I Know You Are, But What Am I?

Museums are experienced in interpreting history, art, and science to non-professionals. Unfortunately, we are not so adept at interpreting ourselves. We throw around unfamiliar terms like interpretation, deaccession, and ethics to describe what we do.

This jargon extends to our job titles. The standard term is museum professional. It’s kind of like “medical practitioner” – it could mean a medical doctor or a witch doctor, you don’t truly know. There are the old standards of educator, curator, registrar, collections manager, and director, but these ignore the influx of non-traditional employees such as the marketing department. Curator came close to being an encompassing professional term. Once there were curators of collections, curators of exhibitions, and curators of education. Then the idea of curators became synonymous with wicked stepmothers, the ones who locked treasures (be they stepdaughters or not) away. So, like the stepmother, the term was cast aside in favor of director (as in director of exhibitions). Just as well. Could you take the curator of development seriously?

Of course, there was a perceived need to establish our authority. This gave us the pseudo-scientific “museologist.” It also inspired other fun and meaningless titles including museum technician (white lab coats, anyone?), interpretive specialist (what language do you speak?), and museum specialist (an ingenious combination of the previous two).

You may not think our current titles are a problem, but have you ever tried to explain what you do to a stranger at a bar? You usually wind up saying something like you work with artifacts, prompting them to make an Indiana Jones reference (they get points for quoting the “mommy” lines from Temple of Doom). This is further proof that no one really understands museums because we can’t explain it ourselves.

So in an effort to live up to our ever changing role as cultural steward and/or inspiration and honor the etymology of the field, I humbly suggest we reclaim the title Muse. As in, “What do you do?” “I am a Muse.” It would certainly make casual bar hook-ups more interesting. Until you have to explain what a muse is.

PS For those of you not content with being a muse you can always be an oracle.


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

2 responses to “I Know You Are, But What Am I?

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