Museum attendants monitor exhibits, inform and guide visitors, and facilitate interactions between visitors and exhibits. They are the foremost representatives of the museum to the visiting public. The precise duties of a museum attendant vary with the needs of the museum and the specific job title. At some institutions, volunteers rather than employees may fulfill the duties of attendants. At others, attendants may function part time in other areas of museum operations, such as in shipping and receiving, as sales clerks, or as library aides. In small museums, an attendant’s duties may merge with those of the professional staff; in the smallest museums, the attendant may also be the director.
Museum Attendant Career History
Museums in the United States not only display unusual or beautiful objects but also educate visitors in the historical, cultural, and scientific circumstances in which such objects came into existence. It is also of great importance to educate visitors about objects’ modes of production, their relationship to similar objects, and the place of humans in an intercultural and biological universe.
Early museums in the United States were private collections staffed by their owner or the owner’s family. In such cases, the owner often served as director, attendant, preparator, curator, publicist, and carpenter. An early successful owner-attendant, Charles Willson Peale, is generally credited with starting the first natural history museum in postcolonial North America, the Philadelphia Museum, which opened in 1786. He exhibited specimens in naturalistic settings, against backdrops he had painted. His museum became an unofficial repository for specimens acquired on western trips of exploration, such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition. Peale may also have begun the practice of printing catalogs of his holdings and reissuing them from time to time as the number of specimens increased or as more accurate identifications became available. Peale was not only the director of the museum but also its chief attendant and educator. He had irreproducible knowledge of the specimens, their origins, and their potential contributions to the state of science in the United States. He spread this knowledge freely through informal chats with visitors, publications, and correspondence with European collectors. The techniques Peale pioneered and his ideas about exhibition defined directions for U.S. museums for the next century.
As U.S. museums grew in size, scope, and operating budget, institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago were founded and housed in massive Greek-influenced structures during the late 19th century. However, the growth of these large museums did not adversely affect the development of small community- or family-owned museums. Attendants of such small museums may also serve as directors, or may be unpaid volunteers. As they go about their daily business, these attendants replicate many of the daily functions of the early directors of U.S. museums.
Museum Attendant Job Description
Museum attendants often work through the education department or through a unit known as visitor services. They are sometimes called museum aides. A museum aide might also be a docent, or referred to as guide or explainer.
Receptionists greet visitors, collect admission fees, distribute maps, and answer general questions about exhibits and the layout of the museum. Guards primarily attend to the safety of the museum, its collections, its staff, and the overall flow of visitors. They observe public areas for hazards to visitors and evacuate the museum in case of emergencies. Some guards are cross-trained as first-aid officers. On a light visitor day, guards may act as on-the-spot information officers.
In another category of museum attendants are gardeners or groundskeepers. Ordinarily these functions are carried out by the museum’s maintenance crew or by contract workers, but attendants may perform the task, especially if the museum is small and the grounds are considered an extension of the museum, such as the formal garden of a restored country house.
The functions of museum attendants vary with the size of the museum and its mission. Museums in the United States are as various as human interests. Among some of the lesser-known institutions are the Museum of Cartoon Art, the National Bottle Museum, roller skating and figure skating museums, museums of whaling, nuts, old fans, tattoo art, the Pony Express, locks, swimming, bullfighting, and butterflies. The position of attendant or educator in any one museum will not be exactly like that in any other museum, but some shared features of the work do exist. These features can be loosely sorted by type of museum.
In art museums, attendants may deliver informative talks in a particular historical period as they accompany visitors through the exhibits, or they may be primarily concerned with the security of the collections. In natural history museums, attendants describe the biological and evolutionary context of the specimens, how they were acquired by the museum, and the methods of preservation and mounting. In children’s museums and space and technology museums, attendants are likely to be involved in hands-on, interactive activities throughout the working day. In folk museums or historical reconstructions, attendants may wear period clothing, demonstrate the use of antiquarian articles or older technologies such as spinning or milling, or they may prepare and serve food in a historically authentic manner.
Museum Attendant Career Requirements
Museum attendants must have working knowledge of their employing institution’s collections. To achieve this wide range of knowledge, a broad academic background is necessary. Courses in art, biology, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, literature, and history are recommended. Math and computer courses are also beneficial because most museums are installing interactive computer displays in exhibit areas.
Attendants typically undergo a period of in-service training immediately after being hired, during which they receive instruction in the content of the exhibits, the history of the museum, and the specific duties they are expected to perform. Content instruction is repeated whenever a new exhibit opens or the attendant is shifted to a different area of the museum.
Attendants are liaisons to the museum’s visitors. Because museums strive to serve diverse audiences, museum attendants who know a foreign language, sign language, and/or CPR are at a great advantage. Being able to communicate with many types of individuals is a necessary requirement for these people-oriented positions.
