to the Boss about it, I can see that these things sail over her head. She doesn’t value the importance of a professionally designed and regularly updated website. She sees this as an opportunity to save money on an “unnecessary” expenditure. She doesn’t understand that this is a missed opportunity. I brought her the idea of revamping our website, and was taken aback when she chided me for getting “off track” and straying from the “tasks at hand.” Yes, I’ve got a lot on my plate. But web development goes hand in hand with the other tasks ahead of me and the strategic planning for the institution. It’s already bad enough that the place I work is the laughing stock museum in the local museum circles. But ignoring our website only makes it worse.

Work. Sigh.

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, we had a staff meeting about the fallout from Twitwit’s firing. No juicy details, but this is going to be major. Until the museum hires a new education director, I am to take over that position. All duties, responsibilities, and tasks of the education department. On top of my regular job.  Which is the job of about 6 people. I’m the curator, but I’m also the registrar, collections manager, the exhibit developer, the volunteer coordinator, and the archivist/librarian. And now I’m adding another hat into the pile — that of education director. So here’s a (partial) list of my job duties, all of which are to be completed within my 40 hours per week (yeah, right.)

  • document all donations and loans to the museum
  • research all of the museum’s artifacts and collections
  • develop relationship with potential donors to encourage donations to the museum’s collection by attending meetings, networking, and correspondence
  • meet with donors to collect donations to the museum’s collection
  • data entry and database management for museum’s collections
  • research, develop, write, and present a Collections Policy to the museum’s board for formal approval
  • obtain and manage insurance for collections in preparation for collections move
  • manage ongoing digitization of photographs project and make available online
  • help researchers find the books, archival collections, and photographs they need
  • process photo reproduction orders
  • organize, plan, and closely supervise the upcoming collections move
  • get quotes for and order the new storage furniture for storage of all collections, plan the configuration for the new storage room
  • get dimensions for all items in collection to order storage boxes for all items for upcoming collections move
  • photograph all collections to document appearance and condition before collections move
  • attend weekly meetings for updates on upcoming building construction project
  • train & supervise 5 volunteers
  • grant writing
  • historical research on the region in general, and research on our collections
  • exhibit development for the next major exhibit
  • staff the admissions desk up to 24 hours per week
  • research and production of three 5-minute videos featuring local history
  • reservations and billing for all educational programs
  • deliver all educational programs, on site and off site, for children and adults
  • develop, plan, and run all girl scout programs
  • manage, organize, and staff annual Silent Auction fundraiser

After the meeting, I decided that one of the things I needed to get on top of (and fast) was the upcoming Education programs. So I went to Twitwit’s office to mine her files to find records of upcoming tours, dates, and content for each of the programs the museum offered. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I found almost nothing. I found no “scripts” or documents that covered the content of our educational programs. I found no records of upcoming school tours. I found no receipts or correspondence to indicate any loose threads I could pick up on. It’s not that we don’t have educational programs or upcoming school tours; we do. It’s that she didn’t keep any records of anything whatsoever.

Thanks, Twitwit. I’ve come back from my holiday “break” only to find that on Friday, I have to present an educational trunk show to 3 consecutive classes of over 250 students. But you left me no record of a) where this school is, b) what age group these children are, c) if the school has paid for this program, d) which trunk show they requested, and 3)the CONTENT of any of the educational trunk shows. I opened a document on the server today titled “Trunk Show script” and all that was in it were the words “Good morning boys and girls.” That’s it. That’s all that was there.

So I go to the Boss to let her know of this problem and her response? Consult the manual. Oh! I hadn’t THOUGHT of that yet! What a tool I am! I should just open the manual and there on page 3-34 will be the instructions. Except THERE IS NOTHING IN THE MANUAL. I already checked. I am a resourceful problem-solving person. I used everything I had at my disposal to try and answer my question before I decided to bother you with this to try and problem solve this conundrum. In pointing this out to her, she offered no assistance whatsoever in devising a solution. She simply shooed me out of her office so she could get back to staring at her laptop doing nothing, I guess.

So now I am spending the next 48 hours pulling my own artifacts from collections storage, researching and writing my own content, and developing my own trunk show after having called the teacher myself and sheepishly having to ask the following questions two days before the show: 1) have you paid? 2) what age(s) are these groups? 3) which show did you book? 4) where is your school?

I do NOT appreciate looking like an idiot and looking unprofessional. That really pisses me off about this place. I do my best to get my own work done, even when it means taking it home with me and working til 11 pm most nights and working at my laptop all weekend from my couch, as it usually does. During the week, my time is so fractured between managing volunteers who don’t follow the rules, running educational programs for fourth graders, collecting entrance fees at the front desk, and trying to fix the computers that don’t work so that I can do work that it’s hard for me to get any of my own projects done. It’s hard enough for me to manage the upcoming collections move and the upcoming exhibit, both of which I am ostensibly capable of. But I never asked to be a museum education director, have never done anything like this before, received no training, and continue to receive no support. But since it’s my responsibility now, the presentations and tours are a reflection of the institution and of me, and I don’t appreciate looking like an unprepared, unqualified idiot.

Can I run away? Fake my own death? I’ve already routinely been working well over my 40 hours each week just to get on top of my existing duties. And now I’ve got to figure out how to clone myself just so I can get adequate time off on my days day off. All without any additional compensation. I already work benefits-free — there’s no health insurance, no retirement, no fringe benefits. In a larger, better funded institution, one person would be dedicated full-time to almost each of my tasks and duties. But here, I’ve got to learn to juggle all of these different things and still expected to stay on top of a collection of 25,000 objects I don’t know and can’t track. Sigh. I would say I need an intern or six, but training them would just be more work at this point.

Does This Look Like Goodwill?

One of the major projects I’m tasked with at work is preparation for the move of all artifacts. And since I’m in charge of documenting which box every single object ends up in, I’ve been going through all the catalog records to put together a database to track everything for the move. In normal museums, stuff would already be catalogued in a database. Here in the alterna-universe in which I work, that never happened. Why? Probably because it makes sense to do it that way. By best guesstimates, there are about 25,000 objects in the museum’s collections. But nobody knows for sure because there are only 300 entries in the database. Everything else is recorded only on paper in a file cabinet, making any research awfully time consuming if I’m looking for any specific object. I have to trawl through every single piece of paper in a four-drawer file cabinet until I stumble upon one that may or may not be the exact item I seek. So far, I’ve been hunting for three whole days for one specific artifact in our collection and I still have no idea where it is. Only once I find the paper catalog record will I be able to track it down in the collections storage room.

And oh how informative those records are. I thought I’d share with you some of the catalog cards for the more significant items in our collection.

  • unknown metal object, heavily corroded
  • electric fan
  • lid for pot, has metal handle
  • white cotton tote bag, “Tis a Mark of Distinction to be a Reader of the Reader’s Digest”
  • keychain given to new bank customers, Wells Fargo bank

I’m glad the museum is a repository for such historically significant artifacts junk. It’s as if the museum served as an alternative Goodwill all these years, taking the crap that people wanted to get rid of. God forbid someone actually throw out a precious “trash can lid, broken handle.”