Museum technicians are skilled craftworkers who, using detailed plans supplied by designers and architects, build and set up various kinds of museum displays and fixtures. The role of museum technician varies depending on the needs of the employing museum and the skills of the technician. For example, a museum technician may work as an electrician, a carpenter, or an audiovisual equipment specialist. Planetarium technicians operate and maintain the complex sound and projection equipment used in planetarium shows and demonstrations.
Museum Technician Career History
As long as objects have been revered, preserved, and displayed, the role of museum technician has existed. However, only within the last 40 to 50 years has this position been defined as we currently know it.
Early museums in the United States were private collections staffed by the owner or the owner’s family. In such cases the owner often filled a variety of positions, serving as director, attendant, preparator, exhibit designer, curator, publicist, and carpenter. One example of an early owner-operator is Charles Willson Peale, who is generally credited with starting the first natural history museum in postcolonial North America when he opened the Philadelphia Museum in 1786. Trained as a saddlemaker and painter, Peale developed the first formula for permanent preservation of specimens. He mounted specimens in naturalistic attitudes, posed them against backgrounds he painted to illustrate habitat, and attempted, through labels, to follow the Linnaean system of classification of genera and species. Like Peale, many early museum workers designing exhibits were taxidermists and carpenters experimenting with display techniques.
As the Philadelphia Museum grew and became a focal point for out-of-town visitors, Peale saw the need to protect specimens and visitors from each other. Many of his specimens had been preserved in an arsenical formulation, then mounted and displayed in the open for close scrutiny; Peale observed that visitors touched the birds and mammals even as they read the signs cautioning them not to do so. His response was to enclose specimens in cabinets, with larger or more treasured exhibits placed in interior rooms away from the main flow of visitor traffic. The techniques pioneered by Peale established the direction of museum exhibits throughout the following century. The use of physical barriers such as glass-fronted cabinets in natural history museums or of cordoned-off walkways to channel visitor flow in art museums became the standard method of safeguarding artifacts, despite the fact that this method prevented visitors from observing work three dimensionally.
Museum technicians and designers today are often called upon to wrestle with problems similar to those that concerned Peale and his exhibits. They work alongside museum curators and directors, determining priorities and establishing the degree to which an exhibit will be fully accessible to the public and how to best protect objects.
In recent years, many museums have made a gradual return to inviting unprotected observation, culminating in exhibits designed for handling and the establishment of activity centers or junior museums, where visitors may be invited to watch preparators at work, handle an exhibit’s components, use interactive computer displays, or browse in a visitors’ library.
Museum Technician Job Description
In the course of their work, museum technicians use carpenters’ and electricians’ hand and power tools on such materials as plywood, wood, fiberglass, plexiglass, and metal to build structures and displays and to assemble them in place. They often begin a project by consulting with museum scientists or curators to gather information about a new exhibit or by studying sketches or engineering drawings to gain an idea of what is to be displayed, then suggesting display layouts. When the exhibit format has been decided, technicians cut and fit parts of the display structure—which may range from a cabinet to a rearrangement of an entire museum wing—and add fittings, lighting fixtures and wiring, plumbing when necessary, and audiovisual equipment or audio speakers if necessary. They test and adjust components when the exhibit has been assembled. They may also help arrange pieces to be exhibited in the cases they have constructed, often working alongside a museum preparator.
Technicians may be designated as exhibit carpenters or electricians. Those who choose to specialize may become planetarium technicians or science-center display builders. Planetarium technicians operate and maintain the complex sound and projection equipment used in planetarium sky shows and demonstrations. Others work in the graphic arts, drawing sketches and creating signs. The largest of museums may employ a team of graphic arts technicians, while in smaller museums this may be one of many tasks assigned to a single museum technician.
Often sound technicians consult with a presenter of a program, such as a public speaker or a teacher, to determine which optical and audio effects are needed and how they can best be produced. They adjust projectors, audio equipment, and controls to produce the required effects. They program the projector’s computer, if it is automated; otherwise, they manually operate the controls while following a script. Sound technicians may select tapes from an audiovisual library and combine them to produce a tape with sound effects and background music for the presentation. They maintain their equipment, following a schedule of inspections and service operations recommended by the manufacturer of each piece.
