When you’re traveling, the first thing many people look up (after the best restaurants in town) is which museums are nearby. From house museums that transport you back in time to massive federally funded institutions with floors and floors of exhibits, there are thousands of museums ready to teach and inspire every one of us.
Having visited and volunteered at museums since I was a kid, and armed with both a Bachelor of Science in Public History and some words of wisdom from a few current museum staffers, I’ve learned a lot about the inner workings of our favorite historical centers. So, grab your tickets and visitor badges and get ready to take a tour behind the scenes of the places we’d be so bored without.
Every Old Thing Doesn't Belong in a Museum
Okay, this one’s going to break a few brains for sure. You’ve definitely heard the “those antiques belong in a museum; you shouldn’t be able to buy those” arguments. But, just like how you only have so much closet space to store your wardrobe, museums only have a certain amount of space to house their collections.
And, since storing and conserving pieces costs money, curators look to acquire pieces that are unique, rare, culturally significant, or round out a part of their collection that’s currently missing.
So, your grandmother’s doilies (while beautiful) don’t necessarily belong in a museum. But, if you ever have a question about whether something should or shouldn’t be included in their collection, just ask!
Maintaining Collections Is Really Expensive
The cost of owning a home in America is a big challenge nowadays; imagine having to pay for special storage equipment for thousands of artifacts in a large building, on top of the salaries of the staff that take care of those artifacts. For one historic garment that’s being stored, you need archival-approved tissue paper, non-acidic storage boxes, and a climate-controlled space. It takes so much more money to run a functioning museum than most people realize.
Marrena Greer, the Executive Director of the Southern Appalachian Historical Association which runs the immersive Hickory Ridge History Museum, explains “It would be great if visitors understood that little funds come in … but we still have bills to pay like everyone else.” And their story is like many: they “receive NO federal or state funding and very little local funding … [and] are supported by donations, memberships, and grants (when [they’re] lucky enough to be granted one).”
If the Tours Cost Money, It's for a Reason
Most museums are non-profits and rely on donations, regular donors, and grants to keep them running. They’ve got bills to pay too and charging you a small tour fee is one of the ways they can help pay the power bill, so-to-speak.
So, before you scoff at the $10 entry price, think about how much your energy bill went up this past heatwave, look around the room of the large air-conditioned or heated museum you’re about to walk through, and maybe add a few extra dollars to the donation box.
They Love to Watch You Discover the Exhibit's Magic, Too
Julia Kraft, the Assistant Registrar at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, said it to me best, “I believe a museum should be a place of discovery, engagement, and inspiration. Visitors should feel free to chat, respond, and experience!”
You love the stuff on display, I love it, and the staff love it, too! There’s nothing that warms the heart when you’re bogged down with paperwork than seeing someone’s barely contained excitement over a piece you’ve looked at hundreds of times.
In Marrena’s experience, getting to educate the young minds that visit Hickory Ridge is the best part. “When we have school groups here on field trips, it is so wonderful to see the faces of the kids when they are learning something new.”
Reading Something Online Doesn't Make a Person an Expert
The internet is the great democratizer of knowledge, for the most part (curse you, paywalls). But museum staff are highly educated in their field, and that goes right down to the docents who lead your tours or volunteers who are working their way up the staff ladder. Sure, a docent for a state history museum might not be able to rattle off to you the last name of the senators from your district in 1962, but they know the exhibits in and out.
The tour won't be fun for anyone if people want to fight about something they read on a subreddit. If you want to have an educated conversation, it's great to enrich the tour with an interesting perspective. But as Marrena puts it beautifully, “Reading something on Wikipedia does not make anyone an expert in history.”
Unless It Says Differently, Don't Touch Anything
Unless it’s a kids' educational museum, the exhibits aren’t anyone's personal playground. We all have dirt and residue on our hands, so they're best kept to ourselves at museums. It’s a privilege to be able to see these historically and culturally significant things up close. The last thing you probably want to do is make the news for ruining a one-of-a-kind art installation from a long-dead artist!
There Are a Lot of Protocols to Follow
If you ask someone how museums get pieces and put them on display, they’ll probably say something along the lines of "it gets donated" and the ever-succinct "I don’t know." If you work at a museum, you know just how many protocols there are. Safety and handling standards are there for a reason! Without them, pieces could be mismanaged, cataloged wrong, and stored improperly.
Julia has firsthand experience with this laundry list of important rules. “To protect objects from the oils, dirt, dust, and residue that is always present on our hands, we wear powderless nitrile gloves when handling objects. We do our best to touch objects when necessary to minimize risk … we only touch artwork when we have a clear, safe plan in place.”
Curator Is Just One of the Many Vital Positions
Curators get all the fanfare when it comes to museums. And while they do a lot of significant work with acquiring the collections and helping to manage them, there are so many other important positions needed to help keep your favorite museums running.
Docents make your tours engaging and memorable, janitorial staff keep the spaces well-maintained, and conservators work hours to preserve pieces and get them display-ready (if possible). Julia’s a registrar, which she explains “encompasses behind-the-scenes functions designed to care for objects including fine art shipping, condition documentation, object movement tracking and planning, and exhibition logistics.”
So, the next time you’re at a museum, pay attention to the different staff you see and watch what they’re doing to contribute to making your experience the best it can be.
If You Loved Your Visit, Bring Your Friends!
Since funding is a rat race for most museums, entry fees can be one way to get a little money. However, visitor count and foot traffic can impact funding for some museums as well. If you enjoyed your visit, don’t cross it off your list and never come back.
Instead, bring your friends and family. Check back in on the website every few months to see when new exhibits are opening and make plans to go. The best kind of museum is a busy one.
They Love When You Post About Your Experiences
Museums need all the publicity they can get, and giant marketing campaigns aren’t always in the budget. But just like social media’s done wonders for small businesses, it’s been incredible for museums too.
Take pictures (when permitted) at your favorite places and post about them on your socials. Follow your favorite museum’s accounts and share the posts they make. You can make a real difference in keeping your favorite museums afloat and all it takes it the press of a button.
Above All Else, Keep Visiting
It’s easy to take museums for granted. They’re such a common feature in our culture that most people expect to find a museum when they travel anywhere. But, for how well-known the system is, there are so many misconceptions the public has about the work being done to make them engaging and educational public spaces. Now that you’re armed with a peek behind the scenes of the museum staff’s locked doors, hopefully, you’re ready to be the best, most supportive visitor you can be.
And if you’d like to see more from Julia Kraft about her life outside her work, you can visit her Instagram, and see what fun events are happening at the Hickory Ridge History Museum through their socials as well.