Volunteer Work in Museums…. A Necessary Evil

Wednesdays are the days I volunteer as a collections assistant at the Coronado Historical Association. Most of the work I do involves cataloging newly accessioned objects, archival collections, and books for the museum’s library. My first couple hours there was spent fixing some catalog records to ensure that they thoroughly describe the object. Ensuring the object has a detailed description makes it easier for museum staff to identify the object in case its ID tag or label is ever removed. This requires catalogers or collections managers to describe the object from biggest to smallest. Meaning that you start by describing the object with the broadest terms then more narrow terms. Like describing the objects physical colors, noticeable patterns, and then describing distinct features, texts, dates, etc. It’s a fun kind of puzzle for me. I’m sure it seems boring to a lot of people, but I am always learning something new about an object. That to me is the best part. I was  also fortunate enough to learn how to physically number several objects using archival quality paper and B72 a thermoplastic resin used as an adhesive for object ID labels. First we had to print the tiny labels (think size 5 font) onto the paper using a  laser ink printer. Then we cut out each label using an Xacto knife. Now where to place the label… This varies depending on the object, but most often the label is placed in the lower right corner of the object’s side that will not be viewable when on display.

Once you have determined the location for the label you will put a layer of B72 the same length and width of your label on the object’s surface. Place the label on top of this layer and let it dry completely. Once dry you will brush a second layer of B72 over the label. Viola! You have now physically marked your object. I do really enjoy this kind of work because I can be neat, orderly and work in a systematic process. Which is the total opposite of how I live my day to day life. My husband can tell you all about how cluttered I am. I prefer to call it organized chaos. I digress.

Don’t get me wrong by the title of this post folks. I enjoy the work I do, I am happy to volunteer and help the staff out. However, it is unpaid work, and it is the most common way emerging museum professionals start gaining real hands on experience. Most internships, like the one I had at Balboa Park Online Collaborative, are unpaid as well. Paid internships are like unicorns, and people come out of the woodwork to apply for them. It’s rough, but museums do not typically have the funding to pay their interns. Thus a necessary evil. This is a hot button topic in the field too because some people think internships shouldn’t be paid. I would love to see more grants available for paid internships though. It would be beneficial to both the museum and student. The reasons why it is so tough getting a job is because like a lot of other fields

It is pretty saturated with people


It is super competitive as everyone is earning post graduate degrees trying to get a leg up.

So in the mean time I am volunteering as much as I can. I may even try to take on another volunteer gig just to gain a variety of experiences while I look for a full time job.

Thankfully the museum I am volunteering at is a great institution where I am valued, and the staff make it a point to check in and make sure I don’t feel taken advantage of, or that I am doing too much work.

FB_IMG_1524697805514The featured image on this post is a bar of soap from WWII. I personally photographed this object for the museum’s FB page.

Check out the Coronado Historical Association FB page when you have a chance, and if you are ever in San Diego definitely stop by! It is a great museum that really reflects the community’s pride in it’s history.

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