Sterling & Noble Clock Company Standard clock, 2018.
history museums pragmatic historian

12 Admirable Traits in History Museum Workers You Will Want to Imitate

Sterling & Noble Clock Company Standard clock, 2018.
Sterling & Noble Clock Company Standard clock, 2018.

Forgive the click-baity title on this post, but, seriously, folks, I have met really wonderful people within the history museum field and many of them share a bunch of admirable traits that are well worth imitating. You’re not likely to hear this directly from history museums workers (whether staff, interns or volunteers) because most of them share the first trait on this list. Instead, I’ll take the time to reveal 12 of the best characteristics I’ve seen in my museum colleagues.

1. Humility – History museum workers are humble to a fault. They don’t typically talk about themselves because they find their research topics and other people far more interesting.

2. Perpetual curiosity – They are insatiably curious about history, continually asking questions on their quest to know more and fill in gaps within history (and there are always gaps).

3. Tenacity – When conducting historical research, museum workers keep at it long after others give up the search. They know new information (no matter how old it is) is constantly coming to light. They will work for years on a research topic.

4. Well-organized – Museum workers deal with a LOT of stuff, whether artifacts, photographs, books or documents. Many museums deal with a lack of storage space. In order to make the best use of the space they have available, they learn to become well-organized. They can become fussy about leaving out research materials, whisking them away as soon as they think you are finished with them. That’s because they know that anything left out of its normal storage area is likely to become misplaced, thus mucking up their organization scheme.

5. Good memory – Along with being well-organized, museum workers tend to have good memories. They need to in order to find and retrieve historical resources within their collections. Most museum collections have thousands of items and while there might be finding aids to help in locating something specific, doing so in a timely fashion often hinges on the museum worker’s good memory.

6. Understanding context – Those who work in the history field for any length of time start to grasp the larger story behind any given event or person. There are many factors that influence historical events, not just one. To do justice to history, museum workers develop an understanding of the context surrounding a specific event, making the resulting history richer.

7. Forecasting ability – George Santayana (1863-1952), writer and philosopher, penned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” After working with history for a while, it’s easy to see the repetition in human activities and the outcomes of particular actions. Because historians are constantly reviewing the past, they develop an ability to forecast the future, not through any supernatural means, but by recognizing when society is following a well-trodden course.

8. Story-telling abilities – Museum workers tell stories in order to share history, but they don’t just use words to tell stories. They can build a story around a single object or a collection of disparate objects. This leads to museum exhibits, programs, and publications.

9. Thriftiness – Most museums are perpetually underfunded and short-staffed. These factors make museum workers incredibly thrifty with money and supplies. It also means they tend to find efficient ways to do things, making them thrifty with time, as well.

10. Creativity – In order to be thrifty and manage to convey a multitude of stories about the past, museum workers have to be creative. I’m am in constant awe of the new ideas for programs, exhibits, and organizational administration I see arising from the museum field on a daily basis.

11. Interesting hobbies – History museum workers have interesting hobbies, and they’re not typically your average hobbies, like coin collecting or bird watching. Some of the hobbies I’ve seen among museum colleagues include the study and/or practice of old-time baseball, knitting using patterns from the past, passenger pigeons, Alsatian dancing, old glass bottles, bookbinding, bridges, photographing old clocks … 😉

12. Willing to say “I don’t know” – The longer museum workers study history, the more they realize there is too much any one person can possibly know. When faced with the overwhelming avalanche of data from the past, they learn that “I don’t know” is a useful tool that leads to further discovery. There’s no shame in admitting their lack of knowledge, which feeds both their humility and perpetual curiosity.

Follow a history museum worker around for a day and you’ll likely see many of these traits on display.

What trait(s) would you add to the list?