I read a post this week on how early museum visits can impact career choice. This got me to thinking again about our museum mission. Once I overheard a museum staff member mention that there was an eight-year-old boy whose parent wanted to bring them to the museum for a behind the scenes tour because the child wanted to be an archaeologist. The staff member lamented they felt such a tour was a waste of time because “at eight the kid would probably change their mind a half-dozen times before they settled on a serious career choice.” The statement shocked me, to say the least.
I have always counted myself fortunate because my first field experience as an archaeologist was directed by the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis. Pat was adamant about public education in archaeology. Pat told us straight up that 10% of our grade was going to come from our presentations to visiting tourists at the Fort Ancient site in Warren County, Ohio. She designated one student as the tour guide each day. When visitors made their way to the units, you jumped out and presented the detail on the research project. Pat always eavesdropped on your presentation and offered a critique after the fact. The tour was a big deal to her. And there were a lot of eight-year-old kids in attendance.
I have a standard line I rattle off about if it weren’t for the visitor, our museum would be a repository or a research center – that it’s the visitor that moves us into that different space. And I also know I can get quite selective about how I engage with visitors. As a museum director whose primary function is not on the floor, I can be pretty selective in how and when I engage visitors. I do enjoy our Volunteer Day activities where I try to actually practice what I preach. I always get some pretty phenomenal lessons in this experience from volunteers, students, and staff.
Take Ron Brister, who was part of the field crew at Chucalissa in the 1960s and then went on to a phenomenal 30- year career as Collections Manager for Memphis’ Pink Palace. Ron is now retired and has returned full circle back to Chucalissa as a volunteer. Ron is a critical source of knowledge in organizing our 50 years worth of accumulated “records” that range from excavation field notes to 40-year-old student papers on botanical analysis at the site. But one of the most visible role’s that Ron plays is as tour guide and informal lecturer to the assembled group for our Volunteer Day activities. Each Volunteer Saturday, Ron provides an impromptu presentation and handouts on some aspect of the cultural materials that the volunteers are processing, whether the difference in lithic raw materials, stone tool form, or ceramic types. As well, Ron leads a tour of the open excavation trench where visitors can view 500 years of Native American prehistory. The excavation trench is now closed to regular public viewing because of preservation concerns.
Here is my takeaway for all of this that ties back to my last couple of posts. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that Ron had to propose to me his Saturday Volunteer Day role – I did not immediately link his skill with our need. Now on Volunteer Day instead of the Director, breezing through the room for a quick impromptu presentation and tour of the excavation trench, Ron fills that role in a much more thorough and relaxed manner. As well, Ron is considerably more qualified than me to do lead those activities.
This ties back to my Volunteers as Mission post from a couple of weeks back. Ron is integrated as a volunteer not just because we have stuff to do, but because our Mission mandates that we offer participatory opportunities at our Museum. Ron is passionate about our Museum and the Chucalissa archaeological site. If we did not have a “need” Ron would still want to participate and our Mission mandates that we accommodate that want. For me this translates into focusing on volunteers as mission. I need to move from “we need to paint the inside of our Museum Hall, who can we get to do that?” to “we have 80 some odd folks who volunteered in the past six months at the museum, how do we keep them engaged?”
And here is where it comes back to the career choice I started out this post with. As you can see from the photo above, Ron clearly enjoys working with others. He gets and completely appreciates that when he is leading the excavation trench tour with the Volunteer Day group, that often includes an eight year old child, he may very well be talking to someone who 20 years from now will remember when he led them into this dark and dusty trench that contained 500 years of Native American house floors stacked on top of each other, and they were hooked.
My suspicion is that there are many more Ron Brister’s out there if we slow down and look. I will end this string of posts by simply noting that I believe the successful museums of the future will treat their volunteers as the same precious resource as the cultural materials hanging on the walls, inside the exhibit cases, and on the repository shelves.