3 Great Things About Volunteering at a Small Museum

Life isn't completely terrible. Really.

I realized the other day that almost all my posts on this blog have been negative. In short, I sound like a bitch.

It’s true that it’s very frustrating to be involved with a small museum. Sometimes I need to vent. But in the spirit of, you know, not being a bitch, I’d like to present the first installment of…



I “interned” at a very big museum this summer, and came out of it a bit shell-shocked. Big museums have the most brilliant and wonderful staffs and almost mind-boggling resources, but…well, you can’t access them. They’re all behind double-secure eardrum-shattering-alarm systems that require two security checks (and, if you’re really lucky, a pat-down from a 6’7″ Homeland Security officer) to surpass. Okay, maybe most institutions aren’t like that, but badges and airtight research designs are usually required to access equipment…and then you get on a waiting list. What if you’re just a college student looking to experiment a little? NO SOUP FOR YOU!

I walked into my little museum and was handed the key to the curator’s office and told to do what I wanted. I was 19. It changed my life forever. This could have been a disaster for this place…but really, how much was there to lose? We had a staff of 5 at the time, all volunteers. Who cared? I’ve gained invaluable experience and gotten to work on projects with more independence than most tenured professors. Where else can you do this? No applications…and no drug tests! 🙂


Weird people are attracted to small museums, probably because of the relative freedom to maneuver. You get to meet people and see things that shock and amuse you on a daily basis. I’m convinced things happen at our little museum that couldn’t happen anywhere else–it’s that bizarre. Of course, VERSIONS of these things happen everywhere–but at little museums everyone gets to be in on it all, rather than having it hidden behind secretaries.

Like, for example, our certifiably crazy member, who I’ll call Janet. She’s an older woman who probably has bipolar disorder or schizophrenia (both, probably) and likes to leave rambling, incoherent, yet somehow poetic messages on our answering machine. A recent message began with a monologue about the value of corn in producing natural gas and, through a very long road, lead to the ways that little kids liked to jump off buses. Often she accuses us of going through her drawers. Did I ever mention the time we had someone erect a “sweat lodge” in our yard, or the self-proclaimed “shamen” that show up at our door (business cards and all!) telling us that we’re destined to fulfill a prophesy? Then there was the time we had to call the cops because the previous executive director, who was homeless and used the museum as a bedroom, tried to break in. I mean, where else?


As I’ve said before, there are about 5 regular volunteers at my all-volunteer organization. Two are a husband and wife. They, their kids, and the other tour guide are literally like family. We stick with each other through everything: blood, sweat, and tears. When it really looked like we were going to close a few years ago, we hugged each other through tears, we all put in the extra effort, gave each other that crucial “don’t worry–we’ll get through this” when we knew the other needed it. We made phone calls we didn’t want to make, we kept running the tours and planning the festivals…why? For each other. We were united in mission. It’s a bond I had never experienced before, and it greatly affected me.

When you can’t pay the utilities bill, when you need $300 by tomorrow or checks will bounce…well, it really makes you look in the mirror. It’s one thing if it’s you personally or your family…well, then you have no choice. But when it’s a three-room museum you could just as easily walk away from–then you have a choice. And when you say, “no, I’m not giving up, I actually believe in this mission and these people enough to press on,” it makes you realize that your mission statement isn’t just a few words on brochures, but something important enough that you’re willing to sacrifice for it in very real ways–especially now, during the recession years.

At large museums, this sense of cause isn’t nearly as strong on an everyday basis. OTHER PEOPLE, higher-ups, handle nitty-gritty financial things. At small museums, it’s everyone’s immediate problem. Organizationally, it’s do or die. It makes you examine your beliefs and values. It’s a healthy experience.

I can’t promise not to complain anymore. Oh, will I. But every once in awhile, I’d like to take some time to remember all the wonderful things about being involved with a small museum, and why everyone should have the experience at least once.


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