The Man Behind the Curtain

In case you don’t recognize the source of the post title, it’s from the Wizard of Oz (the film). All four travelers are in the Emerald City, awed by the Wizard, and then Toto pulls aside a little curtain to reveal an ordinary person. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” says the Wizard, a little desperately. But they don’t.

I love that quote. It’s partly about magic, which is based on misdirection, but rather than misdirect it somehow draws attention to what you’re not supposed to see. I love seeing how things work, whether a car engine or a museum. I also like being part of the world behind the curtain.

I’ve been aware of the world behind the curtain for years. When I was four or five years old, I started ballet and theatre classes, both of which culminated in productions. I’ve known about green rooms and lighting technicians and all the work which goes into a show for almost my entire life. My mother was, for my entire childhood, a professor, and so I never wondered where teachers went at night. I knew that, like my mother, they went home to families. When I was in high school, I volunteered at the museum I had frequented as a child, and for the first time experienced the delicious pleasure of walking through a door labeled “STAFF ONLY”.  I have always known that there was a backstage, and enjoyed working there.

One of the startling realizations for me, working as I do behind a curtain at a museum, is how many people don’t seem to know that the curtain is even there. A number of people, when I tell them where I work, ask if I’m a guide, and are surprised that there’s anything else to do at a museum. Some visitors are likewise surprised to find that there are buildings not open to the public; I can see them thinking “but what do they do in there?” And there was the one volunteer who interrogated me about our operations, apparently unwilling to believe that a non-profit museum still operated like many other organizations, with financial and administrative departments (but then, he also assumed the entire curatorial department were volunteers).

I am not entirely sure how to change this, or if it should be changed. At my institution, we are in the process of furnishing a historic house, and our guides talk about the work that goes into this effort. This is a start, and hopefully gives people an idea of what curators and museum researchers do. I wonder if there is more I could do, individually, or if just explaining my job at coffee hour at church and such places is enough.

Have other people encountered this lack of understanding, of awareness of the backstage at museums and historic sites etc.? Are there better or worse ways of explaining, of opening the Staff Only door (figuratively, anyway)?


  1. Your metaphor reminds of how history was taught to students for so many years. Textbooks, in particular, gave students the impression that history was a finished product, in which the course of history also seemed inevitable. In more recent decades, more history teachers have involved students in the messy and complicated process of researching the past and crafting historical narratives. How much progress have public historians made in allowing members of the public who visit museums to be more involved in the research, analytical, and interpretative work that so often occurs behind the scenes?

    1. Some museums have remained open during restorations, and have certainly been more transparent during those periods.

      Thinking about it, many of the ways in which I see museums and public history institutions being open require some action on the part of the public. The Smithsonian has amazing blogs (and well publicized), but the individual does have to decide to read them (and have internet access).

      Everyone who goes to school has to take history, whereas learning about what goes on at a museum is a choice, whether its reading a blog or reading a sign in front of you.

  2. I started working in the manufacturing of history this past summer and I had no idea how much effort goes into it… the sheer amount of effort it takes to figure out where the raw data might be, go and gather it, sift through it, read it, analyze it, process it, and write something, all the while documenting your progress for future researchers, is staggering. I had no idea of the total effort required to ‘prove’ something as simple as a historical ‘fact’, and how incomplete even the most complete-sounding survey is. I appreciate good historical research with the work shown a lot more now.

    As for museums, I’ve been in the business for two years and I still learn new things every day! (these days mostly about inter-museum relations and things like loaning and shipping artwork, and bigger issues like insurance or endowments)

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