6 Shockingly Brutal Realities Of Working For A Museum
To the average bystander, working in a museum probably seems like a pretty cushy job. You dust some pots, talk about Rembrandt, fight the exhibits when they come to life, adjust your tie, and go home. But as someone who works in the museum field, I can tell you that the average day on the job is much more horrific than you think ...
Working In A Museum Can Literally Kill You
Indiana Jones went through his fair share of danger, but he actually might have been safer dodging booby-trap arrows than he would have been at home. There are two main types of hazardous objects that you might stumble upon in a museum: objects that are inherently dangerous and objects that we made dangerous, usually in a misguided attempt at preservation and because we're really, really dumb.
The first category covers obvious things, like dangerous animal or plant specimens, but also man-made items. One day I was wandering around in collections storage when I happened upon a box labeled "DANGER! Poison darts!" Obviously, I opened it immediately, and what do you know, inside were about a half-dozen blowgun darts dipped in poisonous frog juices from the central Amazon. Beyond natural poisons, there's always just good old-fashioned knives and guns to worry about, not all of which have been unloaded before being donated.
"That's pointed at the highway, so make sure to keep the safety on."
Some things don't come in dangerous but get progressively more deadly with time, like silver nitrate photo film. At a historic house museum where I worked, my supervisor was going through some old photographs when she stumbled upon a box full of silver nitrate film negatives. She knew it was silver nitrate because, upon opening the box and getting a whiff of the fumes that had been storing up, she became violently ill. She got lucky -- silver nitrate film can spontaneously combust if it builds up enough gas and gets too hot. There's no way to salvage the film; when we find it, we have to call the fire department to destroy it.
Which seems like a waste to burn without any Nazis around.
Back in the day, collectors of taxidermied animals (and other cultural objects made of animal and plant products) discovered that there are a whole lot of insects that would love to turn their priceless collections into an all-you-can-eat buffet. Their response to this problem was to coat all organic objects with a nice heaping layer of arsenic or cyanide, because the past was underwear-on-head stupid. Don't laugh; one day we'll be the past, and the future will be cursing our names.
Most People Will Never See The Coolest Stuff At A Museum
On average, only anywhere from 1 percent to 10 percent of the items in a museum ever see the light of day. There can be several reasons for this. If an item is broken or degraded, it may not be stable enough to display. Some objects may be duplicates of others, poor examples of a style or time period, or unable to be displayed for cultural reasons (we'll get to that in a minute). Those of us who have the knowledge and clearance to wander around unsupervised in storage can stumble upon some pretty awesome stuff. I've personally found a box of items pilfered from the wreckage of the Great Chicago Fire and a set of WWI-era surgeon's equipment that still had all its original glass vials of medicine along with some device labeled "uterine speculum," which I try hard to not think about.
On rare occasions, even the museum doesn't know what it has hidden in storage. One time we were going through a bundle of objects that had been found on a mummy from Peru. Two staff members opened up a woven purse and found a khipu, an Incan counting tool made of knotted strings. Khipus are very rare, and it was incredible enough that our museum had two of them already; finding a third was downright miraculous. Fun fact: Archaeologists dance really funny when they get excited.
Donors Think They Can Do Whatever They Want To The Exhibits (And Sometimes Do)
When you picture a museum, you probably think of something like the Louvre or the Smithsonian: rich, architecturally intimidating, and well-connected. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of museums in the United States are tiny. They tend to have only one or two paid staff members (if they have any at all) and rely heavily on volunteers to pick up the slack. Until I was hired -- and I'm only part-time -- the museum I work for had only two full-time staff and a whole lot of volunteers. That's great, but this particular set of volunteers often took it upon themselves to move things around without telling anyone, which completely messed up the organizational scheme of collections storage and even damaged some objects. They didn't do it on purpose; they just didn't know what they were doing, and no one who did could spare the time to teach them.
"Hmm ... one leg is longer than the others. Grab a saw -- this seems like an easy fix."
That's why funding is pretty important -- not just for us but for the people who want to see our cool shit. Some university-associated museums have been forced to sell off parts of their collection when the college is going through a rough patch. Even the places that you would expect to be, ahem, very well-endowed, don't have as much money as they would like.
Since donors know they've got us by our charity balls, they can be really demanding before, during, and even after their donation. Many of them will pitch a fit if they don't see their donation on the exhibition floor, even after we explain that most objects aren't displayed. Or else they'll think that they can come by whenever and go behind the scenes and touch things.
"How much to feel up the Venus?"
