The following museum professionals have shared their experiences. Read about their careers to see what the work is really like.
Charles McGovern works at the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution complex in Washington, D.C., that is devoted to the exhibition, care, and study of artifacts that reflect the experience of the American people. He is supervisor of the American History Museum’s Division of Community Life, overseeing a group of technicians, specialists, collections-based researchers, curators, and support staff. He is also a curator, responsible for Twentieth Century Consumerism and Popular Culture Department, which covers the history of entertainment, leisure, recreation, and commerce.
Charles graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania with a B.A. with honors in history and immediately entered graduate school at Harvard and earned his A.M. in history and his Ph.D. in American civilization.
Getting Started. Charles taught history at Harvard during his graduate studies and also was a research fellow at the Smithsonian. After completing his education, he returned to the Smithsonian as a full-time curator.
His interest in cultural history began at an early age. He watched a lot of television and listened to the radio and was part of the mass popular culture of the 1960s.His parents told him stories about the early days of radio. In high school, reading books his teachers recommended, he realized that Babe Ruth and Laurel and Hardy and the Marx brothers, personalities he cared very deeply about, were as much a part of history as Franklin Delano Roosevelt or World War I.
The Work. As a curator, Charles is a historian who must be able to understand and explain the lives and beliefs of our ancestors. He says that at the Smithsonian, “We try to do that respectfully, understanding the world as they saw it. As we do that, we see how culture reflects the times, the fears and ideals and problems of a given society. You cannot look at certain creations of our popular culture without seeing those kinds of elements in them.”
He documents the history of the everyday life of American people and is responsible for the creation and maintenance of the collections in his area. His job is divided into three specific parts: acquisition of new objects and exhibits, exhibits and interpretion, and research. His primary job duties are to oversee the building collections, develop exhibitions, conduct research, write, speak publicly, and act as graduate advisor to eleven research fellows.
The collections that Charles is responsible for include a fascinating variety of objects. The exhibits that comprise Twentieth Century Consumerism and Popular Culture are probably the most popular and well-known in the museum. Visitors come to view Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Archie Bunker’s well-worn chair, and the original Kermit the Frog puppet. There are a hat that Jimmy Durante used in his stage appearances; Howdy Doody; Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit and the Grandfather clock from the Captain Kangaroo show; the sweater worn by Mister Rogers; the leather jacket and hat worn by Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones films; the Hawaiian shirt, baseball cap, and ring that Tom Selleck wore as Magnum, P. I.; old 78 rpm records; movie posters; and comic books.
As curator, Charles looks for items that provide insight into American consumerism and commerce. The collections include the bonnet worn by the woman who posed for the Sunmaid raisin box, a huge collection of turn-of-the-century advertising and marketing, and a collection of memorabilia from the world fairs of 1851 to 1988.
Most of the items in the collections have been donated to the museum. Charles explains that the museum has a very small budget for acquisitions and is therefore unable to compete with private galleries. As he says, “People must be willing to donate, so we look for people who either don’t need the money or get the point of what we’re trying to do.”
Despite the best intentions, however, not every item that is offered can be accepted. Charles describes the case of Charlie Chaplin’s cane: “Someone called once and wanted to donate Charlie Chaplin’s cane. But first, how do I know that it was his cane? It’s impossible to document that. And second, Chaplin probably went through thousands of canes. Those bamboo things snapped very easily. Something like that we couldn’t take.”
This story points to one very important aspect of Charles’s job as curator—the ability to document items. He must be familiar with the history of every object in the collection, and the number of items is staggering. As he says, “It’s not as if I were a curator of paintings where I’m trained in oils and brush techniques. Once in a while I have to confer with an appraiser or dealer to determine authenticity.”
Given the size of the collection, it is not possible for all items to be exhibited simultaneously. Charles explains that less than 2 percent of the collection is on display at any time, and the rest is kept in storage. While some of the most famous items, such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers or Archie Bunker’s chair, on are permanent display, others rotate.
It is Charles’s responsibility to decide which items are exhibited, stored, and rotated. He must also see that the items are cared for to avoid deterioration. This requires occasional removal of even the most popular items, a fact that doesn’t always please the paying public. Charles explains that most visitors to the museum expect to see specific items and are disappointed if they are not on exhibit.
He says that the exhibiting part of the job is a team effort. As curator, he works with exhibit designers to decide how an item should be displayed. The designer plans the layout of the object and the accompanying text, graphics, and props. The care and maintenance of the item is the responsibility of a conservator,who also determines things such as the maximum amount of light to which an item can be exposed to avoid deterioration.
While the exhibits are the most public part of Charles’s job, he feels that research is actually his primary duty. In his opinion, “All the collecting and exhibiting doesn’t mean anything unless you have something to say. You have to figure out first what point you’re making. Our point is the showing of everyday life of the American people, and for earlier times, that’s something that has to be researched. Of course, you do research to support the things you already have in your collection, but the research also helps you to determine what you should be out there collecting.”
