How I became a museum registrar III

Breaking News; Journalist discovers she’s a registrar

Tracey Berg-Fulton

GUAlumniProfileKI remember the day I decided to go in to museum work quite clearly. I was sitting on a bench in the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland, having just finished interviews for a newspaper piece I was writing. As is the custom, it was a rainy gray day, and I took shelter in the museum.

As I sat, I thought about what I had been doing – journalism – and asked myself if I could really sustain myself in it for thirty years.

The answer was a clear, resounding, heart-sinking, no. So having incurred thousands of dollars in educational debt to get to this point, what on earth will I do now?

And then I looked around me.

This. This is what I want to do. I had always loved history, art, libraries and museums, so why not make it my life officially?

I applied to an art history postgraduate program at the University of Glasgow on a whim, thinking that I’d be rejected out of hand, lacking British qualifications and only tangentially related undergraduate degrees in photography and journalism. I was shocked to be accepted to start in autumn of 2007.

At Glasgow, I was thrown headlong into research and writing, and took the opportunity to do work placement with a stained glass conservator at Glasgow Museums. Our work focused on an inventory of stained glass, and during that process I learned about the various roles within the museum. I couldn’t get enough of the objects and spending time in the vaults, and then I discovered that the person who has the most contact with the most stuff is, of course, the registrar.

My course was set. Famous last words, right?

I graduated in December of 2008, and returned to my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States. I had heard about the recession in the US, but being in Scotland I hadn’t fully understood the impact. I began applying to every museum I could, and then any related businesses, and then just any job in general. Nothing.

Finally a connection introduced me to another connection that helped me get in to a volunteer role at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Having had a job since I was 14, I was relieved just to be working, even for no pay. I also began volunteering at a small community run museum, creating an inventory of their collections.

Then in April of 2009, I had an accident while running that left me with a broken hip and temporarily unable to walk, sit, drive, work, or do anything but lie in bed. I lost six months of my life to my recovery.

After I recovered, I returned to my volunteer work at the Carnegie, and had a change of roles after a successful application, into a part-time position as an imaging technician. Not quite registrar work, but still interacting with lots of objects. I enjoyed my work, but I kept hoping for a registrar opening, and applying for open positions around the country.

375_513434167185_2390_nOne of those applications was successful – and I left to take an assistant registrar position in Oklahoma in 2010. It was a wonderful learning experience, but the economy had made it so that I had to work in Oklahoma while my husband remained in Pennsylvania. Then came a string of health problems in my family, and the need to return home was too strong. I left my position with no museum job to come home to.

Returning to Pittsburgh was rewarding in that I was home with my family, but the job situation was dire. I returned to working retail with an outdoor retailer while I sorted out where I was going to go next.

Then one day it dawned on me- why not be a contract registrar? If there isn’t a job, why not create one for myself? One of the benefits of living in a mid-sized city, I discovered, is that there aren’t a lot of folks doing contract work here (presumably they’ve all been snapped up by clients already!).

I sought out a mentor from the Registrars Committee of the American Alliance of Museums, and began to network and mention that I was doing independent work. Then I filed my papers to incorporate as an LLC. I had a surprisingly strong response from the Pittsburgh community, and I was off and running.

Contract work really suited me- I got to be a registrar, but really, my title was more appropriately “fixer”. I loved solving strange problems for my clients, everything from figuring out how to ship a massive photograph across the country overnight to how to replace the handle of a toilet (hint: turn the plastic nut the opposite way from every other nut and bolt you’ve ever tightened). It was the perfect blend of art history, carpentry, power tools, and diplomacy. I made my own hours and got to choose my projects, which was a blessing when a family member was diagnosed with cancer.

But something was missing. While my dog is a wonderful listener, he’s not much of a conversationalist, so I desperately missed having colleagues. I missed having a collection that I know down to the finite detail. I missed having a building that I know like an old friend. I missed having semi-regular hours- what no one tells you about “flexible working” and working from home is that it really means you’re working 24 hours a day, answering e-mails, billing, doing taxes, doing actual client work, looking for clients, keeping up on best practices, networking, etc.

