This post was contributed by Jillian Allison, President of the Denver EMP group, and Assistant Director in charge of collections and programs at the Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls and Toys. A few weeks ago she asked if she could do something different with our “Career Paths” category, looking at the benefits and challenges of working for a small museum. We, of course, welcomed the idea and are happy to share her post with you today.
While I am teaching workshops at my museum I am often asked “Is this what you do all day?” I tell people no, this is only one of the many very different things I do all day. I’m also the person who answered the phone when you called for directions, trained the volunteer who greeted you at the door, created the text on the exhibitions and wrote the grant for collections storage materials. I am one of the two people who ensure that the museum opens every day.
People then usually ask “So one day you’re going to work for one of the big museums, right?” When I originally started to pursue a career in museum the answer would have been yes, but now after interning and working in a number of positions, from registrar to development assistant to educator at several museums, most with a staff of 15 or fewer, my answer is “I love working in a small museum. This is where I want to be.”
Working in a small museum has its challenges. There are budget restrictions and more often than not, I have to try to figure out how to make ideas happen with no budget. Relying so heavily on donated materials and volunteers can be difficult. It sometimes feels impossible to schedule vacations or opportunities for training and that I’m putting an extra burden on my co-worker by taking a sick day. Constantly changing hats between educator, grant writer, curator and collections manager while facing numerous interruptions from visitors and volunteers requires flexibility and dedication to constantly learn more, refocus and a knowledge of when to just forgo the plan and see where the day is going to take you.
Small museums have enormous rewards though. I am able to enact change relatively quickly, take risks and evaluate outcomes. It may seem counterintuitive but in a small museum, little stands in the way of change. All museums face budgetary restraints and the staff is pressed for time but in a small museum there is less red tape, bureaucracy and often the calendar is more flexible. It is incredibly rewarding to oversee a project from the seed of an idea through the planning stages to implementation and then seeing the visitors and participants as they experience the final product. This face time is a chance from me to find out first hand, directly from visitors, how they react and interact with our exhibits and programs, how they are learning and what they would like to see change. The small scale also allows us to take some risks without putting a lot on the line.
In order to thrive in a small museum there are a few tips and tricks I try to keep in mind. First, figure out a way to take vacations, sick days and opportunities for training. My museum is open only 5 days a week and we have some well trained volunteers who can run the museum on their own for a day. Having a healthy, knowledgeable co-worker who isn’t burning out is worth a few hectic days every once in a while. Don’t be afraid to advocate for areas that need more attention in the museum, for your museum and for yourself. Set priorities but also try to stay flexible. Ask for help from your director, your board and your audience to set priorities. Seek out opportunities to connect with professionals
at other museums or in other fields to keep ideas fresh and keep yourself from getting bogged down in the day to day. Join a professional group or network. Explore free or low cost training opportunities, especially webinars. Working in a small museum you are going to need to constantly enhance your knowledge base. Organizations like the American Association of State and Local History, the Northeast Document Conservation Center and the American Association of the Museums all offer free or low cost webinars. Finally, every once in a while remind yourself that it’s okay if you don’t get it all done today.
Does anyone else have words of advice for those of us working in a small museum? What challenges and benefits do you see in a small museum?