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Museum Technicians

History

As long as objects have been revered, preserved, and displayed, the role of museum technician has existed. However, only within the last 40 to 50 years has this position been defined as we currently know it.

Early museums in the United States were private collections staffed by the owner or the owner's family. In such cases the owner often filled a variety of positions, serving as director, attendant, preparator, exhibit designer, curator, publicist, and carpenter. One example of an early owner-operator is Charles Willson Peale, who is generally credited with starting the first natural history museum in postcolonial North America when he opened the Philadelphia Museum in 1786. Trained as a saddlemaker and painter, Peale developed the first formula for permanent preservation of specimens. He mounted specimens in naturalistic attitudes, posed them against backgrounds he painted to illustrate habitat, and attempted, through labels, to follow the Linnaean system of classification of genera and species. Like Peale, many early museum workers designing exhibits were taxidermists and carpenters experimenting with display techniques.

As the Philadelphia Museum grew and became a focal point for out-of-town visitors, Peale saw the need to protect specimens and visitors from each other. Many of his specimens had been preserved in an arsenical formulation, then mounted and displayed in the open for close scrutiny; Peale observed that visitors touched the birds and mammals even as they read the signs cautioning them not to do so. His response was to enclose specimens in cabinets, with larger or more treasured exhibits placed in interior rooms away from the main flow of visitor traffic. The techniques pioneered by Peale established the direction of museum exhibits throughout the following century. The use of physical barriers such as glass-fronted cabinets in natural history museums or of cordoned-off walkways to channel visitor flow in art museums became the standard method of safeguarding artifacts, despite the fact that this method prevented visitors from observing work three-dimensionally.

Museum technicians and designers today are often called upon to wrestle with problems similar to those that concerned Peale and his exhibits. They work alongside museum curators and directors, determining priorities and establishing the degree to which an exhibit will be fully accessible to the public and how to best protect objects.

In recent years, many museums have made a gradual return to inviting unprotected observation, culminating in exhibits designed for handling and the establishment of activity centers or junior museums, where visitors may be invited to watch preparators at work, handle an exhibit's components, use interactive computer displays, or browse in a visitors' library.