I'm A Museum Person

I’m A Museum Person: Steve Slack

The British Museum. Photo by gualtiero via Flickr.

My name is Steve Slack, and I’m a Museum Person.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a writer, based in London. I write for museums and about museums. I can mostly be found in a museum or in the bar. Or in a museums that have bars.

After about ten years of working on museum exhibitions, I broke free and now work on my own as a freelance writer, researcher, curator and whimsical thinker. I drink a lot of tea and I like cricket. Yep, I’m British.

Why do museums matter to you?

Take a moment to look back over the millennia of human existence at all the amazing things we humans have achieved as a species: fire, wheels, agriculture, money, government, public art. We’ve even put a man on the moon and figured out how to wrap cheese in red wax. 

Doesn’t it appear strange that for some reason we’ve also ended up setting aside special buildings where we collect things together, put them in glass boxes and then invite people to come view them?

Maybe we’re just naturally hoarders. Maybe we’re scared of forgetting about where we’ve come from. Maybe we’re proud of all the amazing things we’ve achieved. Or maybe we like to root ourselves in time and place – establish ourselves in history for future generations to discover.

It seems to me that museums are incredibly useful time capsules. Today we look at Victorian museums almost as museum objects in themselves – they can tell us a lot about how people interpreted the past, in the past. And in years to come, the museologists of the future will look back at the museums of the first decade of the 21st century and regard our modern art, touch screens, education suites and incessant tweeting through rose-tinted spectacles. So for me, museums are about the past, but they’re also about the future.

What is your favorite museum memory?

I saw Lindow Man on display in Manchester in 1987 – creeping up to the display case where the bog body was laid out was like a magical, almost mystical, experience for me. As a child I was quite apprehensive, but completely drawn in by the body. Even though I’ve surely forgotten many of the details of exactly how it was displayed I remember being fascinated by the fact that a human body had survived so long. Lindow Man had only come out of the ground a few years before, but it transported many people 2000 years back in time.

That stayed with me for many years and then, 20 years later when I was working at the British Museum, I ended up working on the re-display of Lindow Man. After a recent tour of the UK, he’s back on display at the BM in Gallery 50.

What museum would you love to visit?

There are some amazing museums in the world, but there are also some fabulous places opening right now.

I’d love to go and see the newly laid out National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. I’m also really looking forward to the new Riverside Museum in Glasgow (a little closer to home, so more easy for visiting.)

And in a few years time there will be a whole host of new museums in the UAE that I’m sure will be worth the visit.

Scene from Beijing. Photo by Francisco Diez via Flickr.

What is your dream museum job?

I know it sounds cheesy – and I suppose I judge people who say it – but I genuinely think I have the best job in the world.

I currently run a solo operation, but perhaps one day I’ll be a museum guru with a string of books behind me and minions under me. Right now though, I’m pretty happy with where I am. I get to pick and choose what projects I work on –curating exhibitions, writing audio guides, undertaking research projects.

I’m about to publish a second book with Museum [Insider], the online magazine for suppliers to museums and heritage venues in the UK. I’ve also done some TV work recently and I’d like to do more of that in the future.

When you think of the perfect exhibit, what is in it?

I’m not sure there is a perfect exhibit. Just like there’s no one perfect book, movie or menu. I realised a few years ago that no exhibit can ever be all things to all people. And the museum-going public are rather picky, so pleasing them is rather a challenge.

Exhibitions that work well for me are all about balance. Whenever we’re putting an exhibition together we’re weighing up a seemingly endless number of variants – lots of text that explains the story well or less text that more people are likely to read? lots of objects to give a sense of breadth or only a few to make people look? how many computer interactives? what shade of pale grey will we paint the walls? how much light can we put on the objects? how much seating will there be?

As interpreters and designers, if we can strike the balance well and get the story we’re trying to tell across to the visitor then that’s our job done. I think it’s also important that exhibitions continue to push boundaries, so when I go to a museum I’m particularly impressed if I see a new display technique that isn’t necessarily from the collection of display set pieces we’re used to. Write text on the floor; project images through a tank of water; create a soundscape. Make me stand back and think.

And while I like an exhibit that is intellectually robust, I also love a sense of humour.

