Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.
Be a Museum Renaissance Person
By Tim Betz
In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci was applying for work. Specifically, he wanted to be employed as the court artist and engineer of the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. Thus begins one of the most fascinating resumes in history. Leonardo lists all of the things he can do: build bridges, construct cannons, make chariots and guns, construct aqueducts, design beautiful buildings–the list goes on and on. The artist who painted the most famous painting in the world ends his resume with a humble “I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.” Leonardo is perhaps the most famous of the “Renaissance men,” people who became highly skilled at many subjects, bouncing between them with ease, with limitless curiosity. As museum professionals, we can learn a lot from him.
“Knowing is Not Enough”
Many of us in the world of museums are employed at smaller sites with small staffs and small budgets. In my case, I am the only full time staff member with a very part time museum assistant and a core group of very involved volunteers. This means that in addition to being the executive director, I am also the advertising department, the social media manager, the programming coordinator, the volunteer coordinator, the office manager, the collections manager, the exhibit designer, the curator, a tour guide, a workshop leader, and the janitor. There is no part of any sort of academic training (or, frankly, reading blog posts and articles) that gives you the range of skills to be, at one minute, the executive director schmoozing in the community, the next a workshop leader teaching children how to make candles, and the next dealing with troublesome squirrels who love to eat your building. My view and professional philosophy is colored by the experience of working at smaller sites. However, I think that much of this Leonardo-based philosophy can be applied to larger organizations.
Many of us enter the museum profession with a degree in a specialty, be it art history, history, a science, non-profit management, or museum studies. We usually have read a lot of books and studied a lot of theory. We’ve gone to a lot of museums and quietly criticized other museums on how they display their labels and their poor choice of exhibit colors (admit it, we all do it). We talk to other museum professionals and become part of the current discourse and culture. None of that, no part of education or study, can prepare you for all that you encounter. From problem visitors, to unruly wild animals, to a broken toilet (and not much of a budget to fix it), to needing to build a thing to display a thing, and learning period crafts – there just simply are things they don’t teach you in museum school. Leonardo is quoted also as having said, “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” Indeed, learning about museum theory, best practices, and reading is not enough: we must do. Most importantly, use that doing to grow, adapt, and change. We have to be tireless doers, and we need to be the sorts of doers that do things that aren’t listed in our job description (because, as I can attest, a job description that actually lists what you do as a museum professional would be 20 times longer than they normally are).
The Maestro in the Museum
Leonardo was an exceptionally curious mind who devoured the world around him. Many people know him as an exceptional artist, but the reality was he was a scientist (perhaps more scientist than artist), a philosopher, a mathematician, an anatomist…you name it, he tried it. I’m not suggesting that museum professionals need to paint the next masterpiece, study anatomy, and design flying machines. I am suggesting, though, that our field requires a broad range of knowledge that they simply don’t teach in school and is way outside of what would be considered “traditional” scholarly discourse, or, really, in a lot of other fields. We must be masters of many fields. To be successful in the museum world we must be willing to try new things, to experiment (both organizationally and professionally), and, quite simply, be curious about the world around us.
Working in a museum is a unique experience. Regardless of the discipline, we are teaching the public about a wide variety of topics and ideas. This requires, at the very least, a passing knowledge of those topics and ideas, and the ability to talk about them in a variety of ways for all sorts of different folks. The reality, though, is that we end up with a wide assortment of arcane knowledge that makes us very fun at parties (Want to know all about 19th century peach production in New Jersey? I got you. Want to hear how many cows lived in late eighteenth century Lansdale, Pennsylvania? I have numbers for you. What about how an 1890 talc mill works from bottom to top? Sure!) But isn’t that is the sheer joy of being a museum professional? The knowledge, the digging, the teaching, the learning, and sharing that with people who visit us as our shared legacy and inheritance as people who live on this planet – a humbling reality of our profession that should never escape us.
Moreover, we need to be aware of all that is going on around us in our museum. Only working in development? You should have an idea of what the museum does, what the curators are up to, what exciting programs are going on. A curator? You should know what education is doing and what their job is like. Gift shop manager? You should know what exhibits are coming up, and the story of your place. Everyone should know how to change a lightbulb, where those light bulbs are stored, and where to take out the trash (oh, the less glamorous aspects of museum life!). Leonardo would have probably said that all of his explorations into all sorts of endeavours were connected and that they shouldn’t be parselled out. This is the same for museums. Yes, we can have departments, and yes, everyone has their job to do. But it is all towards the same goal. All parts of the same whole, and all cogs that work together to get something done.
We can’t be one person museums or working in a vacuum, and we can’t know everything. Rather, we should know where to go and who to ask for help, whether that is another expert, someone in another department, an older museum mentor, a volunteer who knows how to do something we don’t, an exterminator, a handyman. We should have no loss of pride in asking for help or admitting that we don’t know something. A 1490 to-do list written by Leonardo contains all sorts of items from drawing Milan to conducting science experiments. The most telling aspect, though, is that over half of the items on the list include a variation of the phrase “ask so-and-so how to do such-and-such.” Leonardo may have been a genius, but he knew where to go to get the answers.
Anyone who knows of Leonardo knows he had some glaring character flaws, like that he was easily distracted and seldom finished what he started, but we can learn from his mistakes. We can be inspired by his curiosity and drive, and, at the same time, apply those strategically to our professional life (while keeping checklists, making sure things get done, and achieving results). After all, “we must do!”
Killing it with Curiosity
The field of the museum professional is unlike any other. We must be researchers, tinkerers, problem solvers, scholars, people people, people pleasers, fundraisers, janitors, educators, and experts – and often all at the same time. We cannot and should not compartmentalize.
This Leonardo-based museum philosophy can be summed up with two words: joyful curiosity. Like Leonardo, we should delve and explore. Learn new things. Grow personally and professionally. We must question, learn, share, and question again. There is a reason we say museum interpretation and not museum presentation. Much of the public sees museums as places where the truth is presented with unquestionable authority. The reality is that museums should be a place for discussion and — above all — curiosity.
Curiosity is contagious. If we have it, we can share it with our colleagues and with the visitors who come through our doors. There is simply no greater service we can provide our constituents than a place to question, explore, and be joyfully curious. And it starts with us.