Museums…Light Duty?

museumworkI work for a small museum owned by the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, so when money is available, our facilities department provides maintenance and repair services.  When it isn’t, our staff and volunteers do maintenance and light repair work at the museum.

Our department head recently asked if we could use an extra staff member, a city bus driver, on a temporary basis.  With only 2 staffers, the answer was an excited “Yes!”  This person was recovering from an injury and needed to do “light duty” for eight weeks. (I guess the human resources office classifies museum work as “light duty,” compared to driving a bus.) The bus driver turned out to be an excellent worker who enjoyed organizing files and data entry, jobs that always seem to be on the back burner with our limited staff.

While I was happy to get help, albeit temporary, it bothered me that someone considered our work “light duty.” I began thinking of all the jobs and responsibilities that I’ve had while working in both public and private museums.  In addition to my normal duties, I’ve done landscaping, roof repair, painting, bricklaying, carpentry, plumbing (it’s unbelievable what some people try to flush down a toilet!), installed track lighting, laid railroad track, and removed graffiti. I’ve also moved headstones, historic carriages and heavy safes, washed windows and walls, disposed of dead animals, and scraped ice off of walkways.

Museums…”light duty.” Really?  Any museum professional (and my aching back) will tell you that museum work is not light duty.

Unfortunately I think many people who work outside of our field think that we just dust off our cabinets of curiosities and sit around as the public views our displays.  We small museum folks know how much really goes in to keeping things open and running. It’s not just a matter of unlocking the front door and keeping our facilities tidy.

These are a few of the jobs I’ve had to tackle in museums. Would any of you care to share your own experiences?  Maybe we can build a great list of what museum work really entails….much that isn’t on the job description.

5 Responses to “Museums…Light Duty?”

  1. July 13, 2012 at 9:21 pm, Amanda Gustin said:

    I’ve done many of the things on your list. I was never under the illusion that museum work was light duty, but the day it was really driven home to me was when I was taking a heavy box off a top shelf, every inch of it filled with paper and took a wrong step and all of a sudden it was only my core strength and my biceps that kept the box from crashing right on my head. I saw my life flash before my eyes.

    There’s also the whole other kettle of fish of working in living history. My costume days during internship at Old Sturbridge Village rank as some of the hardest days of physical labor I’ve ever experienced in my life – and I spent a summer as an assistant trainer and barn manager at a horse rescue, so I know from physical labor!


  2. July 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm, Michelle Moon said:

    Living history is definitely physically demanding! My days raising anchor with a windlass at Mystic Seaport are testament to that. But even teaching in a museum – particularly one with vast grounds – isn’t really light duty. I once wore a pedometer while teaching a full-day program, and we had logged well over 5 miles walking around with groups as we traveled from one activity to another. Educators and program staff spend a lot of time on their feet, gathering and hauling supplies, equipment, and furniture regularly. It’s not as good as a gym membership, but it’s not exactly desk work either.


  3. August 07, 2012 at 4:45 pm, Mary Warner said:

    I had a worker’s comp placement firm contact me recently in order to place a recovering worker with our museum. This person’s injury prevented him from lifting anything. A good portion of my job is spent lifting stuff, and a good share of it isn’t light. From bound newspapers to full archive boxes to large artifacts (ever try to lift a mill stone?), museum work is NOT a light-duty job. Obviously, worker’s comp placement firms haven’t gotten this message, nor has most of the public. We’re far too good at hiding all the heavy work that goes on in museums.


  4. August 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm, Mike Worcester said:

    Working in a small organization (two employees), we do just about everything around here. Shoveling the sidewalk, unclogging a toilet, changing lights, painting, even using the power saw to build a display frame–we do it.

    As I am fond of saying, we are not glorified doormen/women. We do actually work for a living 🙂


    • August 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm, Garland Courts said:

      I agree, nothing like museum work to sharpen your all around skills. I can now add pest control to my experiences; had to exterminate a tarantula wasp that traumatized our cleaning lady the other day.


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