Who is the funnier museum twitterer…@SUEtheTrex or @NatHistoryWhale?

Sue is hilarious. What a great idea to have a museum object tweet. I’d love to see the Walrus at the @HornimanMuseum tweet sometimes. I’m sure he’d say wonderful things.

The Walrus at the Horniman Museum. Photo by russelljsmith.

What is the most random item that you have bought in a museum gift shop?

I was quite proud of the ash tray in the shape of Mao Tse-Tung I got from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Ironic, as Mao was a keen smoker. But it got broken, alas.

A few weeks ago I got a particularly ugly fridge magnet from the National Museum of Art and Culture in Minsk, Belarus.

To test your museum knowledge, what cities are the following museums in?

  • The High Museum of Art – Atlanta, I think?
  • The Experience Music Project – no idea!
  • Musee de la Civilisation – hmmm, I have a hunch it’s Canada, so I suppose if it’s French, then Quebec?
  • Courtauld Gallery – right here in London
  • Kuntskammer – Berlin. (Oh no, I just looked it up, it’s in St Petersburg. It sounds German, no?)

Huh, I thought I was pretty good at geography. Guess I need to hit the books again on museums of the world.

You may have heard of the Month at the Museum contest recently held at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. What museum would you move into for a month if you could?

The Hermitage is massive. I don’t think I even stepped foot in half of the rooms in the palace in one day, so I’d love to go back and see more of it. And if I was in St Petersburg, I’d go and check out the Kunstkammer and find out what on earth it is.

I figure it’d get pretty scary at night in most museums though. Maybe I need somewhere more comforting – I know a really good couch in the V&A in London that’s good for a mid-afternoon snooze, so perhaps I’ll just go there.

The Hermitage. Photo by Anatolly Prutz via Flickr.

Out of all the museums you have visited so far, which one is your favorite?

The Vasa Museum in Sweden is pretty amazing. It’s a massive ship which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, before it had even left Stockholm harbour. But the entire thing – or what’s left of it – was raised in the 1960s. The body of the ship takes up most of the space in the building and the various floors of the museum are at the different deck levels – right up to the crow’s nest. It’s a story about personal pride, museum conservation and loading ballast – things we could all do with knowing a bit more about.

What is the most bizarre museum you have visited?

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is Los Angeles is one of the most peculiar museums I’ve visited. The strange and spectacular come together with the bonkers and bizarre here. Don’t try to understand it – just go with the flow.

There seem to be a million books and movies set in museums. Do you have a favorite?

I love it that Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) insists on making repeat visits to the museum to see the dinosaurs. I imagine @SuetheTrex in the Field Museum would be delighted to see him creeping around the place doing an impression of the T-Rex.

Photo by Unlisted Sightings via Flickr.


Thanks to Steve for sharing his experiences. If you’re interested in participating in the “I’m A Museum Person” series, send us an email at editor@museumist.com, and we’ll get your story up on the site.









I'm A Museum Person

I’m A Museum Person: Bob Beatty

A View from Gettysburg. Photo by soaptree via Flickr.

My name is Bob Beatty, and I’m a Museum Person.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’ve been “history geek” since elementary school. It is a mantle I wear proudly and one that was confirmed in various family vacation photos I recently looked through. There are images of me in costume in an old time photo booth, standing by cannons at various sites, and looking at the Gettysburg statue of General John Buford, an ancestor. Our vacations could be tracked in the family station wagon trips we made from south Florida through the Southeast and up the Eastern Seaboard. We took trips to St. Augustine, Savannah, Charleston, Richmond, the Civil War battlefields in and around Northern Virginia, and to Gettysburg. We visited forts, antebellum homes, battlefields, just about anything historic that I had found in some random guidebook or had seen on one of the brown signs by the highway (you follow the brown signs too, right?). I developed a very deep and personal connection to historic sites through these visits and a love for not only the sites and artifacts, but for museums and cultural institutions as a whole. I felt a connection to the history I so loved to read in books that continues in me to this very day.

I am currently Vice President for Programs for the American Association for State & Local History. My primary responsibility is to direct AASLH’s professional development program including onsite/online workshops, the annual meeting, affinity groups, and publications. Prior AASLH, I was Curator of Education at the Orange County (FL) Regional History Center.

