Saturday, April 18, 2009

Get On Yer Bike

(I started writing the post a few weeks ago. Then I gave up. Then today I had lunch with a couple of friends and our conversation got me going again. So you can blame them)


I was wading through a bunch of very old annual reports yesterday when I noticed that one of my colleagues had started work at the Museum in the mid 1970s. Doing more-or-less the same job as they're doing today. They've never worked anywhere else. Think about that. More than 30 years doing the same thing every working day. You would think they must love it, right? Well it's possible this is the case, but you wouldn't know from talking to them.

I don't know why this surprised me. Museum departments are full of staff who are almost as old (and frequently a lot more peculiar) than the specimens and artifacts that they are looking after. In fact, as I thumbed through the pages of these reports from the late 1960s and early 1970s, I kept on coming across familiar names and faces. In some cases, they didn't seem to have aged at all (too much exposure to formaldehyde, perhaps) and it was a little disconcerting to see their faces staring out from the era of Richard Nixon and the Patridge Family. This was the first time I'd ever actually considered what it must be like to have a career like this.

I finished my PhD in 1992. Since then, I've worked for 5 different employers; in 5 different museum collections, 2 government agencies, and a university administration office. All of these jobs were very different: the Oxford University Museum is a quite different beast to the AMNH, for example, which is in turn very different to YPM. General zoological collections present a different set of challenges to a mammalogy collection, and paleontological collections have very different challenges to recent ones. And, of course, museum collections are very, very different work environments when compared to administrative offices. So every time I've moved job, it's been a learning opportunity (I'll leave it to others to judge whether I actually did learn anything).

Lack of mobility in collection management is a fact of life. It's a specialist profession, there are few jobs around, and most of these offer little or no scope for promotion or career progression - I'll save discussion of why this might be for a later post. What we tend to do is to turn our vices into virtues and say that longevity is a good thing because the key to successful collection management is knowledge of your collection and this takes time. It isn't and it doesn't. Some of the least effective people I know, in and out of museums, are also among the most knowledgable. "Knowledge" can be a great excuse for not bothering to learn anything new. I'd also argue that you need to look at what was not being done while that knowledge was being acquired.

Now obviously, there are some outstanding people in our profession who have worked their entire career in one place, and I've benefitted greatly from the collections knowledge accumulated by my colleagues at AMNH, YPM, and elsewhere. At the same time, the best way to advance both our institutions and the professional development of the people working in them is to encourage more mobility. New jobs may be few and far between, but there are other ways to get people moving. Our professional organizations should be thinking of ways to support and promote mobility, through fellowship and exchange programs. In addition, they should be working to educate museum management to see the advantages to their institution of providing staff with sabatticals and furloughs.

I also think that as a community, we should also be alive to the possibilities of spending time working outside our immediate profession. How about a 6 month placement working in development, finance, human resources, or strategic planning, to give just a few examples? If nothing else, it might give some of us a better understanding of the broader context in which we work. As an administrator (past, present, and future) I get profoundly irritated when my colleagues speak disparagingly about the failings of "The Administration." I'm sorry, but spending 30 years staring down a microscope while counting the hairs on the asses of... erm, something microscopic.... does not give you special insights into the way a museum should be run. If nothing else, greater job mobility might actually provide you with some.

(in the original version, I actually named a thing that had hairs on its bottom. Then I realized that if I picked any actual animal, vegetable, or mineral present at OUMNH, AMNH, or YPM one of my past or present colleagues would think I was talking about them. I talk a good show, but I'm really not very courageous)

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