Here is my interview with Mary Cory, curator of the El Dorado County Historical Museum in Placerville, CA, and she is the secretary of the El Dorado County Historical Society. I chose to interview her because I worked for the museum last summer. Her interview provided insight on working in a small town museum and the difficulties and opportunities that come with it.
What sort of education did you get in order to hold your current position at the museum?
After college, I eventually got a job working as a paid guide at a historic house museum, and decided that I wanted to make museum work my career. So, I got a masters degree in Museums Studies from The George Washington University in 1989.
How did you come to working at the current museum? What about that museum attracted you and made you want to work there?
After working in historic house museums, I was interested in working in a more general history museum. This position was advertised nationally in a Museum publication (put out by the AAM) and so applied.
What projects are you currently working on?
The El Dorado County Historical Railroad Park, of which the El Dorado Western Railroad is a part of.
Improving the condition of the artifact collection through inventories, re-housing, improving storage conditions, and most recently, the disposition (and deaccessioning) of objects found to be outside the museum’s mission or in poor condition.
In class we’ve been discussing how museums repatriate objects to those they belong to. Has your museum encountered this and if so how often?
The museum had a human skull that was repatriated to a local Native American group in 1993, before I was here. So far, no other objects have been identified to be repatriated.
What do you want people to get out of the museum? What is it you want them to leave with?
More of an appreciation and interest in some, any or all aspects of El Dorado County’s history
In a digital society, how has technology affected the museum? What are the positive and negative aspects of it? Also, how have you incorporated that technology into the museum?
The Museum has a large collection of historical photographs. Starting in about 2003, equipment was purchased through a grant to digitize the entire collection of photographs, and to create a catalog. This was completed in a couple of years, and now all new photographs are scanned and added to the database.
Certainly, keeping complex information in a digital format, such as in a database or a spreadsheet has helped make the information more accessible. An example is a spreadsheet of all the burial permits issued in El Dorado County. Genealogists are looking for that information, and the spreadsheet makes it much easier to find.
However, we continue to use and add to our extensive (low tech) Master Index Card Catalog. This was started by volunteers in the mid-1970s and has yet to be digitized. So far, it continues to serve its purpose.
Because I am dependent on volunteers for all of these projects, I do not always have a guarantee that the volunteers, usually older and not very computer literate, will be able to use or contribute to these digitizing projects. As a result, I’m careful about committing time, money, and energy to a project that may not get completed if it requires a high level of technical know-how.
What aspects of the museum would you like to change in the near future? What are some of the obstacles preventing you from doing that?
More covered or enclosed space – space to exhibit and store artifacts, space to store archives and create a public reading room (currently our public space is in the middle of the storage space), and covered space for the outside artifacts, more enclosed space for the El Dorado Western Railroad program for storage, restoration and maintenance. I guess the main obstacles for creating all of this space is the money to build it, and the personnel to plan it.
What kinds of skills are applicants expected to have for an entry-level position as a curator?
I focused my master degree classes on Collections Management. I wish I had taken more classes on planning and installing exhibits. The degree helped me get an entry level job as the manager of a house museum, and after a few years, I was promoted to Curator of Collections.
Do you get many donations from visitors and from the community?
All new acquisitions have come to the Museum as donations. We get, on average, one or two offers of artifacts a week. We probably, on average, accept about half of what we are offered. Money donations come in as a $2 request at the door. Most people seem very willing to give that.
How has the city of Placerville helped draw attention to the museum, if it has at all?
I can’t think of anything the City has done. The County Chamber of Commerce (located in Placerville) distributes our brochure, has a link on their website, and will include a blurb about the County Museum in their annual visitors guide.
What project did you enjoy working on the most?
Recently, I worked with another volunteer on researching and installing two historical quilt exhibits at the County Museum with quilts from the Museum’s collection that have been in storage for many years. We found one crazy quilt with a ribbon sewed into it that commemorated the coming of the railroad to Placerville in 1888.
What advice do you have for those interested in the field?
Jobs are so hard to come by. Volunteer in the type of museum or historical agency that you would like to work for. Also, volunteering in a larger organization that has some turn over in positions may put you in a better position to get a job there.
What are some of the challenges of your job?
As the only paid person, I’m dependent on volunteers to get the jobs done that I determine are priorities. However, volunteers come to the museum with a certain set of skills and usually an idea of what they want to do….which may not fit my priorities. So – staying flexible has been very important in order to take advantage of the people that do volunteer and are reliable and dedicated.
Would you say the museum operates from a business perspective or no?
Since this is a County supported museum, I don’t need to make enough money to fully support the operation. However, in the past few years, the county budget has been slashed, so now the county covers my salary and basic building support and pays for the utilities. Our non-profit support organizations have stepped up and funded the Museum’s expenditures above and beyond the county’s support. The Museum’s Book Store and photo sales, along with the train ride donations, keep these programs, like the El Dorado Western Railroad going. We are trying to operate this in a more business-like manner.
How is the museum funded?
County General Fund, grants, and through the fund raising efforts of the El Dorado Western Railway Foundation and the El Dorado Museums Foundation, the County Museum’s two non-profit support organizations.
Before curator, what other experience did you have with museums?
Guide, Visitor Services Administrator, William Paca House Manager, Curator of Collections for Historical Annapolis Foundation. My position here is “Museum Administrator” which is equivelent to Director, and includes Curator, Museum Education, Registrar, Volunteer Coordinator, etc.
What are the positive and negative aspects to working in a small town museum?
Positives are having an opportunity to get familiar with all aspects of museum work. Negative is not having other professional support at hand.
Do you feel the museum is appreciated enough by the public? If not, why do you think that is?
Yes – we can always use more appreciation, but what has always impressed me is the interest and pride I see in the public that does visit. What we could use is more publicity in order to increase the museum’s visitation.
How has the museum improved since you first started out there?
One important improvement is I wrote and implemented the museum’s first Collections Management Policy. That greatly improved the process for accepting artifacts. It has allowed us to refine the museum’s collection so it reflects the mission of the museum.
Why do you think it’s so important to bring history to the public?
Having an appreciation of local history helps a community have pride in itself, and museums are a focus for that history, and can have a very positive effect on what is now called “quality of life.” That’s a somewhat pat answer to what is very hard question to articulate. The connection that we feel to “history” whether it’s our own or someone else’s, provides an important foundation to understanding the world around us….
What is one of the biggest challenges when setting up a new exhibit? Are you worried about how visitors will interpret it? What goes into the process of creating an exhibit?
For me, the biggest challenge is having enough dedicated time to work on it! It’s what I enjoy, and I always want to spend more time researching. My exhibits tend to start with an idea that is inspired by the artifacts, then doing the research, then selecting and arranging the artifacts and then creating the labels and graphics.
As far as how visitors interpret it, I’m usually looking for something that will trigger their interest and try to convey what makes it interesting to me.
Is there any other museum you would like to work for and why?
Sometimes I think it would be fun to work for a large museum with many departments and specialties, in order to have a chance to really focus on a particular skill or specialty of knowledge (like being the curator of a particular department at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.)
Another “what if” is working in an art museum with a collection of European Masters. My undergraduate degree is in Art History, and if my first paying museum job out of college had been as a guide in an art museum….