I have a B.A. in Liberal Studies (I usually say my major was “college”) and an M.A. in History in 2002 both from the University of Central Florida. I’ve been an adjunct instructor of American History at the university and community college level, including teaching a History of Rock & Roll course at the latter.

State and local history is one of my particular interests as I truly believe that the discovery of local heritage helps in the building of a strong community. This is reinforced by my work at AASLH, the History Center, and research for my thesis, “Legacy to the People: Community and the Orange County Regional History Center,” which examined the ideal of community service and in the context of the history of the American museum movement. I’m also the author of Florida’s Highwaymen: Legendary Landscapes about a group of African American artists in Florida in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Why do museums matter to you?

I think museums are positively critical to the country and to their communities. What I learned in doing my graduate research is that this is the historic function of the American museum, to provide an essential community service (this was/is distinct from prior museums worldwide which were for much more elite audiences). This was also early in my museum career so it was really inspiring to know that I was literally standing on the shoulders of giants (my hero Charles Willson Peale, John Cotton Dana, Theodore Low, and the authors of Excellence and Equity), that the work I was doing was important and did matter in the overall grand scheme of things. In fact, one of the talks I give is called “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” and looks at the history of the American museum movement vis-à-vis community service.

Museums are a place where not only our heritage is preserved, but also a place for reflection and for connection to our own pasts, but also to our present and future. I am working hard to make sure my own children catch the bug as well.

What is your favorite museum memory?

I have several. One is going to Gettysburg with my father on a summer vacation. He and I drove from western North Carolina all the way to Gettysburg, and took a tour with an NPS guide in the car. That was awesome for a seventh grader (as was taking a photo at the statue of my ancestor General John Buford)!

One that really stuck with me, though not at a museum, came during a trip to Florida Caverns State Park (if memory serves). The caverns were lit, emphasizing the beauty of the natural formations. As we toured, our guide implored us not to touch anything. “You’ll have the chance at the end of the tour.” And have our chance we did. At the end, there was one stalagmite/stalactite formation that had grown together into a single column (I’ve since forgotten what that’s called, I got a “C” in geology in college). The guide encouraged us to touch it. It was black and disgusting. This taught me a lesson that has remained with me for almost 30 years now. Without careful care or handling, our precious past would cease to exist or become sullied and almost unrecognizable.

Another was two trips probably 10 years apart to Drayton Hall that I referenced in a guest blog post for them awhile back (http://draytonhall.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/432/). In the 1980s, I visited Drayton Hall in South Carolina for the first time. I remember initially being unimpressed by its bare-bones interpretation. I was so used to antebellum homes dressed out in all their finery that Drayton Hall’s interpretation and emphasis on historic preservation was initially lost on me. But after spending an afternoon there in the early 90s, I was hooked by what they were doing. I recognized that history doesn’t have to be gussied up to be interesting or to convey something important about the past, an idea I have carried with me philosophically ever since.   And to this day, I still covet the rice spoon that my mother got on that visit!

The last two are from my own career when the History Center held an exhibition of the original manuscript scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (Kerouac was living in Orlando when the book was published) and another time when Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham and a true hero of the Civil Rights Movement, spoke at the museum for a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Brown v Board decision. I literally choked up introducing Rev. Shuttlesworth. I consider both highlights of my museum career.

Drayton Hall. Photo by BlackburnPhoto via Flickr.

What museum would you love to visit?

As for the biggies, probably the British Museum because of its role in the history of our field. (When I was in London I didn’t make it there and I still regret it to this day!) If I could travel back in time it’d be Charles Willson Peale’s original museum in Philadelphia again because it has such special meaning in my own career and in our field.

For current museums, I’ve yet to visit the Big House Museum in Macon, GA, since it opened as a full-fledged museum about my beloved Allman Brothers Band and I have yet to visit the Experience Music Project and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And I really want to see the National WWI Museum and also the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, both in Kansas City.

What is your dream museum job?

I could probably say I have it now, engaging with so many tremendous history and museum professionals across the country on a daily basis. That is a very cool part of my job. But as for a true “museum” job, it’d probably have something to do with music or music history. I am a music geek as much as a history geek so combining those two I’d be in heaven!