And so that brings me to today. I’m one month in to my full-time staff position as Registrar at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. We are a young institution, and it is exciting to be able to help implement policies, troubleshoot challenges, and break new ground when needed. I’m happy to be working in an organization that serves an important cultural function in our city, and my work is incredibly rewarding.

It’s been a long and winding road to get to this point, but I’ve seen some amazing things along the way. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and learning from so many of my colleagues at conferences, over coffee, and through the RC-AAM listserv. I also have the pleasure to serve as Chair of the Website Committee of the RC-AAM. Every day I learn and do something new. Every day I see the most amazing and intimate objects of civilization- from baptismal gowns to goalie pads. I get to indulge my love of shiny things. And I get to scratch my technology itch (and I’m still waiting for a responsive designed web-based database, developers!). What could be better?

Going forward, I hope to continue growing in my profession, and I hope to become more involved in the wider world of museums, and to actively participate in bringing museums to a 21st century visitorship.

Text: Tracey Berg-Fulton

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This post is also available in: Spanish, German

5 comments

  1. Linda Kemp says:

    I was a high level PA for many years, requiring me to be meticulous in detail, well versed in documentation and electronic media and highly organised. Three years ago I had a change of direction and am just about to complete a BSc in Conservation and Restoration with high grades. During my free time I have also volunteered in museums, working with conservators and care of collection managers and including data base entry and lots of documentation as well as object handling etc.. The role of the Registrar or Collections Manager sounds like it would be an excellent fit for my skills and wondered what route you would suggest I take next? Would you recommend trying to get experience or into an MA or similar? I am based in London, UK so a good choice of museums here! I love the blogs and find them very interesting to read.

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    Español:

    Yo fui Asistente de Personal de alto nivel por muchos años, y se me requería ser meticulosa con los detalles, muy versada en la documentación y en medios electrónicos, y altamente organizada. Hace tres años tuve un cambio de dirección, y estoy por terminar mi Licenciatura en Conservación y Restauración con altas notas. En mi tiempo libre he sido también voluntaria en museos, trabajando con los conservadores y atendiendo la gestión de colecciones, incluyendo el ingreso a la base de datos de mucha documentación, así como la manipulación de objetos diversos, etc. El rol del Registrador, o del Gerente de Colecciones suena como si calzara excelentemente con mis destrezas, y me pregunto cuál dirección me sugerirían uds. que pueda yo tomar como próximo paso. ¿Me recomendarían uds. intentar obtener más experiencia o comenzar un Máster o similar? Estoy radicada en Londres, Reino Unido, ¡y hay muchos museos selectos aquí! Amo los blogs y los encuentro muy interesantes de leer.

    • Angela says:

      Hi Linda,

      I hope someone from UK can add more specific thoughts on this.
      I have a little insight into the way things are in the US and Germany, not in the UK. Generally speaking, German museums put more emphasize on formal education, in US museums it’s experience that counts more. Of course, having both is best and that’s only a general rule of thumb, each museum and each HR department is different.
      Personally, I think you should head for a little museum practice next, maybe through an internship. How it reads and how it really is to work with collections differs. It might sound phantastic, in reality you might find that you have problems with the dust and spider webs, with working 8 hours under artifical light or with having a job that is nearly not noticed nor appreciated by your colleagues. Or you find out that it’s really what you want to do for the rest of your life and then feel affirmed for putting the effort in this goal.