The Smithsonian as Training Ground. Every year the Smithsonian awards dozens of research fellowships, providing funding and access to museum collections for Ph.D. candidates. To be hired as a curator, a candidate must possess or be near completion of a Ph.D. Entry-level positions include technicians and specialists and research-related jobs. Paid internships and volunteer positions are usually available and are a good way to get a foot in the door.
Charles McGovern points out that jobs for curators at the Smithsonian seldom become available. But because the Smithsonian has a certain reputation and skill in training, it is a good place to gain a foundation and then go out to other areas or institutions for work. An internship at the Smithsonian will go a long way in securing employment elsewhere. He believes that because of the Smithsonian’s size, sometimes more really interesting work gets done in smaller museums with a more fixed mission.
Erica Hirshler—Curator of Paintings
Erica Hirshler is the Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She earned her B.A. from Wellesley College in art history and medieval studies, as well as her M.A. in art history, a museum studies diploma, and a Ph.D. in art history from Boston University.
Erica began at the Museum of Fine Arts as a volunteer, and only four months later she was offered a paying, part-time job. Two years later that developed into a full-time position as assistant curator, which is the job she describes here.
The Work. As assistant curator, Erica worked with a collection of two thousand paintings. The departmental structure includes the curator, an associate curator, an assistant curator, and four research assistants and fellows with various areas of specialization. Erica handled a wide range of duties, including working on the permanent collection; organizing special exhibits; conducting research; writing catalogs, art books, and copy for exhibition brochures; administering loan requests; and arranging for the display of various items in the galleries. She also responded to a large amount of correspondence, answering inquiries that ranged from a private citizen curious about the history of a family-owned painting to a scholar needing information for a project at another institution.
Erica describes what she liked most about the job. “I like working with the objects. It’s a special thrill working with the real thing that you don’t get from slides. I’m interested in them as physical objects. You gather them together for a special exhibition; you get to really examine them.” The downside is that a busy schedule leaves little time to do everything she would like to do. As she says, “There’s a lot of paperwork. It would be nice if there were less paperwork and more time to work on scholarly things. Research is important.”
Of course, it’s every assistant curator’s hope to move up the curatorial ladder, working toward the additional money and prestige that accompany a promotion. In many cases, a curator would have to be willing to change locations in order to move ahead. But opportunities can be limited, and sometimes it’s better to stay right where you are.
Erica explains the situation: “We have one of the two best collections of American paintings in the country—the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has the other—so, you balance the strength of being in an institution that values your field against some of the other things that might not be so positive. In other words, moving to a weaker collection to get a better title. It wouldn’t be worth it.”
In her opinion, moving to a smaller museum with a smaller collection is not advisable unless you are interested in working toward a career as director. A director of a small museum could eventually move to a directorship at a larger museum, but this career track is more administrative and provides little opportunity for scholarly work.
Advice from a Professional. Erica stresses the need for flexibility, since projects often come up that require workers to juggle several things simultaneously. As she says, “You’ll have a couple of different exhibitions you’re working on at the same time. One might be coming along in two years, one might be in two months. And you go back and forth between them. Or you’ll have three different catalog deadlines for three different shows. You have to write your manuscript and turn it in to the editor. You might get to do a book every five years.”
Carolyn Travers—Director of Research
Researchers are the backbone behind every living history museum. Without their efforts, the ability to re-create authentic period characters, to accurately restore historic buildings, or to reproduce a facsimile of daily life would be an impossible task.
Plimoth Plantation consists of four sites: the 1627 Pilgrim Village, the Mayflower II, the Wampanoag Homesite, and the Carriage House Crafts Center. Carolyn Travers is director of research at Plimoth Plantation, and it is her responsibility to ensure that every aspect of each program is thoroughly researched to present as authentic a picture as possible of seventeenth-century life. Her research might include anything, as she says, “from what was the period attitude toward toads, how a character felt about being her husband’s third wife, or the correct way to cook a particular dish to some obscure point of Calvinist theology.”
Research generally includes the life and genealogical background of a character. According to Carolyn, it is more difficult to research the female characters because there is less documented information available about them than about the males. The researchers use several sources, including court records and genealogical research done by professionals from such organizations as the General Society of Mayflower Descendants or writers for genealogy periodicals.
Other types of research are handled by different departments. For example, re-creating authentic buildings and structures is the responsibility of the curatorial department.
Getting Started. Carolyn attended Earlham College, a small Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in history. She went on to Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston and graduated with a master’s degree in library and information science with a concentration in research methods.
She grew up in Plymouth and started work at the age of fourteen as a part-time Pilgrim. After she finished her master’s degree, she returned to Plimoth Plantation as a researcher.
Advice from a Professional. Carolyn warns that researching is a competitive field and that an advanced degree is needed, specifically in history or library science with a concentration in research methods. A candidate is not expected to have a general body of knowledge about the specific time period, but he or she must have strong research skills, talent, and experience.
Earnings in Living History Museums. New graduates might begin with a salary in the low twenties. As Carolyn stresses, “You don’t do it for the money. There are a lot of psychological payments. One of the satisfactions for me is to be able to change someone’s mind about the stereotypes surrounding early colonists.”