Monday, September 2, 2013

The Hidden Dangers of Museum Work

by Erin Doane, Curator

A couple of weeks ago I spent the day at the Chemung County Fairground at the Safe Kids, Strong Kids event.  When I got home that night my right arm ached from my shoulder to my wrist.  It took me some time to figure out how I had strained my arm that day.  It finally came to me in a flash – the Jacob’s ladder!  If you don’t know what a Jacob’s ladder toy looks like in action check it out here.  I had spent almost six hours turning my hand back and forth to show kids how the toy worked.  That was why I was sore.  That got me thinking about the hidden dangers of working in a museum.  Being a curator may seem like a safe job but it can be very dangerous.  Here is a list of some of the biggest dangers.

1. Physical Injuries
Unusual repetitive stress injuries from historic toys are not the only physical dangers.  Sunburns, insect bites and bee stings are all looming threats whenever we participate in community events outdoors.  Working with historic objects can lead to pulled muscles from lifting and moving heavy objects and innumerable bruises that mysteriously appear during exhibit installation.  Not to mention the paper cuts and eyestrain from office work.

2. Toxins, Disease and Explosives
Taxidermy animals contain arsenic, glass thermometers are filled with mercury, old paint is made with lead and red Fiestaware is radioactive.  Historic medical kits are filled with various poisonous pills, powders and tinctures. I found a tube of glass pipettes containing smallpox vaccine at one museum where I worked.  I have been known to give new interns and volunteers a “do not lick” tour of collections so they can avoid these dangers.  Occasionally, one finds unexploded ordinance or live ammunition in a museum’s collection as well. 

3. Never Being Able to Enjoy a Costume Drama Again
I’m sure this is not a danger limited to those working in museums.  I know many history buffs that have trouble enjoying a movie because of anachronistic mistakes.  I have a fairly good background in historic fashion.  The wrong hat or dress can distract me so much that I cannot enjoy the rest of the movie. 

4. Being Ruin for “Real” Work
Being a curator at a small museum is by far the most fun job I have ever had.  There is always something new and different going on.  Just in my time here at CCHS I have designed exhibit graphics, researched topics from the history of American LaFrance to Hindu wedding traditions, done interviews for tv and newspapers, dealt with flooding caused by air conditioners four different times, given a lecture in my underwear, walked through a cemetery hunting for stories, knit a sweater for a tree, processed hundred of newly donated objects, and met and worked with a huge variety of wonderful and interesting people.  I can’t say that there’s never a dull moment in museum work because there are very many dull moments, but I could not imagine ever being happy working in a “real” 9 to 5 desk job.  I’ll stick to working in museums despite all the dangers.

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