When you think of a perfect exhibit, what is in it?

Fantastic artifacts that move a story along are always crucial to me. I like lots and lots and lots of artifacts, visually that is so engaging to me. Many years ago when I attended the AAM conference in St. Louis, their exhibit on St. Louis in the 1950s (I believe) really sucked me in. I particularly remember a typical suburban living room scene with the TV, chairs (I think), coonskin cap, etc. I loved it. I also love exhibits that make me recall a certain time or place. The entire Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, is like that for me. (Hard not to be with all those toys!). For subjects that are a bit more complex, I like well-written exhibit labels and photos, but always like the story to relate to the objects. But simplicity and “place” can also make a perfect exhibit. I loved the Restoration Room at James Madison’s Montpelier and the interpretation of President Lincoln’s Cottage in DC.

What is the most random item you have bought in a museum gift shop?

I’m embarrassed that I don’t have an answer to this one. I usually gravitate toward books or Christmas ornaments. Does it count if I say I sometimes adapt keychains as Christmas ornaments if I don’t like the selection (or if the museum doesn’t have an ornament)?

You may have heard of the Month at the Museum contest recently held at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. What museum would you move into for a month if you could?

Oh, the Met to be sure, ever since reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in elementary school. My oldest daughter is reading it now by the way.

From Wikipedia.

Out of all the museums you have visited so far, which is your favorite?

This is one of the major “perks” of working for AASLH, I get to see so many cool museums when I travel it’s almost unfair. Here are a couple that immediately come to mind: Strong National Museum of Play (if I’m ever within five hours of this with my kids, we’re going), Pratt Museum (Homer, Alaska), USS Yorktown (got to sleep on it when I was a kid, a history geek’s dream), Baseball Hall of Fame, City Museum (St. Louis), General Lew Wallace Study and Museum (Crawfordsville, IL).

What is the most bizarre museum you have visited?

Probably the Indiana Medical History Museum which is one of the site visits for our Developing History Leaders @SHA program we hold each year in Indianapolis. Amazing collections in an amazing old building (though the room with the brains is kinda creepy).

I'm A Museum Person

I’m A Museum Person: Paul Orselli

Lively Conversation by Ginesta via Flickr.

My name is Paul Orselli, and I’m a Museum Person.

Tell us a little about yourself.

For nearly 30 years, I’ve worked to create inventive science museums and playful children’s museums around North America, mostly in Exhibits departments. Now I’m the President and Chief Instigator at POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) an exhibit design and development corporation that I founded.

I’ve also been the editor and originator of the three best-selling Exhibits Cheapbooks, published by ASTC, and been happy to serve on the board of NAME (National Association for Museum Exhibition).  I live on Long Island with my wonderful wife and “in-house exhibit testing crew” of four children.

For more about my museum POV, check out my blog about exhibits and other museum-related stuff at: http://blog.orselli.net/.

Why do museums matter to you?

Aside from the fact that I’ve always made my living from museum work, museums continue to fascinate and enthrall me with the classic combination of real “stories and stuff.” You can see the Rosetta Stone or a Lunar Lander on the Web or TV, but it’s just not the same as being in the presence of authentic objects. (At least for me!)  Especially if the “real stuff” is placed within a carefully crafted environment supported by the stories and authentic voices surrounding them.  I love exhibitions with a “Big Idea” and a compelling narrative thread.

What is your favorite museum memory?

That’s easy.  It would have to be when I was a little kid growing up in Detroit during the 1960s.  Even though I’m the oldest of three siblings, for some reason I remember my father taking only me to visit the museums in Detroit’s Cultural Center.  (Note to smarta$$es reading this — yes, Detroit did, and still does have a Cultural Center!)

Anyway, we spent an amazing day looking at mummies and suits of armor and the Diego Rivera frescoes in the Detroit Institute of Arts, then walking through the “Streets of Old Detroit” exhibition in the basement of the Detroit Historical Museum and finally playing with the exhibits at the old Detroit Children’s Museum.  (In those pre-PETA days, the Children’s Museum had a pet squirrel(!) running through the building  in a sort of DIY tubing system made of hardware cloth that snaked through the building near the top of each room’s walls.)

