When I meet new people and they ask me what I do for work, a lot of people are surprised when I say that I am a museum curator. Depending on the situation, most people then ask how I got into it, what my educational background is, etc. One guy once told me he always wanted to meet a museum curator. I felt lucky to have helped him fulfill that wish haha.
So when people ask me how I became a curator, I don’t have some great answer for them about having several degrees that make me an expert in some random piece of history or art. I didn’t spend a year in Europe studying the great creations of Titian or Renoir. I’ve never been on Antiques Roadshow ( though this is a DREAM of mine) and being a curator is nowhere near as glamorous as movie characters who are curators seem to be (i.e. Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Eleven).
To look back, I can’t tell you one definitive moment in my life where I declared “I want to be a curator when I grow up.” In fact, I don’t ever remember that being anywhere in my universe. For the longest time, I wanted to be a checkout girl at the grocery store ( I aimed high, what can I say). To be sure, I believe this career aspiration had more to do with my interest in playing with the cash register, as evidenced by my frequent playtime with our Mickey Mouse calculator and obsession with pressing buttons on all the phones when visiting an electronics department of Bradlees or Lechmere ( old school New England discount store reference!)
As soon as my mother told me that I could be a checkout girl at the market when I was sixteen ( which I never did by the way), I quickly moved onto bigger ideas of what I wanted to do “when I grew up.” As an early lover of books, devouring two or three in a weekend, I wanted so badly to become a writer. I frequently wrote short stories and even had a few poems published back in the day. I’m not sure when that dream sort of faded away to dreams of wanting to become a pediatrician, though I think a childhood medical issue may have had some part to do with my interest in becoming a doctor. I remember a distinct memory from maybe age six or seven where, with the supervision of my mother ( a nurse), I dissected a pig’s heart at the Boston Museum of Science. And by dissected I mean wore a pair of Ziploc bags on my hands and touched this gooey thing on the table. Please note- as an adult I now see how crazy this is. As a museum person, I think this is AWESOME. That early endeavor with anatomy sparked some sort of interest in me that led to me watching those medical shows that TLC used to show of weird surgeries and things ( remember when TLC was actually about learning? Ah the good ole days).
Without going into every single thought process of what my life career might look like, I will sum it to say the doctor thing was never destined to work out because somewhere along the line, with an occasion that I have clearly blocked out, I became incredibly squeamish and sensitive to blood, guts, and gore. Exit medicine, enter attorney. Clearly I was an overachiever hell bent on multiple years of school and, unbeknownst to me at age 12, years of student loan debt.
I think the reason being a lawyer was so tempting to me was because I knew it involved a lot of research and writing. In junior high a local lawyer came to talk to my class on career day and told us how law school made him fat, bald, and blind and that not all of us could be lawyers. Ironically enough, this man ended up being the lawyer who helped me with my divorce.
When I entered college, I had a vague idea that law school still might be in the cards for me, but I was also really interested in documentaries, particularly influenced by the awesome Ken Burns and his baseball documentary, particularly in awe of the “experts” who made comments throughout the piece. As a big watcher of PBS, this whole idea of educating people about history and culture through TV was super cool to me.
With this vague interest in culture, I pursued an undergrad degree in American Studies, with not a clue what such a random major like that could bring me in a job. I came from a family of people who went after skills and concrete ideas in their college educations so it did feel sort of loosey goosey at times. When I went to the career planning office sophomore year to get help making my first resume, the counselor had a sign in her office that read ‘Do What Makes Your Heart Sing.’ It was like that sign spoke to me and I knew that I had to somehow find a way to pursue working in history, something I’d always loved from a very early age. I landed an internship in a local museum in the summer of 2003 and I’ve been working in museums ever since.
I’ve worked in places large and small, from baseball history to small town history, and every moment has been pretty unbelievable. I consider myself a “professional generalist” since I don’t have one specific area of intense knowledge ( my graduate degree is in public humanities with an American studies focus), though sports, cultural, and social history are my passion.
While, like everyone else, there are days of frustration at my job, I love my work and feel really lucky I can pursue my interests while getting paid for it. I am a lifelong learner who loves to find the answers to all my questions so working as a curator and doing research is the perfect fit for my curious mind. As my interests and life changes, so do my dreams of what I want next in my museum career; for now I am quite content to have my nose stuck in a book looking for great ways to present history and information to the public. As I’ve learned and worked with theories of museum education and exhibition, I’ve thought a lot about that experience at the Boston Museum of Science. It seems that museum memory had a big impact on me in a way that I misread for a few years– it wasn’t about medicine or science ( which I nearly failed by the way), but it was about working in a place where I could connect people with their interests, their pasts, and help them feed their curious minds too.