In 1910, Dr. A. R. Crook, curator at the Illinois State Museum of Natural History, created a list of questions to determine the worth of prospective natural history museum curators, noting that good candidates “should have good health, ability to handle a horse and canoe, and be inured to the hardships of camp life and the work of exploration.” He presented his findings — which were based on a survey of 12 leaders of natural history museums — at a meeting of the American Association of Museums at the Buffalo Historical Society. The standards he came up with are preserved in the Proceedings of the American Association of Museums, and were shared recently by Brown University Professor Steven Lubar on Twitter and picked up by Smithsonian.com.
The questions might seem quite demanding — the most specific commands include, “Explain the principles of proper labeling, giving an outline of a suitable label for Amphelis cedrorum, Cedar Waxwing; for an army field writing desk used by General Grant during the civil war; for a fossil plant; for a mineral.” But this was a highly interdisciplinary museum era. It was also just after the boisterous outdoorsman Theodore Roosevelt left office, and figures like Carl Akeley, who once defended himself against a leopard with his bare hands, were on staff at natural history museums. The full 35 questions are:
- In what schools have you studied?
- What degrees have you received?
- To what scientific organizations do you belong?
- State the positions which you have held, the duties involved, and your length of service.
- What languages other than English do you know?
- In what countries have you traveled?
- What have you been interested in collecting?
- What experience have you had in museum work and in what line are you interested
- Have you skill in mechanical work, photography, taxidermy, or field work?
- In how many of the following have you had a working knowledge and which is your
specialty—geology, mineralogy, paleontology, archeology, ethnology, zoology, botany?
- Give full list of your scientific publications.
- What skills do you think you possess as a solicitor for materials and money?
- Along what lines should a museum be developed; in other words, what is the purpose of a museum?
- Name ten of the leading natural history museums of the world and state the essential character of each.
- Give titles of the scientific publications issued by three leading museums in America and by three foreign museums.
- What has been the trend of museum development in America during the past decade?
- Distinguish between (a) the educational and (b) the scientific work of a museum.
- Describe the conditions under which a museum should be a conservator of materials and those under which it should be an aggressive agent in educational work.
- Has it any other function?
- Define the scope of (a) a university natural history museum; (b) a municipal natural history museum; (c) a state natural history museum; (d) a national natural history museum.
- State briefly your views as to the relations which a municipal or state museum should maintain with schools, colleges and special students.
- Explain in detail the age, intelligence and occupation of the people to whom a museum should appeal and how it can best benefit them.
- To what extent should the growth of a museum depend upon donations and to what extent upon vigorous effort to reach certain ideals?
- What do you consider the principal requirements for a satisfactory museum building (Consider at least five points.)
- Explain the principles of proper labeling, giving an outline of a suitable label for Amphelis cedrorum, Cedar Waxwing; for an army field writing desk used by General Grant during the civil war; for a fossil plant; for a mineral.
- Discuss items to be considered in case construction.
- Discuss items to be considered in the color scheme of rooms and furnishings.
- In what order would you arrange the main groups (such as minerals, rocks, reptiles, etc.) starting with those which would be first seen upon entering a museum?
- Would you arrange a collection of fossils stratigraphically or zoologically?
- Where would you store a study series collection?
- Should a museum receive gifts subject to restrictions imposed by the donor?
- What is the best method of cataloging a museum?
- Should a museum issue publications of its own, and if so what should be their character?
- Should a museum maintain a library, and if so what should be its extent and character?
- Prepare a thesis of not less than 3,000 words summarizing your views as to the proper organization of a natural history museum as regards (a) personnel (b) care of collections (c) exhibits, emphasizing especially that department which is covered by your specialty.
After all that, Cook added that the curator should be “of good family connections, in other words he should be able to meet in a proper way, to interest and to please persons of wealth and importance who may visit the museum or be inclined to lend their aid to its development.” Perhaps some things never change.
All questions taken from the 1910 Proceedings of the American Association of Museums.