I worked for just over a decade at a living history museum. It was my first job out of library school. Back in the day, hard as this may be to believe, I had three job offers to pick from — librarians were actually in demand. It’s unfathomable now, unfortunately, with the job market what it is. But back then, I had choices, and I chose a local museum, even though I’d had other plans. It seemed different, and interesting.
It was both of those things. It was also frustrating, and hard. There was a unique collection of people, and a convoluted setup with a lot of cooks in charge: the Board, the Town, the staff. It was many times wonderful, many times awful, and sometimes exhausting. I have amazing memories of children enjoying our Halloween event, of bagpipes at Scottish Festival, houses being raised off their foundations and restored, festive holiday tours and events, school groups traipsing around the grounds in the sun. My library, and every painstaking step I took over that decade to organize it, fix it, make it useful and nice, with no budget and no money to spend — saving pennies to buy a table, working in the tomb-like archives day after day. My volunteers, some of them more precious to me than they could ever know. The genealogists, crazily obsessed with history. The ever-present smell of freshly-cut grass in the summer, walking around the grounds at the end of the day with my friend. The foxes, the rabbits, the deer. The best salad I ever had, one year at Quilt Show, and the day in December we stayed late during a snowstorm.
Unfortunately, I also remember the ax that hung over our necks at all times. The threat of budget cuts, of closure, of layoffs. The people who sneered at how unnecessary we were. The Board members who were unreasonable, the newly-elected politicians who found us an easy target for scoring points with taxpayers. The mean visitors at events, the bugs and the heat working at admissions at Harvest Festival, Halloween in the rain, holiday tours that were sparse, dark and depressing. Bad bosses, bad plans, bad co-workers. Watching beloved volunteers getting older and not being able to participate, and sometimes losing some of them forever. Worst of all, I remember being sent away, feeling unimportant and unvalued.
I try not to be bitter about it, but I usually fail. I still wish the museum well without me, of course, and there are some people involved now that I have a great deal of faith in. Some of them, though, I don’t. Some of them didn’t sweat those years out with us and shouldn’t get to feel proud of things they didn’t accomplish. Some of them were there and didn’t do anything to help, and don’t deserve to still be a part of something wonderful when other people were forced to leave.
The truth is, I would have left the museum by now, regardless, and moved to Long Island, so in some ways how I feel about it all is moot. I just wish I hadn’t had to go the way I did. And I wish, when I think of the museum, I could still feel a connection instead of an ache. Every book in that library and every box of archival material is there because I put it there. I picked the fabric on the chairs in the library, I set up the membership database, I ordered the microwave in the kitchen. I feel like part of me is still somewhere I don’t feel welcome anymore, and that makes for painful memories instead of good ones.
On the wall behind the main exhibit panel, all of the employees signed their names — hidden from view, but still there, documenting what we did. My co-workers and I, the volunteers I loved and I, we did a lot of the heavy lifting of making the museum what it is today. We couldn’t make it work because of conditions outside our control, not because we didn’t try hard enough, and I resent the implication that we failed when the deck was stacked against us the whole time.