So, how do you get into museums?
Most of us come into through the front door, pay a fee or show a membership card, and enjoy whatever spectacle we’re after. Some of us like jelly fish, some of us like taxidermy, some of us like clothes.
A universal constant for going behind the scenes is a specific, and not a general, request. You can say, “Show me all your spoons,” but not even please is going to help when there are thousands of spoons.
I like researchers: they’re always interesting, they see the collections in ways I don’t, and they have insights that are valuable and useful. But someone who wants to see all the spoons, or all the chairs, or shoes, or fire buckets is really hard to help: There are too many of each of those things. Specific shoes, chairs, fire buckets or coats are manageable and realistic. “May I make an appointment to see spoon 1492.1.12, please?” is a question a curator, registrar, or collections manager can work with. One spoon, two spoons, five spoons, a few pairs of shoes: Studying these few things can take a great deal longer than you might expect.
Think about it this way: in a Special Collections Library, you generally don’t begin with, “I’d like to see all your material on the Civil War.” For one thing, that will be a lot of stuff. Chances are good you won’t be interested in all (or even much) of it. What you’re really after is usually more specific. “All your home front diaries written by women over the age of 44,” or perhaps it’s “Battle accounts written by chaplains in the field.” Those requests archivists and librarians can and will gladly handle, and through a reference interview, can help you identify not just specific items on your topic, but help you think about your topic. But asking to see all the diaries (or anythings!) at once, is usually a non-starter. They’re all in separate collections, in separate boxes, on separate floors. Heck, I work in a place with hundreds of diaries, and I am pretty sure they’d call my therapist and the cops if I asked to see all the diaries at once. (Tempting thought that it is.)
Once in my life have I seen “all the somethings” pulled out from storage in a museum. The Curator of Photographs and Prints and a visiting (contracted) scholar were selecting daguerreotypes for an exhibition, and in my very junior role as the Curatorial Assistant, I got to pull out all the daguerreotypes by Thomas M. Easterly and help spread them out on an enormous mahogany table. I’ll never forget how beautiful that was, and how special, to see so same silvered plates and brass mats spread out on a dark surface. If this link is stable, you can get a sense of what it was like. Once, in a quarter century of working in museums. Sad, isn’t it? more people should get this chance, but it’s rare. However, this rule is in place for the preservation and security of the objects.
These kinds of restrictions are part of why museums have open storage, and it’s why I wish we could have open storage. But most museums don’t, so the key to getting into the storerooms (or the research rooms) is to ask the right way. I did a presentation on the process, and there’s more good advice over at the Still Room Blog.
Always, in museums or in libraries, if there’s a catalog, start there! You can narrow down your choices with database searches and questions in advance so that you can make the absolute most of the time you have. Your time is precious. Focusing in on what you really want to see will help the museum’s staff help you better. And if you really enjoy a collection, please consider supporting it financially, with a donation to a collections care fund, annual fund, or a membership. Your dollars count, they’re noticed, and they’re truly appreciated.