It was definitely memories of that day, and many other family trips to museums that helped me choose the museum field as a career right out of college.

Diego Rivera Mural at Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo by ashleystreet via Flickr.

What museum would you love to visit?

Ah, so many museums, so little time!  I think I’ll give you two answers:

1) The Ghibli in Japan: The official museum that features the work of Studio Ghibli and the director Hayao Miyazaki, probably best known for animated features like “Totoro” and “Spirited Away”.

2) The Te Papa Museum in New Zealand: I’d like to go to those places because they seem like cool museums, but also because I’ve not yet been to that part of the world.

What is your dream museum job?

Whichever job is my current job! Honestly, while I might grumble now and again about a client or project or museum, I really do need to get sincerely excited and find the way(s) to “fall in love” with each particular project to do my best exhibit design and development. You could call me a “serial monogamist” as far as my work goes.

When you think of the perfect exhibit, what is in it?

As I mentioned above, great stuff and great stories wrapped in a compelling environment.  Also, I love to be surprised or challenged in any exhibition, so if you can make me look or think about “familiar” things in unfamiliar ways, you’ve hooked me.

I recently saw the “Infinite Variety” show put on by the American Folk Art Museum inside the cavernous Park Avenue Armory space, and it blew me away.   On the surface, I thought, “650 red and white quilts — who cares?”  But it was an amazing use of colors and form and space.  Even with minimal interpretation (as far as labels and text go) it was fantastic!  Tip of the hat to Thinc Design in NYC.

Rouge et Blanc by H.L.I.T via Flickr.

Who is the funnier museum twitterer…@SUEtheTrex or @NatHistoryWhale?

Recently I’ve been more of a @BronxZoosCobra man myself, but if forced to choose @NatHistoryWhale all the way!  (Hey whale! Show me the love and follow back: @museum_exhibits).

What is the most random item you have bought in a museum gift shop?

A “Mr. T in Your Pocket” talking key chain gadget (with six authentic Mr. T sayings!)  from the American Visionary Art Museum.  I recommend bringing this product to boring planning meetings.

To test your museum knowledge, what cities are the following museums in: the High Museum of Art, the Experience Music Project, Musee de la Civilisation, the Courtauld Gallery, and the Kuntskammer?

I’ve been to the first four in person, so: Atlanta, Seattle, Hull (on the border between Ontario and Quebec) and London. Rather than cheat via Google on the Kuntskammer, I’ll just guess: somewhere in Germany — Berlin? Munich?

You may have heard of the Month at the Museum contest recently held at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. What museum would you move into for a month if you could?

Honestly the idea sort of creeps me out.  But, if forced to choose, I’d go with the Exploratorium.  I’m sure I could earn my “room and board” by playing and prototyping with the Exhibits folks there.

Out of all the museums you have visited so far, which one is your favorite?

I keep coming back to my visits to the City Museum in St. Louis.   It’s just filled with wacky, unexpected, and sometimes a little scary things.  I remember nearly getting stuck in one of their underground tunnels, but it was still big fun!  Where else can you see giant aquariums covered with amazing mosaic tile work next to an exhibit on historic toasters or doorknobs?  Eclectic and kaleidoscopic in a good way, and worth a special trip to St. Louis!

City Museum in St. Louis. Photo by Mike Miley via Flickr.

What is the most bizarre museum you have visited?

In a positive way, The City Museum. (See above.) In a negative way, The Creation Museum in Kentucky.

There seem to be a million books and movies set in museums. Do you have a favorite?

Well I’m not sure what it says about me, but I’m a sucker for museum heist movies like “The Thomas Crown Affair” or “Nine Queens” or “Hudson Hawk” or more recently “The Maiden Heist.”


Thanks to Paul for sharing his experiences. If you’re interested in participating in the “I’m A Museum Person” series, send us an email at editor@museumist.com, and we’ll get your story up on the site.

Photo Gallery

April Fools

So, I’ve never been one for elaborate and creative April Fools jokes. But, in the spirit of the day, here’s some Van Gogh paintings – featured on Artcyclopedia a few months back – that have been given the tilt-shift treatment. The change of perspective might just mess with your head.

Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888)

The Red Vineyard (1888)

Prisoners Exercising (1890)