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The Life in a Day of a Museum Assistant Part II

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 23 May 2011

A light at the end of the tunnel
After six months of waiting for a museum job to at the very least be advertised, never mind getting an interview (during which time I made ends meet by working my fingers to the bone in a restaurant for an amount worth less than peanuts), the most delightful twist of fate guided me along the serendipitously lined pavement back to the Grant Museum at which I had volunteered a few years ago. My intention was to surround myself with, and absorb information from, a particular collection of specimens in order to prepare for a job interview at another museum. Upon walking through the door I was leapt upon by Jack, the learning and access manager, who told me of a position at the Grant Museum that had come up that very morning. A few weeks later I strode into my new kingdom, as an adult; full-time, useful to society, in the real world, working in a real museum and being paid real money.

I mention the six month period of barren job vacancy websites purely to encourage anyone else in my position not to give up. It is hard, there is strong competition and you will struggle. Not because you are not good enough, but because would-be museum staff outnumber museum job vacancies a gazillion to one. If a goal is worth reaching, it will require a struggle to achieve it. (‘Nicholls, 2011’ in case you want to later quote that clearly ingenious level of wisdom).

Living the dream
I have now been here for three weeks and can honestly say I love my job so much that sometimes I feel guilty that someone actually pays me for it. Though just in case the director of UCL Museums and Collections is reading this- I really appreciate being able to pay my rent, so thank you! But seriously, imagine someone paid you to eat and sleep? Or watch your favourite television shows? Craziness! Anyway, as excited as I was to be starting a ‘real museum job’, the past three weeks have made me realise just how lucky I was to run into Jack that morning. You see, the Grant Museum is no ordinary museum to work in. For starters I am surrounded by a team of people that are so fabulously geeky and full of inexplicable quirks that I finally feel normal and at home. Secondly, the museum itself is a perfect combination of all things spectacular. As it is part of the university collections, the focus of the museum is as much on teaching as it is on public engagement. In my three short weeks I have been involved in giving Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy: Reptile Casetours, teaching school groups, reconfiguring the delightfully imaginative phylogeny and taxonomy on the museum’s database, aiding art classes, providing adoption support (of museum specimens, not babies), designing leaflets, drawing posters and organising a treasure hunt. The last of which was the most fun I’ve had since I dressed in a gorilla suit and frightened members of the public by giving out free hugs in Trafalgar Square (for charity, not purely my own enjoyment.)

One of my favourite aspects of my job is the tour-guiding and answering questions about the exhibits. Typically, after I have given a tour, I retreat to my desk to get on with my work but surreptitiously sporadically observe the museum guests for a short time as they look around the collections. Body language and whispered snippets of conversation let me know if there is help to be given and questions to be answered. I find this encourages them to ask further, much more so than saying “are there any questions” in front of everyone else on the tour. I have noted on many occasions a visible increase in enthusiasm as we converse over specimens. The museum is not an environment that just gives me job satisfaction, it keeps on giving. Every day a new school pupil, tour attendee or member of the public thanks me with the enthusiasm and wide eyed-wonder of an individual who has just discovered something amazing. This interactive experience, where the guest has access to the behind the scenes staff, is a treasure rarely available in museums, primarily for logistical reasons.

There are also benefits that blow my mind in the category of work-environment-personal-preference. For example, our ‘office’ is in the museum. As in, in the museum! The only thing separating us along one wall of the office from the visitors in the collections is an Indian one-horned rhino skeleton. I have a rat on my desk, a blue tongue skink skeleton behind my monitor and a box of dinosaur toys on my right hand side. Yes dear reader that is how cool our museum is! But it is not just us, oh no. The Grant Museum belongs to a plethora of collections including the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, and the UCL Art, Geology, Ethnography and Biological Anthropology Collections. Entering the campus of UCL is like walking through the door of Willy Wonker’s factory into a haven of culture, education and enthusiastic staff members just waiting to show you their wares. Whatever your interest, one of us will be able to widen your eyes with excitement.

Two of my favourite thingsHaving alienated most of my friends and family members by this point with sentences such as “I’m living the dream man” and “I want the weekend to end so I can go back to work”, people ask me (perhaps with a dash of jealousy and a hint of hope in their voice) “Aren’t there any downsides to your job Emma?” Well, the thing that ‘keeps it real’ is the washing up. We hold a lot of spectacular events at the Grant Museum and all are followed by a gratuitous wine reception in the museum. The receptions serve as a fantastic opportunity for guests to visit the collections, especially those who work through our opening hours of 1pm-5pm, but it is yours truly who is responsible for the aftermath and who goes through industrial quantities of Fairy, preferably before the museum begins to smell like a brewery. In my three weeks thus far, I have washed up all of the wine glasses for every event. Upon washing the millionth glass for the gazillionth time, Jack consoled my wrinkled fingers by telling them that he had spent seven years washing glasses at the Grant Museum. Having thought about that for a moment I realised that, the chance would be a very fine thing indeed.

7 Responses to “The Life in a Day of a Museum Assistant Part II”

  • 1
    Seb PW wrote on 25 May 2011:

    A charming tale of a dream come true. It is clear your passion and love of the museum will enhance any visitor that comes to see the collections, and brighten their day with your boundless enthusiasm. If the worst part of your job is the washing of glasses, then yes I think you have perhaps the best job in the world! That said, I think the Grant Museum is just as lucky to have you join the team. A more bright and colourful individual would be very difficult to come by. May your glass washing last many years hence.

  • 2
    Jane wrote on 25 May 2011:

    Your enthusiasm is so infectious! Must come and see the museum in its new home…

  • 3
    Morgo wrote on 25 May 2011:

    I wish I had come today! You will see me next week!

  • 4
    Lydia wrote on 26 May 2011:

    Having been a museum student from UCL hunting for a job I know how it feels. I was lucky to get a data input job for a museum and felt over the moon just to be given the opportunity to work at the museum. The Grant Museum is fascinating and I hope that you continue to enjoy every moment you spend there. A great entertaining blog – thanks!

  • 5
    ucfbeln wrote on 27 May 2011:

    Wow, thanks for the great feedback everyone!

    I do *indeed* have the best job in the world! 😀

    I’m so pleased you were successful in your quest also, congratulations to you too! (Albeit belatedly I guess!?) I know the ‘over the moon’ feeling of which you speak. Bravo to us! Haha!

    Jane and Margo-
    I have walked the wolf and polished the pangolin ready for your visits! I looking forward to meeting you!


  • 6
    Jane wrote on 27 May 2011:

    Now I really HAVE to come!!

  • 7
    Thank Furcoat it’s Friday | Fur Coat, No Knickers wrote on 27 July 2012:

    […] 4) The Guardian rounded up 50 fun free things to do in London during the Olympics and there were even a couple of surprises for this old-timer. It’s always nice to know what’s going on in your city, right?  Definitely need to check out the Grant Museum, still. [Picture: UCL] […]

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