Museum Exhibit Specialist
Job Title: Museum Preparator
Type of Company: I work for a museum in New York City.
Education: BFA, Sculpture, Rhode Island School of Design Continuing Studies, Industrial Design, Pratt Institute (Brooklyn, NY)
Previous Experience: I worked as an apprentice to a metals sculptor in college as well as at a large-scale sculpture manufacturing studio. I also worked for a number of galleries and museums in Providence, RI. After college I became a part-time artist assistant to a sculptor in New York City. Meanwhile, I also worked as a technician in the Fine Arts Department of Parsons School of Design. I still perform a fair amount of freelance work as an artist and model maker.
Job Tasks: My duties as a museum preparator are extremely varied. In general, a museum preparator's daily tasks are to handle objects within the museums collections and prepare them for display. Sometimes this means framing and hanging artwork, cleaning valuable objects such as very old ceramics and textiles, or creating metal armatures and displays for such objects. The tasks at a natural history museum include all of the above, but we also work to design and create the exhibits and models for the museum. Primarily, we are sculptors and painters and good general builders. Some of us are very good at carpentry, some at airbrush painting, some at welding and metalwork.
When we work to create an animal model, a polar bear perhaps, it is a long and involved process that requires many participants. First, a designer has included said animal in the exhibit, and has worked with a curator from the Mammology department to determine if the species is appropriate. The curator determines the correct pose and attitude of the animal. From there, a preparator welds a metal armature (or form) to hang the shape of the animal upon. It is important that the structure be strong so it will last through many traveling exhibits, or perhaps for permanent display in the museum. Next, the form is covered with a hard foam and the musculature of the animal is carved and sculpted. A lot of photographic and written reference is required for this step. We work closely with the curator to ensure that the sculpture is as accurate as a living polar bear, including glass eyes, and sculpted teeth and claws. The next step is to cover the form with a realistic looking fur. Of course, we use a synthetic fur as it is not ecologically or ethically responsible to use a polar bear hide. Wherever possible, we reproduce nature rather than taking from it. When the fur is glued in place and all of the details are styled and colored and we have gotten approval from the designer and curator, the bear is ready to be installed in the exhibit. We perform this assignment as well. But we are not only limited to animal models. We also create realistic trees, flowers and plants as well as replicas of irreplaceable fossils and artifacts.
Best and Worst Parts of the Job: The best part of the job is creativity and variety. My assignments change from project to project since every exhibit is different. For one assignment I'll be welding or soldering a mount for a fossil skull for a month. Then, I'll be sculpting an animal complete with fur and fangs. The next month I'll make a mold of a glacial rock in Central Park.
Like a lot of jobs in the arts, however, the downside is that the money isn't fantastic. It is a very specific job and very competitive as there are few like it in the world. It is very satisfying and fun, but you're not going to make a million in this field.
Job Tips: Try to further your education in the arts to include scientific or medical illustration. Also, an understanding of the natural sciences and anthropology is extremely helpful as well as having artistic skills. These are the subjects you will be dealing with everyday, so it helps to speak the language.