Friday, June 26, 2009

Life on the road as a Traveling Exhibitions Registrar [Guest Post]

Today's guest post is also about traveling and is by my fabulous friend from grad school, Gena, who got me my favorite internship ever when she was working at Bellevue Arts Museum. I've written about her artwork before and now she's here to tell us about her totally kick ass job.

Growing up, I was always a painfully shy child. I would hide behind my mother's leg when company came to visit, and I spent hours and hours wrapped up in my own imagination. I would sit and play with my dolls and create vivid story lines for them, and when I wasn't doing that, I was drawing. I spent a lot of time playing with my younger brother, too, but, looking back, so much of my life was spent living inside myself. I was very introverted and while I did have several very close and meaningful friendships, my life was always generally by the book, colored inside the lines.

I knew that I loved objects that had stories behind them, and I loved studying and reading all about art and past cultures. That's what led me to pursue a degree in art history as an undergrad. Museums were bastions of exploration and culture and intrigue for me, and I spent a lot of time wandering around the big ones in NYC as a kid. I never imagined I'd actually end up working in one as an adult, but it's amazing where life takes you, and working in a museum was somehow a really natural fit for me.

Nowadays, I am living life quite outside the lines, and I have to say, I'm loving it. At 32, I've definitely broken out of my old shell, and the life I live is one which many people have told me they would love to experience. The funny thing is that on the surface, it doesn't seem all that glamorous. You see, I am a museum professional. I have a Master's degree in Museum Studies, and have worked in various types of museums for the past ten years on and off. Those jobs helped me get to where I am today, working for one of the world's foremost institutions, the American Museum of Natural History in New York as a Traveling Exhibitions Registrar.

What is it that I do? That is the first question people ask me when I tell them my job title. Most people don't know what a museum registrar does to begin with, but throw in the "traveling" part, and they seem even more intrigued. When I meet new people at a party or other social occasion, and they ask me what I do, my life becomes an instant, awesome ice-breaker. Any lingering shyness I have instantly seems to fade into the background.

It's like I suddenly become this fascinating person, an object of envy and interest. The best part is that I'm not making any of it up: I get paid to travel around the world and install and de-install museum exhibits. I guess there aren't too many people on the planet who have the type of job that I do, so that makes me unique - and a hot commodity at parties. Don't get me wrong - it's not as though I am using my job as a way to gain new social status or make friends. I truly love what I do, and I work very hard at it. It took a lot for me to get to this point in my career and I am proud to answer the many questions people have for me, and I enjoy explaining what I do.

Gena in Sydney

A typical work trip for me would involve flying somewhere domestic or international. After my first two weeks on the job, for example, I was sent to Canberra, Australia, for two weeks to install an exhibition about Darwin at the national museum there. I was nervous because I had never travelled internationally, and I'd never been so far from home. It was about a 21 hour journey to get from my home in New York City to Canberra.

I usually work with another co-worker from my museum in NY, someone who sets up the object cases and the floor plan. This person and I work in tandem to make sure an exhibit goes up smoothly, safely and on time. My role is to protect and care for the actual objects - whether they be stuffed pigeons, model ships, monkey skeletons, beetles, etc. I examine the objects and write condition reports noting any damage or changes, and then I actually place the objects in their cases. So this is what I did for the two weeks I was in Australia.
Gena with an object from the Darwin exhibit

We generally work the typical daily schedule of the venue we go to. In most cases, we end up doing an 8:30-5 Monday-Friday schedule. In Australia (and also in London), the crew we worked with took a 30-minute tea break every morning at 10:30. I became fond of these morning breaks, as we fiesty, neurotic New Yorkers rarely take any breaks at all. Working with a new group of people in a foreign country, or even domestically, is wonderful. You adapt to their routines, and if you are at a location for three weeks, as I was recently in Anchorage, Alaska, you get to really know your new co-workers. And three weeks is enough time to get used to a new city, spending the off hours exploring and going on adventures.
Toasting to a job well done in London after the de-install of Darwin
with part of the crew she worked with there

I suppose I am glad to be able to say that I am truly proud of what I do. I don't live the glamorous jet-setting lifestyle of a corporate executive, and I don't get paid very much. But when I am on the road, all of my basic expenses are paid for - we get a daily stipend that covers food and travel expenses, and the musuem pays for our flights and hotel rooms.

There are times when life on the road isn't quite as exciting or easy, and sometimes there are moments when living out of a suitcase gets really depressing.
A typical travel schedule for someone in my position is about 30% of our annual workload. So I'm on the road a lot. But these trips tend to take place at certain predictable times of the year. Spring and Autumn seem to be our busiest times.

Typically our installation schedules are no longer than two-three weeks at a time. I also have shows that only take me 2-3 days to install. But sometimes shows overlap, and you end up having to do two back to back. This happened to me recently when I traveled to London for two weeks to de-install Darwin, and then was flown directly to Anchorage, Alaska for another three weeks to install Gold.

Five weeks on the road is a long time. I had never been away from home for so long. I can truly say that the experience challenged me and changed me in profound ways, however, and broadened my world view quite significantly. As a single person, being able to pick up and go is what makes this job possible for me. If I had a partner or children, or even pets, I would probably not be doing this job. It just happens that I am at a point in my life where I am able to take on the challenge of a job that involves travel, and that's what makes life so exciting.

Not many people can say that they're working their dream job. I never thought it would happen to me, either, but somehow it did. I guess I am living the life right now and enjoying it all.

It's sometimes hard to balance the travel on the road with work back at the office. Coming back to my desk and my spreadsheets and my day to day activities can be a real downer after traipsing around a new city and seeing an exhibit go up from start to finish. The best part of my job is the feeling of satisfaction and instant gratification I get watching a show come together. When you're on the floor in the gallery placing the objects, work is being done and you can see instant results. Interestingly, I experience a feeling of sadness when I de-install a show - taking everything out of the cases and packing them back into their crates to move on to another venue can be somewhat depressing in a way. But it is a sense of completion too.

I'm not sure how long I will be able to live this kind of lifestyle, because I do hope to find a partner and have a family in the not too distant future. Traveling as much as I do probably wouldn't jive with that. But until that happens, I will continue to take life one show at a time. I feel blessed by the Universe to have been handed this opportunity; I am getting the most that I possibly can out of it, and I enjoy sharing my story with anyone who is interested.

Luckily for me, most people seem genuinely intrigued and curious about what I do, so there is never any shortage of people who want to know more. This aids my old deep-seated shyness, because if someone is brimming with excitement at hearing what you do for a living, it's kind of hard to clam up. My own enthusiasm for my occupation is hard to contain so I often get just as excited talking about it as the people who are listening to my story.

Related posts:
My Multi-Talented Friend and Her Automatic Drawing
Adventures in Collections Management
Traveling America in Absence of American Values [Guest Post]

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Lapin Blanc said...


Unknown said...

I can see myself with you guys in that picture with the red wine in London ;)