Beyond the Gift Shop

Other than a lucky internship I had back in 2009, the majority of my museum experience so far has been working in gift shops. Nowadays, whenever I mention that I work in a museum, people’s first instinct is to ask, “what do you do?”

Well, I say, I work in the gift shop.

This is usually the point where most people give me an odd look or say something like, “oh, so you aren’t really IN the museum.” This bothers me in so many ways. What do you mean, I’m not IN the museum? Sure, my job involves working in a retail environment, but that doesn’t mean my position isn’t part of the grand scheme of things within the museum itself. I may work in the gift shop, but you can bet your britches I know as much about the galleries as many of our docents and volunteers.

I consider myself pretty lucky. At HMNH, the gift shop is located within the actual museum – it’s the first thing you see when you come up to the exhibits. We’re usually the first point of contact most museum visitors have in the physical gallery space, which gives us in the shop the unique position of being both shop associates and de facto docents. Ask me anything about the Glass Flowers, the New England Forests, or the Great Mammal Hall – chances are, I’ll have the answer. My job also allows me to connect with visitors in a way that some gift shop employees might never get the chance to, especially if their shop is detached from the exhibit space of the museum. Folks ask me about our other museums, which means I have to know about exhibits not only at HMNH, but also at the Peabody Museum, the Semitic Museum, and CHSI. Even more ask about other museums in Boston, etc. You get the idea.

Basically, I’m a go-to person for any visitor looking for information. And I really like that about my job. It allows me to talk to visitors and hear what they have to say about our galleries and exhibits. I might not feel the same way about the Glass Flowers as most of our visitors do (the usual exclamation upon exiting that exhibit is “those are simply AMAZING!” or something to that affect), but I’ll gladly tell you that Leopold and Ruldolph Blaschka had an amazing gift and incredible patience, that the collection took 50 years to complete and was transported to Cambridge even during World War I, and that yes, in fact, they are all glass. I like talking to kids about what their favorite exhibits were, too. We sell megalodon teeth from the South Carolina coast, and a lot of kids come by and say WHOA! when they see them. So of course I take them out! It opens up dialogue with visitors that otherwise can’t really participate in online surveys of how their visit was. I like being able to tell people that if they go up to the bird balcony and look at our 120-year-old sperm whale, they can see grease STILL seeping out of the bones. STILL! It’s crazy!

What’s more, I work on the weekends – our busiest time at HMNH. Sunday mornings are free from 9-12 for Massachusetts residents, and it’s really cool to see the regulars show up with their kids, who come in practically EVERY Sunday and yet are still completely blown away by some of the animals in the zoological collection. Working the weekends at HMNH is something that not too many staff do, because we’re part of a university with rules on who can work weekends (depending on how your job is classified? I’m honestly not sure, it’s complicated), so my view on just how busy we can be is completely different from what our weekday warriors see. Sure, they might get the school group crowds from 10am-2pm, but on the weekends we get school groups, boy scout troops, tour groups…basically every level of ‘group’ that you can think of. So when we have staff meetings to discuss attendance, I can chime in and say something about what our attendance is like on the weekend; and I can add what our visitors think, because I am fortunate enough to interact with them.

I see my job as something more than just a shop clerk. Yes, I sell you things (the profits of which go directly to the museum!), but I’m also your guide and your interpreter. If you have questions, I have the answers.


Beyond the Gift Shop

Why I love the Waterworks Museum

Before I get started, I just want to say, this isn’t a plug. I’m not writing this post because I want you to visit the museum (I mean, I do, but that’s not the point). I’m not writing this because one of my supervisors asked me to. I’m writing it in response to a visceral reaction I had to being at work today, and I felt like I needed to share that with my community.

Today marks my one year anniversary of volunteering at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum. I remember last year, sitting in my Intro to Museum Studies class, listening to former director Beryl Rosenthal talk about the museum, and I remember perking up when she mentioned that the majority of employees are actually volunteers. I emailed and set up an appointment to talk with Lauren Kaufmann, who showed me around the museum and told me about all of the opportunities available to volunteers. I was there for almost an hour talking with her, excited at the possibilities. I remember meeting with Eric Peterson, my boss, and talking about all of the issues with the collections database, what I could do to help with that, along with any research that could be added to the database, and new objects that might need to be added to the collection.

Today, sitting at my desk, talking with Eric about potential new storage options for the permanent collection, I realized just how far I have come. In one year, I have grown from a nervous pre-grad student, not entirely sure what she was going to do in the museum world, to a confident grad student who talks about storage options, research opportunities, connecting with other institutions, and database upgrades like it’s her job.

And it is. I might not be getting paid, but the fact remains: it’s my job.

Today, Eric asked me to compile a list of all the manufacturers housed within the building. While making this list, I fact-checked everything we had in the database and learned even more about our collection than I had previously known. I discovered that, while we might have a few loose Lunkenheimer Company parts in storage, I have seen the same company seal on dozens of valves and grease caps when climbing on the Allis-Chalmers steam engine. And as I was getting ready to leave, I felt the urge to put my stuff down and go into the Great Engines Hall and document every single piece of Lunkenheimer Company parts that I could find. And I realized then that I absolutely love this place, this old building that I now call home.

I love the Waterworks Museum for so many reasons. I love that they took a chance on me and let me come work with their collections, and have let me grow into the confident collections management volunteer I am today. They have become my second family. I love that I am always amazed by the machines in the Great Engines Hall. Every time I look at them, I find something new to be fascinated by. Last week, Dennis (one of our board members who is incredibly knowledgeable about the site) helped me figure out where a loose bell crank might have fit, and we finally found a matching one on the second level of the Allis. It made me think about these machines as more than just the sum of their parts. Each piece is incredibly important, from the massive flywheels down to the last screw.

I could go on, but I have homework to do (ah, grad school), so I will end with this. Thank you, Lauren and Eric and Beryl, for opening your doors to me. Thank you for trusting me with your collection. Thank you for opening my eyes to this museum, and thank you for letting me grow. I have learned so much in the past year and I hope to learn more in the coming years.

Why I love the Waterworks Museum