Exploring Museum Attendant Career
Because museum attendants interact with groups of visitors, activities such as leading organized clubs or groups, scouting groups, or travel societies will help you decide whether you would enjoy being a museum attendant. Comfort with public speaking, explaining, answering questions, and integrating new knowledge is an essential asset that can be developed through many avenues outside of the museum walls.
Many museums offer programs related to the museum’s function, such as field trips, photography clubs, study groups, and behind-the-scenes tours. Volunteer positions for high school students are also available at many museums. Previous association with a museum in any capacity is an advantage when seeking employment in the museum field.
Museums, historical societies, libraries, zoos, botanical gardens, and state and federal agencies hire attendants. These institutions are located throughout the world, in both small and large cities, and are responsible for providing public access to their collections. Museums and similar institutions employ attendants to fulfill their educational goals while providing safe, pleasant environments for their visitors.
Most museum workers at all levels enter museum work because they have specific skills and knowledge needed by the museum. A teaching background or experience in leading activity groups are among the skills immediately transferable to a museum environment.
In general, the museum attendant position is not a professional position, and a high school degree may be sufficient for employment. Some institutions may give hiring preference to applicants with a bachelor’s degree. Applicants with advanced degrees and relevant work experience, such as teaching, fieldwork, or public relations, are usually better positioned to take advantage of employment opportunities in the museum field.
Many museums have a substantial volunteer staff, and this method of entering museum work should not be overlooked. Volunteering allows flexible hours and close observation of the different activities conducted in administrative, research, and exhibit areas.
Museum work is characterized by unusual freedom within a job area and short, sometimes nonexistent, promotional ladders. For example, only one or two management levels may separate museum attendants from the director of the museum, yet the positions at the intervening levels may carry specific requirements, such as a bachelor’s degree and several years of experience in managing budgets and staff. It is unlikely that an attendant lacking these qualifications would be able to acquire them solely through continuing work at the museum. There are no hard-and-fast rules, however. To offset the relative lack of vertical movement, there is more than usual opportunity for lateral movement, that is, for assuming a new position elsewhere in the museum at the same employment rank, and for exploring a position in depth. Attendants’ duties may change with the seasons, as new exhibits are opened, and as attendants gain experience and discover creative possibilities in their jobs. Because of the stimulating and changing environment, museum workers tend to have high job satisfaction and may remain in their jobs for long periods of time; when they do move, they often remain within the museum field. Attendants who are successful at smaller museums may move to larger institutions with correspondingly broader responsibilities.
Attendants may continue their own education and acquire job skills relevant to an area of work they have identified as a career interest. These areas might include work as an education specialist; in museum operations, such as maintenance or exhibit preparation; in administration; or in public programs.
The range of compensation for museum positions depends on the museum’s size, mission, operating budget, staffing requirements, and the metropolitan area in which it is located. Depending on full- or part-time employment status, museum attendants’ salaries vary greatly, but typically begin at the rate of $5.15 to $6 per hour in institutions with operational budgets below $1,000,000.
Salaries for museum attendants are comparable to those of security guards, who had median annual earnings of $20,320 in 2004 (according to the U.S. Department of Labor), and receptionists and information clerks, who had median annual earnings of $22,000 in 2004.
Fringe benefits, including paid vacations and sick leave, medical and dental insurance, and retirement plans, depend on employment status as well as on the operational budget and size of the employing institution. Company-paid medical and health insurance may not be available to part-time workers and may not be available even to full-time staff in small museums. Federal museums are more likely than nonfederal museums to offer health and retirement benefits.
Museum attendants spend long hours standing or walking about the museum, answering questions, directing visitors, and monitoring exhibits. Once trained, attendants frequently work without daily supervision, but must constantly be attentive to the public and courteous even when fatigued. Attendants are needed during all hours that a museum is open to the public and occasionally when museum space has been rented for a private function. Flexibility in working hours may be a requirement of employment. Most museum attendants work within the museum, but some may assist on field trips or conduct programs in local schools. Some museum attendants live at the site.
Museum Attendant Career Outlook
The public education services provided by museum attendants are a core part of a museum’s efforts to justify spending. That does not necessarily mean museum employment is high. Rather, greater professionalism will be expected at all levels of museum work, and efforts to recruit and train volunteers for specific tasks will likely increase.
Two conflicting factors are expected to shape the employment picture for museum attendants in the upcoming decade. The first is an increasing awareness of the global environment and an emphasis on intercultural understanding. The second factor is the slowing of the nation’s economy and institutions’ caution in initiating new job positions. As a result, the employment of museum attendants and teachers is expected to change little or grow more slowly than the average.