Putting Science on Display

Author:  Ryan Norris

Dinosaurs, dioramas, Degas! Museums offer the public cultural and educational opportunities, daily bringing both ancient treasures and modern discoveries to the eyes of thousands. However behind the walls of most exhibit rooms, museums are home to collections and research labs that contribute to science. Within the public areas and beyond, museums also employ those with scientific backgrounds in careers as varied as conservation to management.

Art may not be the first topic that comes to mind when one thinks of science, but in museums around the world, art conservationists use chemistry to preserve and restore priceless treasures. A career in art conservation offers those with a gift for art and a love of science to combine the two to address challenges faced by many museums around the world in preserving their collections. Careers in this field often require advanced study. Graduate programs, including those at Buffalo State, the University of Delaware, and Queen’s University in Canada, offer master’s level programs in conservation. All require or provide coursework in chemistry, including organic chemistry, as well as course work in art. 

All museums, not just those having art, require skilled conservationist to care for their collections. In order to care for these, research must be done to learn about the materials that make up the objects. Conservation deals with these needs. One of the premier intuitions for conservation science is the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum Conservation Institute which aids in the preservation of the Smithsonian’s diverse collections-everything from paintings to minerals to the lunar module. 

Marion Mecklenburg, senior research scientist for the MCI studies mechanical properties of the materials in the collections and the effects that variables such as humidity, temperature and transportation can have on them. In his position he conducts research to help those responsible for maintaining the collections determine the best environment for the objects and the proper ways of handling them. He also is involved in producing manuscripts and lecturing at conferences. In addition he works with students from around the world, including John Hopkins, the Polytechnic Institute of Valencia in Spain, and Imperial College in London. In his 20 years at MCI he helped to build up a date base for the properties of materials, starting from scratch, to a point that allows them to run computer simulations to test materials.

Mecklenburg found his way into the field because of his interests in both art and science. “The is the best job in the world for me,” he said. “The challenges are varied. I work with all parts of the museum. The students I work with are bright energetic people with lots of good ideas. I don’t think there is a down side to any of this.”

A career such as Mecklenburg requires an advanced degree in a science or engineering. Mecklenburg also recommends gaining experience working with a variety of materials. Undergraduate students interested in getting involved can take advantage of the Smithsonian’s extensive internship program.

The future of conservation looks bright, with much work left. “The field is expanding pretty well,” said Mecklenburg. “More and more detailed work is going on. For example, I am going to a conference in Philadelphia to talk about a lot of materials we haven’t looked into. Modern paints, plastics, many 19th century photographic materials, and natural history specimens are huge areas to look at.”

Conservation science can be a rewarding but challenging career. “A person ought to come in with a wide open mind. I get a lot done now, I publish often, I have two book manuscripts, I travel a lot because I work with international students. It is one of the most rewarding experiences any one can have.”

For those with different interests, plenty of other career opportunities exist in museums. Natural history museums and science and technology centers have a special need for those with scientific knowledge. At these places, scientists hold roles that include maintaining collections, conducting research, and participating in outreach.

Natural history museums, which bring to mind fossils and taxidermy, are famous for their collections. However, much of a museum’s holdings are not visible to the public. According to Joe Keiper, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology and Director of Science at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, half a museum is often devoted to its collections, only 5-10% of which are ever on display. Curators and collection managers work with all these objects with duties that include maintaining them, expanding them, and organizing them so that they can be used easily for research. 

A curator’s duty goes beyond caring for a collection however. Curators can also conduct formal research, teach, and travel as part of their job. To work in such a position requires an advanced degree, most often a Ph.D in a specific field. This specialization is useful because curators work with specific segments of a museums collection. Thus, a curator who works with reptiles will likely hold advanced degrees in some form of biological science, perhaps even herpetology. Natural history museums usually have curators for many departments that range from those dealing with the natural sciences such as invertebrate zoology and geology to those dealing with culture like archaeology and anthropology. 

The academic side of most curators’ jobs includes work with students. Some universities include museums, giving students and professors a unique academic experience. Pamela Rasmussen is Assistant Curator of Mammalogy and Ornithology at the Michigan State University museum. In addition to this position, she also acts as an assistant professor in the university’s zoology department, where her duties include teaching an ornithology class. As a result, a day for her may include research duties such as contacting colleagues from around the world to prepare research for publication, educational duties that include teaching a group of students how to prepare a bird specimen, and museum duties like preparing a new group of specimens herself and answering inquires from the public.

Keiper, though at a museum that is not associated with any one university, also has an academic side to his work in addition to his research and museum duties. Because museums house large collections, they often have resources that most universities cannot provide to graduate students conducting research. Keiper describes the most rewarding part of his career to be the work he does with graduate students from universities near his museum. 

As director of science Keiper’s work also goes beyond the typical duties of a curator. Even in this more administrative position, his PhD in evolutionary ecology comes in handy. “As an advocate for all the different labs, I need to be able to speak for them,” he said. His scientific background helps him to translate the different department’s research to those without a specialization who play an important role in the museums existence such as financial supporters and the public.

Curators also have the unique opportunity to conduct field work as part of their research and duties in expanding collections. Rasmussen has traveled to places in Southeast Asia as part of her career and has even contributed to the discovery of new species of birds. 

The most challenging part of a career in museum often is the need to keep funding for the institutions. Like professors in university academic environments, many of those who work at museums need to devote some time to writing grant proposals. “There is so much to do and so little time. That includes funding.” Rasmussen said. “It’s important to make sure the value and importance of museums are appreciated. Collections based research can’t be done without collections.”

A curator’s work with the public can include lectures, producing exhibits, even sponsoring field trips in which non-scientists can experience what work as a curator entails. Keiper noted part of a curator’s job is to educate the public about the role of museums in society. “So many people don’t realize what museums have to offer,” he said. “ Most discoveries in the evolution of humans were made with Cleveland Museum of Natural History scientists. Bug specialists often work with the coroner’s office and the hospital. There are so many ways collections interact with society. Museums are a public resource to the society in which they live.”


Museums offer less jobs than universities and industry but there is always some need for those with the knowledge, skills and devotion needed for the careers they offer. “The field is ripe for young talented science and technology students interested in getting involved,” says Sean Smith of the Association for Museums and Science Centers. 

To get involved students can contact their local museums. “Contact and find out where the local science center or museum is,” said Smith. “Pay a visit, talk to some of the explainers. They are really personable places. I know that people would love to talk to young people about getting involved.”

Keiper and Rasmussen recommend contacting and visiting museums as well. In fact, Rasmussen’s path to museums started as an undergrad. “Contact collection mangers and see if you are able to an internship or work study and get some experience. You may end up going deeper and getting a job,” she said.

Keiper had recommendations as well. “Investigate web pages of museums and learn about some of the specialty areas,” he said. “Look at some museums with smaller staffs and you can see what jobs exist and find what areas you might want to get a Ph.D in for a curator position.”

A position in a museum can be rewarding, with no real typical day. “For someone like me, who is captivated by birds, a job in a museum is a perfect career,” said Rasmussen.