Jack of all Trades: Professional Skills for Small Museum Staff

By Joseph Govednik

This post was written by a recipient of a Wanda Chin Scholarship to attended the 2013 Annual Meeting

For the last several years I made the annual pilgrimage to the western city hosting the Western Museums Association (WMA) Annual Meeting with great anticipation. My first exposure to the WMA Annual Meetings was back in 2007 in Oakland, where I was a graduate student at nearby JFK University in Berkeley. Ever since that first taste of WMA, attending the Annual Meeting was a must for me to connect with colleagues, learn about the latest practices, and come together to discuss common challenges. Thanks to the generosity of WMA and the Wanda Chin Scholarship I could attend the 2013 Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City. As one of the few museum professionals at my organization I find it reenergizing to immerse myself amongst those who “speak my language” when it comes to the museum profession, best practices, and future trends. Without the Wanda Chin Scholarship I certainly would have missed a priceless learning and networking experience this year.

FossWaterwaySeaport The Foss Waterway Seaport

As Curator of Collections at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma, WA, I take great pride in our organization and the vision to create a premier maritime center in the South Puget Sound. Although our organization has existed for 15 years under various names, we are embarking on one of the most ambitious phases in an ongoing construction process. Transforming our 113-year-old historic waterfront wheat warehouse into a modern maritime museum is no easy feat, as a historic building presents challenges uniquely different than building a purpose-built structure. Because such energy is focused toward this grand project we have no financial resources to support continuing professional education. Furthermore, as a small non-profit organization, staff must assume multiple duties as we adjust to our “growing pains”. This makes attending the WMA Annual Meetings of paramount importance. Although my Master’s degree focused on collections management, I have since assumed roles in exhibits development, marketing, volunteer management, and eventually fundraising to support my department. Attending sessions within my field keeps me on track and current, however I found attending sessions that were outside my field equally important to broaden my skill sets. Thanks to the program committee wisely choosing compelling sessions, I had the ability to diversify my interests. Below are my accounts of selected sessions and how they will benefit my professional development and, ultimately, my organization.

My museum is undergoing a complete inventory process, one where I rely heavily on volunteers. Timing couldn’t be better for Utilizing Volunteers in Museum Collections to refresh my memory on the nuances of volunteer management in the care of museum collections. Attending this session made me feel like I was not alone in this process. Our inventory started just a couple months before the session began, and hearing how long this may take (1 year process for a textile collection at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts) assured me that I was on track with our inventory. This session was informative to the importance of a dedicated volunteer management staff person and communication between departments, volunteers, and the volunteer coordinator. What I really took from this is the opportunity to share this process with the public through an exhibit about inventory procedures and processes. I will certainly like to incorporate this into our exhibit plan for the spring and use it as an educational experience for the public to learn about what goes on behind the scenes at the museum. Other topics included how to manage short-term volunteers such as student interns.

Demystifying the Grant Writing Process was on the top of my list for “must attend” sessions. The weakest, and sometimes most embarrassing, link in my skills set is a lack of grant writing or fundraising experience. The ability to fund projects, regardless of scope, is critical to creating compelling visitor experiences. In my case, most of my museum’s development consultant’s efforts are towards the capital campaign to finish our building, which is our number one priority. Here is an opportunity for me to make a contribution to collections and exhibits, and this session provided the encouragement and inspiration I needed to take that first step towards funding my projects. The panelists shared their experiences with before, during, and after the grant writing process, along with handing out helpful outlines and online resources to research. Grant writing always seemed a mystery to me, and this session truly demystified the process where I am ready to take it on, strengthen a weak skill, and benefit projects at work at the same time!

My museum is undergoing constant change during our multi-phased construction process. Eventually, we will complete our building and a final exhibition plan will be implemented. The exhibit space currently used fluctuates rapidly, and we are using this as an opportunity to experiment with exhibits concepts will aid in our final interpretive plan. We will need to evaluate our visitors and seek their guidance on what we do great, what we need help with, and what we forgot. Get into the Driver’s Seat with Visitor Studies set the foundation of a visitor experience survey I would like to use at my museum. The moderators went over the four kinds of evaluation (Front End, Formative, Summative, and Remedial) and the type of data recovered from each method. As museums are part of our community, it is of utmost importance to seek the community’s input on their experience. A museum that is out of touch with its community will not flourish for long.

Experiencing the WMA Annual Meeting not only as a collections curator, but also as an exhibits developer, fundraiser, volunteer coordinator, and marketing manager means there is a wealth of options in paths for attendees to follow. Many small museums have few staff that are trained for one job but actually do several jobs, and can benefit from the concentrated pool of knowledge shared by the presenters at the sessions. WMA provides a venue for qualified specialists to share their deep knowledge with those of us from differing backgrounds. We have all heard the saying “Jack of all trades, master at none.” I believe many of us in the museum field are masters of one trade and a Jack of all others. Thanks to the WMA and the Wanda Chin Scholarship, my professional and practical knowledge growth has benefited greatly.

Joseph Govednik is Curator of Collections at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma, Washington. An active participant in the heritage community, he serves on the Board of Directors for the Washington Museums Association and Heritage League of Pierce County, along with co-representing Washington State for the Registrar’s Committee/Western Region. He has a BA in Sociology and Anthropology from Southern Oregon University, MA in Anthropology from California State University, and Master’s Degrees in Museum Studies and Business Administration from JFK University.


The Wanda Chin Professional Development Support Fund helps support travel and registration for Western Museums Association members and students. The Fund is underwritten bya Silent Auction in the Exhibit Hall of each Annual Meeting. Thank you to all donors and purchasers who have supported both the Fund and professional development it makes possible. For more information, please click here.



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