      Best wishes
      Angela

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      Español:

      Hola Linda:

      Espero que alguien del Reino Unido pueda agregar consideraciones más específicas sobre esto. Se me ocurre algo en cuanto al modo en que piensan los museos en EEUU y en Alemania, pero no los del Reino Unido. En términos generales, los museos alemanes ponen más énfasis en la educación formal; en los de EEUU lo que cuenta es la experiencia. Claro, teniendo ambas cosas es mejor, y es solo como una regla general, pues cada museo y cada departamento de Recursos Humanos, es diferente.
      Personalmente, pienso que podrías enfocarte en la obtención de alguna experiencia, quizás un internado. Difiere mucho lo que se dice de lo que realmente es el trabajar con colecciones. Puede sonar fantástico, pero en realidad debes afrontar que tendrás problemas con el polvo y las telarañas, con el trabajar 8 horas bajo luz artificial o un trabajo que ni de cerca es notado o apreciado por tus colegas. O encuentras que eso es realmente lo que quieres hacer por el resto de tu vida, y entonces te sientes como reafirmada para poner tu esfuerzo en esta meta.

      Cordiales saludos,
      Angela

  2. Anne Lane says:

    Tracey, your career path sounds as convoluted as mine. I love your line “art history, carpentry, power tools, and diplomacy.” Best of luck in your new position.
    Anne

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    Español:
    Tracey, tu trayectoria profesional suena tan complicada como la mía. Amo tus lineamientos “historia del arte, carpintería, herramientas eléctricas, y diplomacia”. La mejor de las suertes para tu nuevo cargo.
    Anne

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    Deutsch:
    Tracey, Dein Berufsweg sieht genau so zusammengeschustert aus wie meiner. Ich liebe Deine Zeile “Kunstgeschichte, Tischlerei, Elektrowerkzeuge und Diplomatie”. Viel Glück auf Deiner neuen Stelle.
    Anne

  3. Belinda Peters says:

    What a lovely inspiring story. I can really relate to you. I have 4 young kids and work full time for my partner in adminastration duties with our small business. Having completed my degree part time over centuries! I have a passion for objects too! There is a lot of history in the area I live but unfortunately no money or museums. You’ve inspired me

    Thanks Bel

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    Español:

    Qué hermoso e inspirador relato. Puedo realmente compararme contigo. Tengo 4 chicos y trabajo con mi socio a tiempo completo en las responsabilidades que tengo en nuestro pequeño negocio. Después de haber obtenido mi título a tiempo parcial ¡hace siglos!, ¡también siento pasión por los objetos! Hay mucho de historia en la región donde vivo, pero desafortunadamente no hay dinero ni museos. Tú me inspiras.

    Gracias. Bel

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    Deutsch:
    Was für eine schöne, inspirierende Geschichte. Ich kann mich damit wirklich identifizieren. Ich habe vier kleine Kinder und arbeite Vollzeit für meinen Partner, indem ich mich um die Verwaltungsaufgaben für unsere kleine Firma kümmere. Ich habe meinen Abschluß über Jahrzehnte nebenher gemacht! Ich habe auch eine Leidenschaft für Objekte! Es gibt sehr viel Geschichte in dem Landstrich, in dem ich lebe, aber leider kein Geld und auch keine Museen. Du hast mich inspiriert

    Danke Bel

    • Tracey Berg-Fulton says:

      Bel,
      Thank you for your post! The road to “success” takes so many different paths- I think that those who have a straight path to success are a rare minority. So many of us have come from diverse backgrounds, but we all do it for the love of art or objects, no matter how we got here. Best of luck to you!

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      Español:

      Bel,
      ¡Gracias por tu comentario! EL camino al “éxito” toma caminos muy diferentes. Creo que aquellos que tienen un camino directo al éxito son una rara minoría. Muchos de nosotros hemos venido de diferente formación, pero todos lo hacemos por amor al arte o a los objetos, no importa cuántos tengamos allá. !La mejor de las suertes para ti!

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      Deutsch:

      Bel,
      Danke für Deinen Beitrag! Der Weg zum “Erfolg” nimmt so viele Bahnen – ich denke, dass die, die einen geraden Weg zum Erfolg haben, in der Minderheit sind. So viele von uns kommen aus so unterschiedlichen Erfahrungshintergründen, aber wir tun es alle aufgrund unserer Begeisterung für die Kunst oder für Objekte, ganz gleich wo wir hergekommen sind. Viel Glück für Dich!

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