A few years ago, one donor contacted the museum wanting to donate his collection of ancient stone ax heads. He apparently had his own private helicopter, so it was agreed that he would just fly the objects out himself, land at a nearby airfield, and then someone from the museum would come pick them up. But when he was flying over the college campus where the museum is located, he decided that the quad in front of the student union was just as good a place as any to land his helicopter, so he just touched down on the grass and carried the trashcan full of axes down the sidewalk to the museum. Security was not pleased.
Museum "Security" Is A Joke, And Robberies Are Common
Forget about lasers, weighted stands, and unbreakable glass. For most museums, security gets only about as fancy as a locked door. The one large museum where I interned for a summer had security guards and keycard entry, but they didn't even work. Nicolas Cage could slip in and out of there with no more trouble than the acquisition of a fake mustache and glasses (because, obviously, we go on high alert when we see Nicolas Cage).
A museum is no place for a guy with no sense of when a torch is inappropriate.
If your museum is lucky enough to be attached to a college or university, someone might spring for a basic alarm system, but usually even the most precious and irreplaceable items in the collection are pretty much up for grabs -- which, yes, happens all the goddamn time. But it's not always professional art thieves with their tuxedos and tiny mustaches: Some patrons and even donors think nothing of taking whatever they can get their grubby hands on. One time our museum had an after-hours event to showcase a bunch of recently donated items. Most, if not all, of the people who attended were donors to or volunteers at the museum. As we were cleaning up, we discovered that one of the donated objects had been swiped off the table near the door. It wasn't even valuable; it was a cardboard cube used to hold sewing pins.
We Have Many Exhibits That Are Almost Certainly Haunted
My museum had a double-sided drum in collections made up of two human skull caps placed end-to-end and covered in animal hides, and I once had to carefully document a gourd jar that was tastefully decorated with five human jaw bones, teeth and all. The coup de grace, however, came when I unfolded a Nazi flag at my history museum and found it stained with what I am 99.9 percent certain was dried blood.
It could've been ketchup, but shitty dry fries seem like something
the Nazis would've been into.
My anthropology museum was on a college campus that was interspersed with about a dozen Native American burial mounds from before white settlers ever set foot in the area (yes, it was literally built on an Indian graveyard). In the first hundred years of the college, several of the mounds were dug up for studies, and the remains and any objects inside were brought into the museum and used as displays and educational material. A fraternity on campus back in the 1960s through the '80s used to steal one of the "mummies" every Halloween and use it as a prop at parties. If there's a better way to end up haunted, I can't think of it.
Nothing kills a party quite like when all the punch turns to blood at the stroke of midnight.
Thanks to time, legislation, and some much-needed introspection, museums and the people who work in them have come to think of these practices as the disrespectful, unprofessional, and generally awful things that they are. However, while we've tried hard to put the kibosh on collecting anyone else's grandparents, a good majority of the remains dug up from around the world in the past are still being held in collections. In the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known to us as NAGPRA, has set some standards for how Native American remains and sacred objects should be handled. At my anthropology museum, all NAGPRA-covered human remains (anything that wasn't "freely given or naturally shed," like hair, fingernails, or umbilical cords) are kept in a special section of one of the collections rooms and are not allowed to be used under any circumstances. Those umbilical cords, though, all bets are off. They make festive Christmas decorations!
Much Of What You See In A Museum Is Fake
Reproductions can be very valuable to a museum, usually in teaching or hands-on collections, where nobody cares if your bratty kid throws it against the wall or uses it to pick his nose. With that in mind, it's difficult to say how many objects specifically are "fakes," because A) museums won't always admit to it, and B) they don't always know. For instance, we once got a large donation from the will of a very rich woman who had spent a lot of her life collecting "ethnic art." One item was a large terracotta sculpture from Central Africa. For a long time, the museum was concerned that it may be a fake, since these particular styles of statues are very widely forged. The only way we could figure out for sure if it was authentic was to cart this large, heavy, delicate statue to a local hospital and put it through a CAT scanner to see if it was made of only a few distinct pieces (as the real ones are), or cobbled together from a bunch of different pieces of broken sculptures (as the "fakes" are). It was authentic after all, but a whole bunch of other objects from the same collection weren't.
Sometimes we even have to gussy up the real things. The fossil of Sue the dinosaur in the main hall of the Field Museum in Chicago, for instance, has a false skull on it, because the real thing was too heavy to stay mounted on the rest of the skeleton. The actual skull is in its own case on the balcony above. The museum at University College London displays the mummified body of statesman and philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. His head, however, is in collections storage in its own box. It was on his body for a while, but it started to fall off, so it was removed and replaced with a wax replica. Decide for yourself which scenario is more unsettling.
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