Show me the Mona Lisa last.
In honor of my 10-year anniversary of discovering that museum work is the work I want to do, I'm going to share with you a story.
Many museum people didn't grow up dreaming of working in these spaces - in fact, many of us didn't even know it was an actual career option until we found ourselves accidentally in this world. