The Joys of a Small University Museum

Guest post by Carrie Eaton

As a curator in a small university museum I might be a wee bit biased, BUT I contend that our small and quirky museums make fantastic training grounds as well as places of permanent professional employment. This isn’t just a plug for considering a small university institution as a place to call “home”, but perhaps also a way of seeing YOUR small university museum as the powerhouse it already is. Please bear with me as I share, from my personal experience, some of the joys of working in the fun little place I consider my work home:

The "Vertebrate Room," University of Wisconsin Geology Museum, photo by Carrie Eaton

The “Vertebrate Room,” University of Wisconsin Geology Museum, photo by Carrie Eaton.

Carrie Eaton shows off some of the Greiner Mineral Collection, University of Wisconsin Geology Museum

Carrie Eaton shows off some of the Greiner Mineral Collection, University of Wisconsin Geology Museum.

You get to do it all (or must learn how to very quickly)

We sometimes joke here that our jobs are a study in extremes. As a small museum staff person, you soon find that you are responsible for a lot of things. More often than we’d like to admit, those things lie outside our realm of expertise. One day you’re drilling through a concrete floor to install a new exhibit case, the next day you’re meeting with potential donors to discuss a large donation of specimens. The next morning you’re driving a forklift and moving a 1200 pound fossil stromatolite, and later that afternoon you’re giving a guest lecture to a class of undergraduates. Something needs to be shipped? We are the shipping department. A member of the public called because a strange hole opened up in their backyard? Time to put on the boots. A deadline for a new exhibit opening is looming? It’s a literal “Night at the Museum”. (As far as I can tell, nothing has ever come to life to lend us a hand.)

While this continual change of pace can feel a little frenetic at times, my job is rarely boring. This multifaceted career style means that every time you finally get to sit down and number a few hundred objects at once, it is oddly peaceful and satisfying. I was personally drawn to museum work because I like organizing and I believe that everything has its place. It’s just that sometimes that place has some assembly required first.

The students are right there!

Like many museums small and large, our museum would not be the same without our students. In 1915, students helped make plaster replicas for missing elements and mounted a full mastodon skeleton. Students helped faculty and staff to excavate and collect what makes up the majority of our vertebrate collection. Some of those specimens were put on exhibit by students. They stand tall in our galleries and still “wow” our visitors today.

Emeritus Museum Director Klaus Westphal looks on as undergraduate students assemble an Edmontosaurus annectens vertebral column, circa 1990, University of Wisconsin Geology Museum.

Emeritus Museum Director Klaus Westphal looks on as undergraduate students assemble an Edmontosaurus annectens vertebral column, circa 1990, University of Wisconsin Geology Museum.

Many hands do, in fact, make light work. Whether it’s learning how to prepare fossils in our lab or testing out their tiny-writing skills in our collection, every contribution matters. These students will get something out of it too – a reference letter confirming their dedication to hard work, credit towards volunteer hours, or professional training that bolsters a future in museum work. Some students will present their work at professional meetings, and get to experience that palm-sweaty pressure of finishing a talk in 12 minutes. Others deliver programs at schools and public libraries and learn the fun and unpredictability of working with children. Not all of them continue to work in museums. Some move on to graduate programs and others go off to work in education or the private sector. Some will leave us and go to work in the “big” museums. While they’re here, we get to be a part of their trajectory and help them to see and appreciate the contributions they make to our institution.

Access, access, access

There’s nothing like school colors and a crest to band people together with a sense of university pride and camaraderie. While sometimes it can feel like things at the university level move about as quickly as a banana slug, colleagues can be there to help you out in a pinch. If you’re lucky, they also have fancy equipment and nice tools you can borrow. We have been fortunate enough to be able to dash across campus and run specimens through CT at the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research. We’ve popped in upstairs and run an environmental scan using the Department of Geoscience’s SEM. Our colleagues enjoy showing off the unusual and broad ways in which their techniques can be applied, and we appreciate having access to cutting edge technologies. It sometimes has its downsides (see “banana slug”, above), but our university also takes care of our facilities, our phones, our heating and cooling, our custodial services, and maintenance of the building in which we reside. While we think of ourselves as a staff of few, being on a university campus means that many people contribute to keeping the proverbial ship sailing.

Museum Scientist David Lovelace and Alice Minx check out the early data during CT scans, Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research, photo by Carrie Eaton

Museum Scientist David Lovelace and Alice Minx check out the early data during CT scans, Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research, photo by Carrie Eaton

Projects, projects, projects

Since it’s really just in the nature of our very institutions, the students and staff at a small museum get to work on a little bit of everything. Mount making, crafting exhibit text, object conservation, environmental monitoring, cleaning the museum gallery – all of these are things that we AND our students do every year. Sometimes the list looks a little more like: changing light bulbs, cleaning gum out of the carpet, scrubbing tape off that cabinet, figuring out how that bat got in here, but hey…

It’s not all sunshine and lollipops

Undergraduate and staff tour guide Michael Schiltz talks with first-grade students about a shark fossil embedded in a section of ancient seabed, University of Wisconsin Geology Museum, photo by Jeff Miller.

Undergraduate and staff tour guide Michael Schiltz talks with first-grade students about a shark fossil embedded in a section of ancient seabed, University of Wisconsin Geology Museum, photo by Jeff Miller.

I have yet to hear any museum employee anywhere declare they have everything they need for funding, institutional support, or space. (“Nope, all set for money and space – we’re good here!” – said never by any museum staffer anywhere ever.) So it should come as no surprise that small university museums are no exception. Many of us, in fact, will sometimes have to clamor for attention from our administration and may be overlooked for our shinier campus neighbors. By not being a stand-alone institution you may end up feeling like a small fish in a ridiculously large pond. This just means that you can celebrate a little louder and be a little prouder when you manage to punch above your weight.

Our team is our work-family

Some of the staff, students, and volunteers of the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum – with hats, photo by Neal Lord.

Some of the staff, students, and volunteers of the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum – with hats, photo by Neal Lord.

By far, the BEST parts of working in a small university museum are the people.  I know my colleagues well. We know our students, their majors, and whether or not they like donuts or bacon. We interact directly with the public at our events and see how interested they become after learning something new. We show our students that you can work hard, be professional, and still have fun. Work then becomes a place where you struggle and sweat, get your hands dirty, and then laugh about it later with your museum team. You will never be the “Insert Large and Famous Museum Name Here” but nothing beats the sound of sixty amazed fourth graders seeing your museum for the first time and knowing the huge role you and those who came before you have played in making those exclamations of “Whoa!” and “Awesome!” possible.

Carrie Eaton is Collections Manager of the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum. She tweets for her museum at @UWGeologyMuseum and sometimes as herself at @carrieeaton.

Next time on Cracking the Collections:

November 10 – Look forward to a Old Collections, New Managers post next month by our very own Katie McComas!

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