My Life In Museums
In October of 2000 at the age of 16, I started working in layaway at K-Mart. Within a couple of hours, an adult was screaming and cursing at me because I couldn’t find the order they had been making payments on for months. As it turns out, several employees were stealing things from layaway storage, but that’s not the point. The point of sharing this is that you can probably imagine that working in layaway at K-Mart during the holidays is a tremendously shitty entry into the workforce. So you can likely also imagine that when I heard a friend of mine worked at the Franklin Institute Science Museum (hereinafter referred to as TFI), I was all too happy to leave retail behind and go get paid to play at a museum.
I interviewed for the Camp-In Staff position on January 18, 2002 and, since my ride home was working, I ended up having my first shift that same night. Working Camp-In was a blast. I met a ton of new people, got to do some informal education, and made more money than I did at K-Mart. Despite the fact that a novel (pictured right) I read in middle school took place during this exact program at TFI, it had never occurred to me that there was a job in which I could work in a museum, yet there I was. A few months later the pot sweetened. Upon turning 18, I was allowed to work the full overnight shift! Sixteen hour shifts at $7.25 per hour when you have absolutely zero bills or financial responsibility is pretty legit.
I ended up working at TFI on and off through 2017. Always part-time, though at times two or three part-time jobs would have me working more hours for less money than my full-time coworkers. I have a complicated relationship with TFI. I met some of my closest friends there. I learned from some amazingly brilliant folks. I had experiences that changed my life for the better. But I also had some terrible experiences over the years and have watched from the sidelines in recent years as they decimated their staff, shied away from defending science, and moved away from their mission. But that's another post altogether.
In college, I worked for Walt Disney World as a part of the Disney College Program in 2003 and 2005. My experiences with the mouse have shaped a lot of my work in the time since. They were and continue to be the standard in providing excellent guest experience and their model is (finally) being adapted in museums around the world.
After graduating from Temple University with a degree in Film & Media Arts, I held a series of random jobs throughout 2009 and 2010 as I tried to land on my feet in the Great Recession. I took tourist photos at Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach, worked for a shady company doing Nielsen research at a movie theater in South Philly, hung out in Kate Gosselin’s basement for a few weeks as a Story Assistant on the tenth season of Dancing With the Stars, and was a substitute teacher in South Jersey. By the time the summer of 2010 rolled around, I was desperate for steady work and income, and found myself back in a familiar place.
I spent the first half of that summer working as a counselor for TFI’s Discovery Camp during the week and probably drinking too much on the weekends. Around the middle of summer, a friend of mine mentioned that her friend was the executive director at Elfreth’s Alley, a historic site in Philadelphia, and she needed a weekend cashier in the gift shop. I applied, interviewed, got the job, and never saw the executive director again (more on that in a future post).
Something about Elfreth’s Alley hooked me. I don’t know if it was the charm of working in a 250-year-old row home, the overall freedom and lack of oversight I had, or that, due to the departure of the director, I found myself keeping the organization running with my weekday counterpart (and the occasional cameo from a board member). Whatever the case was, I was invigorated by the organization’s potential. I sketched out floor plans for a planned expansion, created new programs, and began connecting with other organizations in the area to build our audience. After eight months with no director, I ended up getting promoted. It wasn’t because of all of the things I just listed and, although I was replacing both the director and the bookkeeper, that was not reflected in title or pay. But we’ll get into both of those things later. It’s way too much to explain in this broad overview of a career summary.
In my time as Museum Operations Manager and Administrator at Elfreth’s, I grew our audience and reached new demographics. I expanded beyond the one lecture-based tour that we had by creating dynamic, engaging programs and telling our stories in new ways. I handled the finances of the organization to the best of my ability, armed only with the Quickbooks For Dummies book that served as the only training/orientation I received. Consequently, I learned marketing and development by necessity to try and save the sinking ship that was Elfreth’s Alley. Apparently, an executive director in the past blew through the endowment and, just prior to my hiring, the board was considering closing the museum and converting it into a rental property. So it was a good thing that I had Quickbooks For Dummies at my side.
Running Elfreth’s Alley for a few years is what made me consider museum work as a career, but it was the next steps that gave me focus. Toward the end of my tenure at the Alley, I was burnt out. I applied for an entry-level job in membership at the Academy of Natural Sciences, recognizing that I needed to both take on less responsibility and more money, which wouldn’t be hard to do. Somewhere in that process, someone at the Academy insisted that I interview for Director of Visitor Services instead. More on that interview later, but the idea here is that suggestion changed the trajectory of my career.
