TurkoTek Discussion Boards

Subject  :  Museum Staffing
Author  :  R. John Howe mailto:%20rjhowe@erols.com
Date  :  02-15-2001 on 04:35 p.m.
Dear Mr. Koos -

This is a question that has two parts, that may well be related to one another.

First, it is noticeable that many of the staff at Washington's Textile Museum are not particularly interested in rugs and textiles. This seems odd, even to some extent off-putting, to we collectors who see the objects of our collecting as perhaps rather close to the center of life itself.

So the first part of my question is, why is this?

I know that museum staff are often required to sign agreements that they will not "collect" in the areas of their work during their tenure. And some have said that they are often also required to allow the museum to purchase any object they have bought during their tenure. (These two rules seem potentially contradictory to me but perhaps one can "buy" without "collecting." That's how I bought an automatic washer recently.)

I would be interested in your experience in this regard. Are most museum staff interested in the objects their museum collects? Is this seen as something to be desired when one is reviewing applicants?

The second part of this question continues with this issue of what qualities museums seek when the recruit staff.

When the Education Director, left The TM recently, she told me that she had recommended that her replacement be limited to someone who had been trained specifically in "museum education." Note again any absence of any interest in the objects in the museum collection. More, it appears that others with educational skills and background are also not recommended for consideration unless these fall with the "museum education" category.

So this part of the question is, do museums pursue a set of seemingly generalized museum skills that are explicitly disconnected from any knowledge of or interest in the specific objects in a particular museum. And if so, is this really an advantageous thing? Is not the potential ability of an Education Director at The TM not in fact rather seriously circumscribed if they are familiar with "museum education" but have not much knowledge of rugs and textiles?

I assume that this dichotomous approach does not shape decisions about museum curators but I begin to wonder.

Again, would you share your knowledge as a member of the museum community of how these things are thought about there and the related reasoning?


R. John Howe

Subject  :  Re:Museum Staffing
Author  :  Greg Koos mailto:%20gregkoos@gte.net
Date  :  02-19-2001 on 06:45 p.m.
Dear John,

Sorry about not posting a reply sooner - I took advantage of an opportunity to have a long weekend.

As I stated in my essay I am not able to comment on practices of the Textile Museum. I have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to do so.

The issue of staff and their perceived enthusiasm about the collecting focus of their museum is complex. It is not particularly related to conflict of interest issues raising from personal collecting. I will address that below. Many people who enter museum work have done so through enrollment in academic programs which are attempting to establish the concept that museums are in themselves an academic discipline. I personally do not support that viewpoint. As a result some people find themselves working in a museum which is not particularly related to an enthusiasm. Doing museum work itself is their personal and professional goal. The benefit to museums from this approach is obvious, the creation of a workforce with some mobility and skill sets which are applicable to many settings. The downside is that not everyone carries knowledge of the subject matter of the museum. So it is not terribly surprising that a visitor who has a passion for a set of objects, a passion so deep that they invest time and money to acquire these objects, would be put off by a person who is working in the temple where these objects are worshiped on a daily basis, and where the person apparently cares little about the objects. However many of these museum people are specialists in technologies and learning systems which the museum needs. In this case their academic training was very important. Let me assure you that these specialists care very deeply about such activities such as exhibit design, conservation and education. And when you hire you hope to find that the applicants are also deeply interested in the objects which form the core collection of the museum. For instance, I run a local history museum. Not everyone is going to have the same level of interest in the subject of McLean County History that I do. However, the educator is really excited about how local history can be integrated in to school work and the volunteer director is very excited about how volunteering enriches peoples lives. These enthusiasms are very bit as important as enthusiasm about the collection's focus.

Your question about the advisability of this situation is a good one. Of course a museum should try to hire a museum educator who cares about the collections focus, and who is a talented educator. However in our less than perfect world we make compromises. I would tend to hire a person with a museum education background as an educator before I would hire someone with collections background as an educator. Using objects in education is a unique skill and carries with it a unique knowledge base. Presumably the educator will study and learn about the collections which she/he will be interpreting. If they do not then they aren't doing their job properly.

Museum curators are expected to be knowledgeable about the materials they work with. And as extensive collections are in museums its rare to find a curator who "knows it all." That's why museums use guest curators and consultants. This is an area in which knowledgeable collectors can be of real service to a museum, if the museum is open to avocational scholars. If they are not then they've seriously weakened themselves.

Personal collecting by staff issues arise from our code of ethics. In essence museum people have insider information about the direction a museum is heading in its collecting, they understand what is needed, and they develop a sense of what is rare, what is valuable and what is desirable. So if they have enthusiasm about a class of objects they have some opportunity for personal gain, at the expense of and in conflict with the museum. So we are kind of like Jimmy Carter, we have lust in our hearts - but that's as far as it goes. For instance, for a period I was very interested in the history of corn-farming and I bought books on the subject. Corn is real big around here. Whenever I bought an out-of-print book on the subject the curator and librarian reviewed it. If they wanted it for the collection I, by policy, sold it to them at my cost. These restriction are limited to items which directly relate to the mission of the museum. I would not be prohibited from collecting objects which are not relevant to mission or are not collection quality. Hypothetically a rug museum wouldn't get too concerned if someone was collecting 20th century beluchs as long as the museum could acquire them from the employee at cost. Some museums may, however be far more strict on this topic than are we.

Thanks for you query and comments,

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