Exploring this Job
The best way to learn more about the work of museum technicians is to consult with a professional in the field. Often students may make an appointment through a local museum to interview a technician and possibly watch a technician at work. This is a career that is rapidly evolving with developing technology, and interested students should make an effort to remain informed as to the many new challenges technicians regularly encounter.
Experience with shop materials in other settings can also contribute to developing the skills needed by museum technicians. Students may take shop classes or work on theatrical productions as stagehands, electricians, and sound technicians. Museum internships and volunteer positions are also good ways to explore the field.
In the course of their work, museum technicians use carpenters' and electricians' hand and power tools on such materials as plywood, wood, fiberglass, plexiglass, and metal to build structures and displays and to assemble them in place. They often begin a project by consulting with museum scientists or curators to gather information about a new exhibit or by studying sketches or engineering drawings to gain an idea of what is to be displayed, then suggesting display layouts. When the exhibit format has been decided, technicians cut and fit parts of the display structure—which may range from a cabinet to a rearrangement of an entire museum wing—and add fittings, lighting fixtures and wiring, plumbing when necessary, and audiovisual equipment or audio speakers if necessary. They test and adjust components when the exhibit has been assembled. They may also help arrange pieces to be exhibited in the cases they have constructed, often working alongside a museum preparator. Museum technicians may also interact with the public, fielding their questions, and they may also help curators and outside scholars use the collections at the museum.
Technicians may be designated as exhibit carpenters or electricians. Those who choose to specialize may become planetarium technicians or science-center display builders. Planetarium technicians operate and maintain the complex sound and projection equipment used in planetarium sky shows and demonstrations. Others work in the graphic arts, drawing sketches and creating signs. The largest of museums may employ a team of graphic arts technicians, while in smaller museums this may be one of many tasks assigned to a single museum technician.
Often sound technicians consult with a presenter of a program, such as a public speaker or a teacher, to determine which optical and audio effects are needed and how they can best be produced. They adjust projectors, audio equipment, and controls to produce the required effects. They program the projector's computer, if it is automated; otherwise, they manually operate the controls while following a script. Sound technicians may select recordings from an audiovisual library and combine them to produce a recording with sound effects and background music for the presentation. They maintain their equipment, following a schedule of inspections and service operations recommended by the manufacturer of each piece.
Permanent display pieces at museums must be cleaned regularly. Museum technicians who work with natural objects are mostly involved with preparing specimens for collections and exhibits. One task involves cleaning bits of rock from fossils by using small electric drills, awls, dental picks, chisels, and mallets. Once a specimen is cleaned, museum technicians apply preservatives, such as shellac. They may re-create and restore missing parts, using modeling clay and special molding and casting techniques. Technicians may make duplicate specimens of entire fossils or skeletons by using plaster, glue, latex, or other molding materials. They may help assemble newly acquired specimens that have arrived at the museum in pieces, fabricating substitutes for missing fragments as necessary. They also may construct mounts to hold fossil skeletons, using hand and power tools such as drill presses, welding and soldering equipment, and pipe threaders.
Other museum technicians, known as archivist technicians, help maintain museum files. Their primary duties are to catalog, label, and store historical documentary materials.