As a Northern Virginia native and youngest child in a family with eight children, I spent many of my early years roaming the halls of the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo. Free museums were the perfect destination for families like mine seeking quality activities on a tight budget. We spent hours exploring all the museums, the Zoo, the Folklife Festival, and even climbing the Triceratops on the Mall. It was at the Natural History Museum where I always felt most at home. I never got tired of the incredible exhibits that captured and expanded my imagination.
These youthful wanderings inspired me to pursue a volunteer position at the museum after I graduated college. Through a mutual friend, I was lucky enough to land in Dr. Gus Van Beek’s small, third-floor office within the Anthropology Department. For several months I volunteered doing odds and ends related to a massive pottery reconstruction project from a find at Tel Jemmeh. A small group of women worked tirelessly for years in the Museum basement sorting through thousands of pottery sherds and piecing them back together. Gus’ stories about his work, archaeological finds, and his amazing life sparked my curiosity and gave me a long-term goal – to work at the Museum.
I entered the Museum Studies Program at the George Washington University and soon began interning at the Smithsonian – first in their Office of Sponsored Projects and later in the Anthropology Department. Through the Museum Studies Program, I learned of a part-time, short-term job opening in the Office of Exhibits. In her wisdom, my advisor encouraged me to interview for it even though I was on the collections and conservation track in my program. What started as a part-time, short-term job has become a career that I hope will last a lifetime.
An exhibit developer is a life-long learner by definition. Each project brings new content to learn, new problems to solve, and new exhibits to shape. Nothing could have prepared me for the process of creating exhibitions at the Smithsonian – and this process is what exhibit developers do best. We have to understand the exhibit content, our museum and visitors, exhibition best practices, education theory and practice, and exhibition design. The exhibit developer is the leader of exhibition teams and keeps everything on schedule and within budget. The experience of working together on teams with scientists, educators, historians, librarians, architects, writers, designers, cabinetmakers, multimedia designers, programmers, and graphics experts has changed me personally and professionally. While reaching consensus can sometimes be difficult, interactions with team members have been the most joyful and memorable of my career.
While I have now worked at the Museum for over a decade, I am a short-timer when compared to colleagues who have been here for 30 years or more [link to other staff profiles]. So in a way, this is only the beginning. I can’t wait to see what the next decade will bring.
Siobhan Starrs, Exhibit Developer, Office of Exhibits