Monday, January 10, 2011


The concept of ownership has been bopping around my brain recently. Ownership in the sense of taking pride in something, or feeling a sense of belonging to something. Specifically, I've been thinking about "my" museums over the years, and the deep sense of ownership and connection I've had to each one of them. My identity gets all wrapped up in where I work, which I guess isn't unusual given how much of our lives each of us devotes to our jobs, whatever they may be, for better and for worse. I've been lucky that most of my jobs have been pretty good.

The Stephen-Birch A
quarium Museum, La Jolla

My first museum job was at the aquarium. It used to be in an old building down by the beach, and we visited all the time when I was little. I remember the tide pool out front where you could touch starfish and sea urchins, and the tiny gift shop where you could buy cheap seashells and coloring books. I wrote a report on the history of the aquarium in junior high school, and I still have a chunk of the beautiful blue tile that was salvaged for me when the old building was demolished. During summers between college, I worked in the ticket booth at the new incarnation of the aquarium (pictured here). We had to wear these aquamarine polo shirts (which totally didn't fit my style at the time, or now, for that matter, but it's more troubling when you're younger), and sell tickets out of a cramped little booth. People would often ask if we were mermaids because we were the first creatures they encountered behind glass at the aquarium. I loved being knowledgeable about the fish and the museum, and about silly things like the millions of different coupons and membership packages. Even though it was cool to be there all alone, I was always kind of scared walking through the dark aquarium before or after hours. What if all the glass broke and I drowned in those dark hallways among thrashing sharks and lobsters? It still give me the heebie jeebies.

Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley

My next museum job was at a science museum in the Berkeley hills. I had to ride a funky little blue bus from the campus up through the fog every morning; sometimes it was so foggy you couldn't even see this life-size whale sitting right out front when you arrived. I worked for one of the education programs, and spent a lot of time running past a large display of the human neurological system that made a loud zapping sound every few minutes as it traced the pattern of synapses through the body (or some such thing -- I'm not a scientist!). One of the things our program was trying to do was encourage science teachers to use this thing called the internet. It was a huge victory each time we got one of them to set up an e-mail account. Yes, I'm that old! And I got to meet Glenn Seaborg, who won the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 1951, and has an element on the periodic table named for him: seaborgium (element #106)!

Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park

My first ART museum job was in Seattle. I remember praying to a tiny statue of Ganesha that I'd get this job as a curatorial assistant at SAAM, supporting an older curator of Japanese art with an insane temper, and a younger curator of Chinese art who was always on the go. I had to type little labels on a typewriter every week for the ladies bringing in their Ikebana flower arrangements; meet old men in the lobby who wanted to donate their collections of Chinese snuff bottles; and listen to stories from the old timers who were very lovely, but carried big chips on their shoulders about the good old days before the newer museum was built downtown. I always had a soft-spot in my heart for SAAM, quietly sitting up in the park on the hill, in its beautiful art deco building, with all its history and old fashioned ways. But of course downtown was where the action was, and I was seen as a bit of a traitor when I transferred there to be assistant to the head curator.

Seattle Art Museum, Downtown

This became my home for the next 5+ years. I made all the gallery labels, restocked the brochures, maintained the slide library (yes, again, I'm old!), responded to crazy people claiming to be reincarnations of Miguel Covarrubius, coordinated the annual local artist award, scheduled studio visits for the curators, escorted visiting scholars and students into art storage, coordinated the quarterly art acquisition meetings, basically got to be part of the heart of the museum. I felt like it was "my" museum. I loved being the source of information about exhibitions and the collections, being a mediator between the public and the curators, and having free rein around the galleries, storage areas, and administrative offices. And I made many dear friends there, attended many lectures, sat on the grand stair for many film screenings and concerts, attended many parties, kissed in many stairwells, ate and drank at many local eateries (the Green Room and under the Squid being two favorites), cried many times in the parking garage, and learned many, many useful things. They've since renovated the entire museum, and it's bittersweet to see familiar hallways that have disappeared to make way for a new cafe, and to see where the old galleries once ended and the new ones begin. It's a nice new space, but it's not my space anymore.

The Getty Villa, Malibu

One of the highlights of my life was working at the Villa. I know it's not perfect -- no place is -- but honestly it was a dream come true in so many ways, and I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to be there for the reopening, to work with and befriend so many golden people, and to have the privilege of calling that gorgeous oasis in this crazy city my home-away-from-home for over 5 years. Drinking prosecco on the porch; sharing lunch with a gaggle of good friends; seeing dolphins on the way to work; cultivating my special herd of curators; intimate conversations on the psychologist's stool; the notoriety of working at the Getty and always being in the news, for better or for worse; the glamor and professionalism of working in a world-class institution; checking on the galleries in the mornings; strolling through the gardens in the afternoons; attending lectures, performances, and glittering opening receptions in the evenings. Damn I loved that place, and it was so hard to leave. But I had to, in the pursuit of continued growth and self-respect.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

What is this place? Will I ever have that same sense of ownership here? I realize I've only worked here a few months, and my time has been colored by personal loss and disorientation, but right now it's mostly just a job. Every now and then I catch a glimpse of "ownership," feel that little glow of being proud and excited to be part of this dynamic institution. There are many more freedoms, and lots to learn, which is what I wanted. I just have to remember to be patient. It's early days yet. I'll carve out a home for myself here, just like I've done at every other museum. And next thing I know, it will be a significant part of my history. Maybe I'll stay here a long time. Maybe I'll return to the Getty in a new guise. Or maybe one day I'll depart for another museum, and make that place my own too.

1 comment:

  1. You better be let me ride your coattails and take me along with you!