Friday, 27 April 2012

Behind the scenes


Behind closed doors: Mines, Wax and Sir Richard Owen



© Natural History Museum

Rachel Mackay, Front of House Section Manager and LMG Share London Representative talks about her journey to the Natural History Museum.



Looking at my CV, my motivation for working in museums may seem obvious. I studied medieval history at university and I worked weekends in a visitor attraction. Combined result - a museum career. Actually, it wasn’t that well thought out.  I embarked on a career in museums accidentally, working weekends in a cafĂ© in a small science museum in Dundee. Like all professional catering jobs, it was strenuous, but somewhere in-between the paninis and hotdogs, I discovered I loved being able to go behind the scenes of the museum.  When visitors were asked to leave at closing time, I had the privilege of being able to stay and enjoy the museum behind the closed doors.  It’s a very selfish reason for getting into a museum career and I’ve never found anyone who admits to having the same motivation.

With this passion for the private museum experience I volunteered for Historic Scotland at St. Andrews Castle. I wanted to wander about when nobody else was there. It appealed to all my senses; my love of history, the dangerous thrill of being in a spooky dungeon on my own and my innate sense of vanity that gets annoyed if I have to share my experience with the general public. Even now, I get annoyed if I go somewhere as a visitor and it’s busy; it feels unfair. This utter selfishness doesn’t go unpunished. One evening locking up at the Castle I was down the mine [see image] - incidentally the only example of a medieval mine and counter mine in Europe - and my boss mistakenly thought I’d left the site and turned all the lights out. It was terrifying being in the dark and alone!

The mine and counter-mine at St. Andrew's Castle, Fife. 
Image courtesy of Gazetteer for Scotland, 2011.
However, I’ve never lost that addiction to the unique experience you get when you work somewhere and you’re the last person to turn out the lights. At the Dundonian science museum, as a Duty Manager, the responsibility of being in charge of a museum, being a key holder, setting the alarms… it was right up my street!

Now, working in a major City work, is even more exciting.  It’s like being on a film set. It’s a privileged position and it never gets boring. My first job when I moved here was in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds [Merlin]. I was interested to see how this organisation operated, and I have to admit that being behind the scenes was a lot of fun - for about a day. You soon realise that you haven’t seen daylight for 8 hours and you’ve spent the majority of your time surrounded by wax serial killers and bloody heads. Not that the term ‘wax’ is in vogue at Madame Tussauds and, in fact, neither is the word ‘museum’. “This is not a museum,” we were told on day one. “Museums are boring.”  That’s when I knew I was looking for something more.

My colleagues at Madame Tussauds.  Image courtesy of Merlin. 
Shortly after that I moved to the Natural History Museum and haven’t looked back. My job in Visitor Services is sometimes crazy, often unexpected and never boring. But my favourite part of the job is still when everyone else leaves and I get to walk through the Central Hall on my own, surrounded by statues of Sir Richard Owen and Sir Charles Darwin. Being part of history is never boring.

A year ago, I started an AMA (Associateship of the Museums Association) and as well as learning all about aspects of the sector I would never normally come into contact with, I can indulge my passion for being behind the scenes taking part in AMA Support Group museum tours.  AMA run events every six weeks in various different venues, and one of the nicest things about it is being able to get out and about and see what is happening in London museums. I suppose the point of the AMA is that it literally does ‘open doors’ – into all the places I always wanted to see!

Tips and hints: open up your doors and Share

The AMA programme has opened up the door to become involved with the London Museums Group, and I recently I became the NHM representative for the excellent Share London scheme. When another museum opens its doors to me, I feel privileged, so I say why not all open our doors to each other and share all the great experience and skills we have!

For more information on LMG’s  Share London you can contact Rachel Mackay via r.mackay@nhm.ac.uk.

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