Permanent display pieces at museums must be cleaned regularly. Museum technicians who work with natural objects are mostly involved with preparing specimens for collections and exhibits. One task involves cleaning bits of rock from fossils by using small electric drills, awls, dental picks, chisels, and mallets. Once a specimen is cleaned, museum technicians apply preservatives, such as shellac. They may re-create and restore missing parts, using modeling clay and special molding and casting techniques. Technicians may make duplicate specimens of entire fossils or skeletons by using plaster, glue, latex, or other molding materials. They may help assemble newly acquired specimens that have arrived at the museum in pieces, fabricating substitutes for missing fragments as necessary. They also may construct mounts to hold fossil skeletons, using hand and power tools such as drill presses, welding and soldering equipment, and pipe threaders.
Other museum technicians, known as archivist technicians, help maintain museum files. Their primary duties are to catalog, label, and store historical documentary materials.
Museum Technician Career Requirements
Museum technicians need a high school diploma. High school students interested in this career can prepare by taking mathematics courses at least through solid geometry, chemistry, electronics, and shop math and practice. They should have sufficient language skills to read instructions, and they should be able to read blueprints and wiring diagrams.
For most jobs in this field, applicants are required to finish two to four years of postsecondary school training. They should have at least two years of technical training beyond high school, taking courses in electrical and mechanical construction techniques, cabinet-making, and interior design or architectural design. They should become familiar with tools as well as plans. Students interested in becoming planetarium technicians should take basic astronomy courses.
Museum technicians who work with fossils and other natural specimens are often required to have bachelor’s degrees. They may acquire the necessary skills by taking courses in geology, archaeology, or paleontology. In larger museums, a master’s degree is necessary for advancement.
Designing object mounts and constructing exhibit areas is mentally challenging and can be physically demanding. Museum technicians should be creative and knowledgeable about preparing safe display environments that accommodate valuable and fragile objects.
Exploring Museum Technician Career
The best way to learn more about the work of museum technicians is to consult with a professional in the field.
Institutions and private companies that display collections hire museum technicians. Historical societies, state and federal agencies, and libraries also employ museum technicians because of their specialized skills in working with valuable and fragile art and artifacts. Museum technicians may also find work with private exhibition companies that design, display, and distribute both temporary and permanent exhibits to museums throughout the world.
When possible, a student should seek a volunteer position in a museum to learn more about the internal workings of the institution while also becoming known within the museum system. The job market is competitive, and a proven history of experience is invaluable. Students can occasionally find volunteer positions assisting technicians, which may eventually lead to regular employment.
Many technical colleges offer two-year programs that can contribute to the range of knowledge needed by museum technicians, and four-year colleges or universities offer degrees in programs such as graphic arts, drafting, engineering, and design. While participating in degree programs, students may be better situated to find apprenticeship positions within a museum and to gain firsthand knowledge of the field.
Experienced museum technicians with a history of devising and contributing significantly to museum displays are well situated to move into more specialized positions. A museum technician may choose to specialize in the graphic arts and eventually seek a position as a graphic artist in a large, metropolitan museum. Some specialize in exhibit design and choose to take continuing or additional courses in architecture and design with the intention of tackling major exhibitions, possibly including collaborating with other museum employees to address museum renovations. Others may continue to study art conservation or restoration and move into the position of conservation technician or preparator, supervising technicians and working with curators to present exhibits.
Because of the great variety of museums, including variety in size, budgets, and exhibition demands, there is a wide salary range among museum technicians. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual earnings for museum technicians, archivists, and curators were $32,860 in 2004. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $19,080 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $59,530 a year. Museum technicians employed by the federal government in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions earned an average salary of $43,370 in 2004.
Medical and dental insurance, paid vacations and sick leave, and retirement plans vary according to each employer’s benefit policies.
Museum technicians typically work 40 hours per week. The work of a museum technician is often creative and demanding. One must be in good shape and flexible, both physically and emotionally, to meet continual challenges. At times the work can be physically strenuous, but this varies depending on the nature of each assignment. More often, projects require only moderate lifting and carrying (up to 50 pounds) and bending, stretching, standing on ladders, and working in tight spaces. Work with power tools mandates safety consciousness. Work as a sound technician or as a planetarium technician requires excellent hearing, visual acuity, and color perception.
Technicians play an important role in the tremendous undertaking of running a museum with changing exhibits. They work closely with others in the museum industry who are generally dedicated to projects and to the employing museum. This atmosphere of dedication and enthusiasm makes the work rewarding.
Museum Technician Career Outlook
The Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that the career of museum technician will grow about as fast as the average through 2014, though the career is not necessarily growing within the museum industry. As museums continue to address budget difficulties, many may choose not to retain a large staff of technicians throughout the year, but instead contract with independent exhibition and design companies on a short-term basis when there is the need to install a new exhibit. Private industry and for-profit companies have continued to grow while federally funded nonprofit museums may experience either a reduction of staff or limited hiring of new employees.