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.