12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Museums
In the United States, museums draw more than 800 million visitors each year. But while they welcome millions of tourists, field-trip-bound schoolchildren, and culture vultures into their exhibition halls, much of the real excitement occurs behind the scenes. Read on for some stories about what life is like working among the world's most precious paintings and dinosaur bones, from the massive amount of work it takes to set up exhibitions to the one rule museum visitors break more than any other.
1. PUTTING TOGETHER FOSSILS TAKES A LOT OF PATIENCE.
Fossils are some of the most interesting—and fragile—artifacts a museum can display, but it takes extra care to bring them to the museum floor. Some museums, like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, employ full-time fossil preparators, whose job consists of removing the fossil from whatever natural encasing it was found in (such as dirt, mud, or plants) and restoring it to display-worthy form. Preparators use tools like small picks and brushes to gradually chip the natural encasing away, until the fossilized bone or other material is revealed. Some fossils can take almost a year to be completely revealed.
But while small fossils require painstaking attention, larger fossils—like dinosaur bones—create additional problems. When the American Museum of Natural History set up its model of the Titanosaur (a dinosaur thirty feet longer than its blue whale), it was forced to position the dinosaur’s head peeking outside of the exhibit due to the model’s sheer size.
2. EXHIBITS CAN TAKE A REALLY, REALLY LONG TIME TO SET UP.
It can take weeks to set up exhibits—and it’s not a regular nine-to-five kind of job. Ivan Campbell, who works as the technical coordinator at the National Geographic Museum, told the Washington Post that one particular exhibit, Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archeology, came to the museum in 12 tractor-trailers and took workers a solid three weeks of 10-hour shifts to set up. Other exhibits are even more time-consuming—when the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium wanted to house an exhibit about the Titanic, the largest show the museum had ever seen, the museum had to completely remodel most of its second floor to make room. All told, it took museum staff more than eight months to prep the museum and set up the exhibit.
3. SOME MUSEUMS EMPLOY LIVE ANIMAL HANDLERS.
5thLargestinAfrica, via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Not all museum workers deal with inanimate objects—some are specifically hired to handle live creatures. At the American Museum of Natural History, some employees work with a handful of live animals that roam particular exhibits—the museum recently opened an exhibit on crocodiles that includes four species of live crocs, all of which require a dedicated staff member to tend to their every need. Animal handlers take care of everything from live crocodiles to butterflies, and are responsible for feeding the animals, keeping their habitats clean, and ensuring that they remain a healthy (living) part of the museum experience.
4. NOT EVERYTHING A MUSEUM HAS CAN BE SEEN.
Storage at Städtische Galerie Liebieghaus, Frankfurt, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
What you see isn’t always what you get when it comes to museums. Most museums have collections so huge, they have to house parts of them both behind the scenes in storage and in warehouses off-site. The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex, houses millions of their artifacts in on-site storage throughout the museums. Some workers even have offices right next to cases of artifacts that aren’t on display (like the world’s longest beard, which is kept in storage inside the National Museum of Natural History). When the Smithsonian decided to begin moving some artifacts off-site, in 1983, it took seven years to haul all 30 million items to the storage facility.
5. SOMETIMES, MUSEUMS ARE THE KEY TO DISCOVERING A NEW SPECIES.
Olinguito. Image credit: Mark Gurney, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Finding a new species is an exciting discovery, and it doesn’t always require scientists to go on perilous expeditions into the wilderness. A handful of new species have been discovered simply by going back through a museum’s extensive record. Take, for instance, the olinguito, the first new species of carnivorous mammal discovered in the Americas in 35 years. Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution discovered the new species in 2013 not on a trip to South America (where the mammal originates), but by searching through the collections of 18 different museums.