During the application process, I heard about the Greater Philadelphia Visitor Services Symposium. This was a meeting of about 40 visitor services professionals at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the person with whom I interviewed for the director role was speaking, as was the former director. I felt like I had to attend. This ended up being my first experience with professional development, and I loved it. I didn’t end up getting the job, but a few months later I did end up in a similar role.
Philadelphia’s children’s museum, one of the first of its kind, is called the Please Touch Museum (PTM). I have heard every conceivable joke about this unfortunately named institution and I promise you that none of the jokes are as funny as some of the other names on the table when this museum was being created in the mid-1970s. My personal favorite is "Reeling Feeling Group Grope." I promise I am not making that up.
In what was beginning to become a trend in my career, I was hired to replace two people. Both the director and manager of visitor services at PTM had moved on to other things, and I was hired as Visitor Services Manager to replace both of them with the caveat that if things went well, I would be director within a year. And I believed that, but more on that later. Again, this is just an introduction to provide a foundation for all of the stories to follow.
As a new leader in a visitor services department, I contacted the person who planned the Greater Philadelphia Visitor Services Symposium to see if she was doing it again. And that’s how I ended up being a part of the planning team for the 2013 Philadelphia Visitor Experience Conference, which eventually led to the formation of the Visitor Experience Group (VEX).
VEX was not my only extra-curricular activity. I joined the Philly chapter of Emerging Museum Professionals during my time at Elfreth’s Alley and remained involved for many years. I created the Philly EMP web and social media presence, grew our reach, and shifted focus away from happy hours and onto programs specifically designed to help EMPs get work. I served on the board of the Museum Council of Greater Philadelphia and on the Corporate History Committee for the American Association of State and Local History. Who needs free time?
After my time at PTM went up, somewhat literally, in flames, I ended up selling my soul and working for the actual devil: Wells Fargo. Apparently Wells had its own little history museums around the country and, in what at this point was very clearly a trend, I was hired on to replace two people. At least in this case, I was eventually given the higher title and allowed to hire someone to take on the other role. Years later, I even got the pay bump to match! I had only intended to work at Wells for a few months while I looked for real museum work, but a few things changed that. One was travel. In my first three months I was flown to San Diego to work a Cinco de Mayo event and flown to San Francisco for a meeting. Another was the people. My boss, my coworkers in Philly, and the few people in the department I got to know in my travels were all great. The third factor was money. While I was making less than I did at PTM at first, Wells was my first semblance of job security after working at two financially unstable institutions. Finally, the workload. I went from 60-80 hour weeks at the Alley to 55 hour weeks at PTM to a 40 hour week with bank holidays. People at Wells worked slow, what they’d give you a week to do I could take care of in ten minutes or spend an hour to really nail it. The extra work I did might take up another day or two. But it allowed me ample time to work on EMP and VEX stuff.
I ended up being there for seven years. The honeymoon phase came crashing down spectacularly, this time in the form of a flood instead of a fire. That’s not to say we didn’t have a few fires, but they didn’t coincide with layoffs and a change in leadership that eventually led to the closure of 11 of the 12 museums. Today, that museum is an empty room and I spend my days as the Guest Experience Manager at the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science.
Throughout my career, I’ve also taken side gigs at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts as an usher and Historic Philadelphia Inc. (HPI) as a visitor services associate. The point of the HPI gig was to earn a few extra bucks while experiencing frontline work in a few different venues - they were in charge of the Betsy Ross House, Franklin Square, and the Historic Philadelphia Center. Working the front desk at these venues helped inform my visitor experience training programs. The gig at the Mann was also a way to have a different frontline experience, but I mainly worked there for the free concerts. And as I mentioned before, throughout most of this time I was working some sort of part-time job at TFI.
The point of this introduction is to provide a little bit of background for the content of this collection of essays/google document I never share with anyone. The experiences and suggestions that follow will all pull from these experiences. I will have plenty of stories to share, all of which will be fairly blunt and honest descriptions of my experiences from my point of view.
The point of writing whatever this turns out to be is to offer a different perspective on museum work and to offer suggestions for how we can improve the field. It is also to encourage open, transparent communication about the more toxic elements of museum work that are often hinted at, but almost never openly discussed. It is essential that we have direct and honest conversations about what is wrong with the field and our personal experiences (both negative and positive) if we actually want to change things for the better.
All that being said, I know this field is extremely afraid of change and most of our institutions and supporting organizations are firmly dedicated to maintaining the status quo. I also know that, if nothing changes, I’ll probably never get hired for another museum job after writing this. But I love museums and I hate wasted potential, so here we go.