What’s it like to work in a museum?

This summer, DMAC welcomed Xinrui Huang, a placement student who is working towards her MA in Museum Studies at Durham University. We asked Xinrui to share her experience.


What is it like to work in a museum? I spent ten days at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft working with the museum staff and had a great time. DMAC is a small museum with a relatively simple staff composition. For the past ten days, I have been mainly helping with the front desk and the collections.

The main job at the front desk is managing admissions and running the café and gift shop. A day at the front desk starts with cleaning, confirming the stock, and preparing the coffee machine. The unfamiliar coffee machine and cash registers made the front desk more complicated. I only worked at the front desk for two days, which was unfortunately too short a time to learn how to make all the coffees on the menu!

As well as running the café, the front desk is responsible for answering visitors’ questions on a wide range of subjects – about exhibitions, the collection, events and the history of the village. There were many very enthusiastic and chatty people, and Florence and Emma (the front-of-house staff) were talking to them most of the time. I’m new to the area, so it was a good opportunity to learn just by listening to the conversations. Although I am a Museum Studies student, this is the first time I have worked at the front desk of a museum. I was surprised that the front desk staff knew no less about exhibitions than the curatorial team and had to be familiar with other aspects of the organisation to deal with a wide range of questions.

I spent the remaining days cataloguing a box of gifted archive materials. Although the box didn’t look like much, it took a whole week to catalogue it all. The collection is about Edward Walters, a wood engraver. A large portion of this collection is his beautiful wood engravings, there are also some letters and photographs. I started with numbering and writing simple descriptions and condition checks for each piece on Modes (the museum’s cataloguing system). After opening a book with dozens of wood engraving prints inside, we realised the collection was almost double the size that we had expected. As Collections and Buildings Officer Joleene said before I started work, there are always surprises with this work. Cataloguing is time-consuming and requires a lot of concentration to ensure that the information entered is correct. Otherwise, it will take twice as long to correct the errors later.

After cataloguing the objects in the system, I took photos of each object and stored them separately. It feels great to have a messy box of items sorted and eventually stored. Some people may think cataloguing is a long and tedious job, but I don’t think so. Sorting through Edward Walters’ work is like getting to know his life; the seemingly repetitive work is full of surprises. My favourite item in the collection is a Christmas card with a mini handwritten calendar inside. It was a moment when I felt a connection with the person making this card. I think that’s one reason to love crafts.