Nothing New Under the Sun

Although it’s missing some of our more modern job titles and the director is now the creature of the educator, not much has changed.


From the June 1919 edition of Museum Work: including the Proceedings of the American Association of Museums


Presented By F. A. Lucas

It is now twenty-five years since the publication of Dr. Goode’s Principles of Museum Administration and important changes have naturally taken place during that time. Moreover, Dr. Goode’s Principles were the opinion of one individual only, while the present paper is based on the views of various classes of museum workers as regards each other. By this Galtonesque method it is possible to get a composite view of museum methods representing the ideas of the majority.

DEFINITION OF A MUSEUM A Museum is an institution for the preservation and display of objects that are of interest only to their owners. It is also a place where paintings, bric-a-brac, trophies of the chase, etc., may be deposited whenever their owner wishes to have them stored temporarily without expense to himself.

OF THE DIRECTOR AND HIS DUTIES The Director is appointed to carry out the wishes of the Curators, to sign requisitions therefor, and to take steps to provide necessary funds for the purpose. He should see that each Curator gets what he wishes, while at the same time getting no more than the other curators think he should have. In practice these duties are sometimes found to conflict. Another important duty of the Director is to receive applications for positions from persons who have no knowledge of museum work, and to consider the purchase of worthless specimens. The Director has no rights, but it is customary to allow him certain privileges and the Curators will see that these are not abused. No Director is qualified for the position he holds. This applies equally to anyone who may succeed the present incumbrance.

CURATORS AND THEIR DUTIES Curators are to be selected for their lack of interest in the public. They should preferably be engaged in some research of personal interest, if possible on some abstruse subject that cannot be finished during their lifetime and will be promptly be rejected by their successors. It is also desirable that such research should entail the purchase of expensive books and apparatus (see paragraphs under Library). The principal duty of Curators is to make requisitions for supplies and services; it is not however required of them that they should employ their leisure time to do this nor expected that they will sit up nights to draw up requisitions. If a Curator calls at the office of the Director when the latter is absent, he should leave a requisition on the desk. Each Curator is to be provided with a private office, and an office for his stenographer. If any room is left, it may be used for the Director’s office. They should have assistants to look after the museum work and laborers or attendants for the care and arrangement of material on exhibition.

OF THE BURSAR OR TREASURER The Bursar or Treasurer is appointed to delay the prompt payment of bills. His chief pleasure is informing a Curator that his allotment has been overdrawn, or that no funds are available. This in turn affords the Curator a certain sad satisfaction, as it is primafacie evidence of dereliction on the part of the Director in failing to provide necessary funds (see section relating to the Director). If purchases are within his jurisdiction, the Bursar should see to it that these are not made too hastily.

OF THE LIBRARY AND THE PURPOSES THEREOF The Museum library is a place where books may be carefully concealed from Curators. The Librarian should see that books particularly desired by Curators are not purchased. This stimulates the interest of the Curators in the Librarian, and a Curator would be surprised and disappointed at finding any book he specially needed. Curators on their part will be careful to ask for rare or expensive books. If these are obtained, the Curator should then decide that they are unnecessary. Curators should take care not to return books promptly, especially if they are likely to be needed by other departments. This leads the various departments to take an interest in each other’s work and may elicit candid and instructive comments thereon.

PREPARATORS OR PERPETRATORS The aim of the Preparator, or as he is sometimes more accurately styled Perpetrator, is to prepare series of unfinished objects; hence he should not complete any piece of work. In accordance with the principles laid down under General Considerations, as much time as possible should be spent in seeking for new and complicated methods of work. His opportunities are greater in museums of natural history than in museums of art, though the work of the natural history perpetrator is often termed art because it has no resemblance to nature. An important duty is that of carefully removing labels from objects that pass through his hands; if they cannot be mislaid they should be transposed. This gives the Curator or his assistant stimulating employment and occupies time that might otherwise be wasted in what is termed research.

ATTENDANTS Attendants and cleaners should not be less than sixty years of age, and preferably in poor health. Incapacitated servants, incompetent clerks, and decrepit or slothful laborers, therefore, make the best and most acceptable attendants. Their principal duties are to read the daily papers and discuss family affairs with one another. Any time not thus occupied is at the disposal of the nearest Curator. The elevator operator shall be provided with a comfortable seat and interesting literature. He shall make it a part of his duties to discuss personal matters with attendants on the various floors, and officers and visitors should not interrupt him when so engaged.

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS Each and every department of a museum is superior in importance and methods of administration to any and every other department. There is a seeming paradox in this, but it is practically the only point on which all Curators are agreed. As a corollary to this, it is not expected that any Curator should take any interest in the museum as a whole. Expense and time, especially the time of mechanics, should never be considered in planning exhibits or rearranging collections. Therefore any economical method of work is to be discarded if a more expensive method can be devised. Rules and regulations should be made to conform to the convenience of the employees; if this cannot be done, it shows gross incompetence on the part of the Director.

SUGGESTIONS TO VISITORS No visitor should harbor the delusion that the Director, or for that matter, any member of the museum staff, ever has anything special to do. Visitors wishing to see the Director on unimportant matters should preferably call about lunch time or just before he wishes to leave the building. Visitors really desiring information should be treated with silent contempt. Any visitor not finding on exhibition any object he may wish to see, displayed and labelled as he thinks should be done, is requested to file a complaint with the Trustees. In most occupations people are supposed to know something about the work in which they are engaged, but with museum work it is different and the less acquaintance one has with museum administration, and the fewer facts he has to interfere with his theories, the better. Hence visitors should not hesitate to offer Museum Officers advice—it is stimulating to the visitor and enlightening to the Curator.


About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: