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News & Press: Emerging Museum Professionals

I Was An EMP - Sarah George

Tuesday, August 2, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Carl Aldrich
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I appreciate the invitation to write about my path from an Emerging to an Established Museum Professional.  I’ll start by noting that I ALWAYS loved museums.  One of my earliest memories was touring the Alamo in the 1960s with my grandfather, reading every label together while the rest of our family waited outside in the heat.  Impatiently.


I have had great teachers and mentors, starting with my high school biology teacher, who recognized my affinity for science and encouraged me to follow it.  As a sophomore Biology undergraduate at the University of Puget Sound, my mammalogy professor offered me a job and a research project in the mammal collections—it was 1976, and this was my first museum job in a continuous 40-year string.  I learned how to manage biological collections and wrote my first scientific publication, which opened doors to master’s and doctoral programs.  My professor also sponsored travel to my first professional meeting, where I met many other students from graduate programs across the country and settled on a National Science Foundation research assistantship in Kansas.

Throughout my graduate training, I worked in systematic biological collections—first, the Museum of the High Plains at Fort Hays State University, and second, the Museum of Southwestern Biology at the University of New Mexico.  Field collecting was integral to my work, and I traveled the world—free!—setting traplines and collecting small mammals in 22 states, Canada, Mexico, Finland, India, and Japan.  I had great mentors at both schools, and with their help, met colleagues around the world.  I applied for every internship and research grant that came my way, and as a result I had the privilege of visiting and working in the collections of most of the big museums in North America.  I also never missed a chance to spend time in their galleries, which opened the whole world of public interpretation—good AND bad—to me.

So, what does one do with three degrees in Biology and eight years of museum collections experience?  One becomes a Curator—in my case, the Curator of Mammals at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.  My husband, whom I had met in graduate school in New Mexico, returned to the oil exploration industry and together we moved to southern California.  It was a wonderful job—I immersed myself in a spectacular collection of mammals from around the world, set up a lab studying protein variability (this was in the days before you could easily sequence DNA), got a big federal grant to start capturing specimen information in a computer/mainframe database (this was in the early days of PCs and before the Internet).  After a career limited to working with mammal collections, I had the opportunity to get to know curators in other natural history disciplines, including paleontology and anthropology, as well as a professional registrarial staff.  

After a few years, I also started to work with the education and exhibit staffs on interpretive programs—revising the docent training materials in vertebrate biology, and developing a new traveling exhibit on the biology of the cat family.  I got federal grants to bring minority high school and undergraduate students into the collections to provide job training skills.  I worked with the store manager to recommend merchandise for sale.  All of this experience gave me a much broader perspective on the opportunities and challenges inherent in a full-service museum.

Meanwhile, my husband had left industry and returned to graduate school, and we had our son.  By 1992, the year of the Rodney King riots and the Big Bear earthquake, we decided it was time to leave.  It was tough—I loved my job—but Los Angeles was a difficult place to live and we wanted to raise our son where “together time” didn’t include two hours a day commuting.  We went on the job market and were both fortunate to be offered jobs in Utah—for me it was the position I hold today as director of the Natural History Museum of Utah.

We’ve been in Salt Lake City for 23 years now, and we have put down deep tap roots.  My husband is chair of his academic department now at Weber State, our son lives and works downtown, and I’ve had the great honor of overseeing the development of the Museum’s new home, the Rio Tinto Center.  Though Utah’s museum community has grown spectacularly in  that time, I see the same qualities in successful young people that helped me get to where I am.  Start at the bottom—the knowledge and experience you gain will be invaluable in ways you won’t expect, and if you do a good job, cheerfully, you won’t be at the bottom for long.  Look for ways to help your colleagues—you’ll learn a lot, and they will learn to trust you and give you more opportunities over time.  Be flexible—if you don’t see a path up, or you’ve finished what you set out to do, or things just aren’t working out, move on.  And move on in the nicest possible way because you’ll undoubtedly interact with those colleagues in the future.  Ask questions and listen listen listen; you’ll go far!

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