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A Retired Collections Manager Turns Volunteer Extraordinaire

April 9, 2012

Ron Brister at the Pink Palace Family of Museums' Coon Creek Science Center

The C.H. Nash Museum benefits from a host of volunteers who bring their diversity of skills to Chucalissa.  Perhaps no one exemplifies the spirit of volunteerism more than the President of the Friends of Chucalissa, Ron Brister.  Ron not only volunteers at Chucalissa two mornings per week and assists with all of our special events, after 37 years as Collections Manager at Memphis’ Pink Palace, he brings an incredible amount of experience as well.  Below, in this week’s guest column, Ron talks a bit about what got him interested in archaeology, museums, and offers some advice on volunteerism today.

I had a fairly normal middle class childhood in Memphis. Both my parents were teachers so my two brothers and I grew up in a house full of books and magazines. My father taught history and loved philosophy so we were exposed to the past from our earliest years. Summer vacations were planned around historical sites. My maternal grandparents reinforced this with their tales of late 19th and early 20th century life in an isolated log farm-house without electricity or plumbing. My great-grandmother was born in 1852 in a covered wagon on the trip from Virginia to West Tennessee. History doesn’t get much better than that!

My interest in archaeology developed from visiting Chucalissa Indian Town, a local reconstructed prehistoric Indian village, during middle school. Three friends and I formed the Sherwood Junior High Archaeology Club. We went on field trips to Chucalissa and attended a lecture by the Chucalissa archaeologist at another local museum. We read what little there was available in the school and public libraries. Scout hikes over Civil War battlefields awakened our interest in artifacts and how they can be used to interpret the past. We didn’t last long as an organization, but our individual passion for archaeology continued.

College opened a vast new world of to me. As a sophomore history major, I took two summer archaeology field school and two museum operation classes for fun. It was fascinating – a scientific detective story. Archaeology was the only discipline that incorporated my favorite subjects of biology, geology, and history. I was hooked. Then came one of those little quirks that make life so interesting. A work-study position came open at Chucalissa and I was hired! I was actually being paid to work in an archaeology lab instead of a department store. Life was good. I added anthropology to my geology minor earning a BS in history and MA in Anthropology from the University of Memphis. My academic specialties are archaeology, paleontology, history of 19th and 20th century medical, agricultural, and domestic technology, and local history. I have remained in archaeology and museum work ever since.  Personally, I love Mozart and alien/giant insect movies.

The Friends of Chucalissa was created to counter an attempt by the university to close Chucalissa in the 1990s. We raised over $50,000 for the museum and served as a vocal advocate of the value of Chucalissa to the University and the community. A former Memphis city official once remarked to me that citizen advocacy groups are a power influence to politicians, especially when they can help pay for the issues they support. The Friends of Chucalissa is not the greatest fund raising group in the world, but we are successful at rallying public support. In addition to advocacy and fund raising, volunteer support groups strengthen an institution by representing the community.

I have been heavily involved in museum volunteer work since retiring four years ago. I do it to remain intellectually active, keep physically busy, and to serve my community. I offer a set of museum governance, collections management, education development, and exhibits design skills that many small museums desperately need but can’t afford. When I began museum work 40 years ago, volunteers, mostly college educated housewives, were plentiful. Our changing economy has forced many in that volunteer pool to go to work. Today’s volunteers are families with children, retired folks, and some stay at home moms. The volunteers are as dedicated and good as ever, but fewer in number.

My advice to a volunteer coordinator:

  • make the volunteer feel like a valued part of the museum staff
  • provide solid basic museum and subject matter training, a comprehensive manual, good communication, and continuing education through lectures, workshops, and visits to other museums
  • volunteers want to feel needed and appreciated. Have meaningful projects for them and thank them sincerely and often. Volunteers enjoy physical tokens of appreciation like a plaque, pin, or certificate.
  • retired people and students are a good source of volunteers. They are already interested in the subject and want to help
  • scouts and other community service organizations are excellent sources of reliable labor.

My advice to a new volunteer:

  • to be patient and keep a sense of humor because we’re making up a lot of this as we go along
  • constant change in the number of volunteers and their skill sets requires both supervisors and volunteers to be flexible
  • be sure to communicate with your supervisor if you have a problem. She can’t fix what she doesn’t know about. Everyone is working toward the same goal.
  • Don’t badger the supervisor with “what do you want me to do now?” Just let her know that you have finished and she will be with you as soon as possible. Supervisors often have lots of folks to oversee.

 Contact Ron at bristerr@bellsouth.net

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