6. THEY SOMETIMES HOUSE DANGEROUS ARTIFACTS.
Museums can be home to any number of potentially dangerous artifacts, such as historic weaponry or live crocodiles. But occasionally, artifacts that might not seem particularly dangerous can also be deadly. Take the London Science Museum’s collection of materials used by the 19th-century scientist Sir William Crookes, for example. Crookes was the first person to discover thallium, a poisonous element, and the first to build cathode-ray tubes, which went on to be used in televisions and computers. Crooke also wasn’t particularly neat during his experiments with dangerous elements like thallium and radium—meaning a lot of his equipment is still contaminated with radioactive material.
7. THEY’RE READY FOR THIEVES.
Museums that display priceless works of art don’t rely on just any sort of hanger to do the job. Instead, they use special security hangers [PDF] (which require a key to detach the frame from the wall) to deter would-be art thieves from nabbing their next big steal. Other museums take a more low-tech approach to keeping their prized items safe—Noah Charney, a professor of art history, wrote in Salon that some museums actually put marbles between a painting and the wall, so that if someone tries to remove the artwork, the clattering of marbles hitting the floor will alert museum workers to the attempted theft.
8. PEOPLE ACTUALLY TRY TO BUY THE ART.
Museums are home to a lot of famous, high-priced artwork—some owned by the museum and some lent by art collectors or aficionados. But some patrons fail to understand that the mission of a museum is stewardship, not commercial sales, and will ask employees how much they want for a given object. That's when museum workers have to explain the art isn't for sale.
On the blog “When You Work At A Museum,” one anonymous museum worker submitted a letter from a patron asking if the museum could help them expand their collection of lapel pins. The museum had to explain the difference between a museum and a gallery—and gently remind the interested buyer that that particular museum had nothing to do with lapel pins.
9. THEY DEAL WITH BREAKAGE MORE THAN THEY’D LIKE.
Knocking over exhibits or pieces of artwork at a museum might be the most mortifying thing that could happen to a visitor (even if it makes for a great viral video), but it happens more often than you might think. According to several museum workers on Reddit, visitors disregard the “look, don’t touch” rule more than perhaps any other rule in a museum. One worker at an art museum in the Netherlands said that it happens “all the freaking time,” while others told stories of confused museum-goers who accidentally sat on a bed or column—without realizing that their chosen place of respite was actually a delicate piece of an exhibit.
10. BEHIND-THE-SCENES ART CAN BE JUST AS IMPORTANT AS EXHIBITS.
Sometimes, museum workers need to spruce up the hidden parts of the museum for a special guest—even if no one else will see it. Before then-President Bill Clinton visited New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994, the museum staff set about repainting the underground passageways where he would be traveling with his Secret Service. They even hung up vintage photos of the museum along the route—photos that still hang to this day.
11. MUSEUM WORKERS DON’T MAKE A LOT OF MONEY.
Working at a museum—whether it's tending to live crocodiles or painting exhibits—might seem like a great job, but most don't go into it for the money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for an archivist, curator, or museum worker in 2015 was $46,710 a year, or $22.46 an hour. That's slightly below the national median household income, and well below the average salary for workers with a Master’s degree (which both archival and curatorial jobs usually require).
The low pay can be a struggle for some museum workers. One museum worker on Reddit said they had friends and colleagues who had to moonlight as waitresses or babysitters to make ends meet.
12. THEY DON’T WANT YOUR GRANDPA’S ASHTRAY COLLECTION.
Museums are meant to serve as protectors of the past, but not every piece of the past is necessarily worth the same level of protection. “A museum has a (very) limited amount of space to store artifacts, so the staff have to prioritize what gets stored,” explains one poster on When You Work At A Museum. “Most of the time, your mother’s collection of Mason jars doesn’t make the cut.”
Museums also have to refuse items that have an unclear provenance or lack documentation—if workers don't know where the item came from, there’s no way of making sure it wasn’t stolen or obtained on the black market. Anna Dhody, curator of the Mütter Museum, said during her Reddit AMA that she once had to turn away chunks of a Peruvian mummy that someone tried to drop off at the museum without proper paperwork. "It was well intentioned, but we cannot accept things like that, and [the chunks] were graciously returned," she explained.