It dawned on me the other day that I haven’t told my own museum story.
I grew up in museums, parks, and nature centers. I have memories of the routine I had when we visited the National Museum of Natural History here in DC: dinosaurs, prehistoric ocean, discovery room (had to find the bats in there), insect zoo, mummies. This was all before I turned four. I remember showing my grandpa the prehistoric ocean exhibit when I was about seven, and I know that by then I knew a good part of the museum by heart.
My parents both loved history and natural history. It rubbed off on me pretty quickly. By the time I entered elementary school, I knew most of the parks, nature centers, and museums already. My favorite time period was (and still is) the 18th century.
Museums started becoming an occasional thing when I reached middle school and through high school. I was a counselor and a nature center volunteer. My favorite animals were owls, and I was considering wildlife biology as a college major.
College started off with almost everyone I knew telling me that I needed to major in something useful. Instead I took classes in the Honors Program that were interdisciplinary and amazing. I discovered owl symbolism in Bosch paintings and went to NASA and museums. One field trip in particular changed everything. First we went to the Smithsonian African Art museum. Then we went to the Natural History museum. After I helped us find our way, my professor turned to me and said, “Wow, you know this place really well, don’t you?”
That was my turning point. I knew museums. I loved museums. I realized that maybe there was a job for me in museums.
A semester later, my adviser introduced me to her friend, a museum educator. We talked about her discipline, and I found a map to a place I never knew existed. I was required to volunteer at a nonprofit for a class. I volunteered at a museum. By spring I declared my majors (art history and history) and I applied to intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. I didn’t have a specific department, all I knew was that I wanted to help people find history the way I did.
I was accepted. I was going to work in visitor’s services. I’m very shy at times, so I was very worried. My first day I was given the object that changed my career path: an “Ask Me” button. When I wore it, I wasn’t shy. I worked on my skills, but I didn’t need to work hard. I found my niche.
Three years later, I’m a visitor’s services rep in a medium-sized museum. I love my job. I wake up happy to go in, and I go to bed exhausted but happy I was there.
Let’s talk about the myth of the “useful major” for a second. I was going to be useful to society when I started college. I planned on majoring in education, both elementary and special ed. After each semester, I used to volunteer in a family friend’s classroom. The teacher needed an extra pair of hands, and since no parents were able to come, I was those hands. The emotional weight of what those little kids were going through was too much. I worked in the best school system in the state and one of the best in the country, and we dealt with hunger, homelessness, parental drug abuse, and overcrowding. Going home every day in tears is not healthy. I want to help stop everything that is wrong in our school systems, but maybe interacting with the kids outside of school is just as important. So I didn’t major in something “useful”, and of my friends with “useful” majors (mine was the only unuseful one), I’m one of two with a paying full time job in my field. I know education majors that still don’t have jobs because we have too many teachers. I greatly admire what they do because I cannot do it. I give people directions and get kids excited about their world. I’m pretty sure that that means that my job is useful, right?
So that’s my story. It didn’t take much to get me into museums, but it took a little more to convince me that it was ok that I decided that helping the world is more important than my pay grade.