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 tours, 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.
Having 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.