Apart from being a history blogger, I am currently a tour guide and museum educator in two history museums. Today at Cambridge Considered, I want to share some of my museum knowledge that I thought readers of history might find interesting. As always, if you have any questions, please ask in the comments! I'd be happy to add to the list if there's something you are wondering about.
- Shh... the artifacts are resting. Materials become fragile over the years – for example, paints fade and fibers weaken with prolonged exposure to light. Museum galleries are designed to be gentle on the artifacts. They are not too hot or moist, and the lighting is not too harsh. Still, they are far from perfect, so from time to time, most museum artifacts are “rested”: they are placed in storage, where it is dark and the climate can be kept consistent. In many museums, this is done when an exhibit is changed, so the resting artifacts are replaced in the galleries by completely different items. In some, artifacts are replaced by replicas during the slow season of museum attendance, and the originals are brought out during the tourist season.
- Wondering if something you see in a museum is the real thing? Check out the fine print on the label. If somewhere in the description of the item, it says "replica," "reproduction," or "facsimile," it's just that -- a replica. If it doesn't have any of those words (or another synonym for copy), it's the real McCoy.
- In almost all museums, an item's label will state who it belongs to. If it is owned by the museum, the label might also say how it arrived there -- for example, "gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donor" (which often means the object itself was a gift). Museums lend each other items on a regular basis, and the label of anything that is not owned by the museum will say where the item is on loan from.
- Two other pieces of information on almost every museum label are:
- a list of the materials used in making the item
- the item's accession number. The accession number is the number that identifies the item in the museum's records. Systems for assigning numbers vary, but one common practice is to assign a number that includes the year the item was accessioned (added to the museum's collection), followed by a period, followed by a sequential number reflecting how many objects had been accessioned so far that year. For example, if you started a museum today with three artifacts, they would be called 2011.1, 2011.2, and 2011.3. Other sets of numbers in an accession number might indicate that the item is part of a collection within the museum or a specific set of items. If your third artifact was a set of nesting dolls, they might be called 2011.3.1, 2011.3.2, and so on.
- Some people wonder whether to tip the tour guide or docent. The answer varies. In some parts of the world, tipping your tour guide is expected; I know this includes many European countries. In the US, however, tipping the museum staff is not expected or required. It isn't common to tip, but also not unheard of, and the tour guide will certainly appreciate it if you choose to do so. Some museums ask their employees not to accept tips, and to direct willing givers to the donation box instead.
- Museum field trips and group visits may not be what you remember from childhood. The field of museum education is ever advancing. There's a growing trend in museums of providing diverse programs for different ages, and many are tailored to specific points in the state school curriculum. If you're a teacher, camp counselor, or any other kind of group leader, it's worth checking out the websites of museums in your area. Group rates are often very good, and some visits can be subsidized by grant funding. Even if your group doesn't want a program, most museums prefer or require that you make a reservation for your group.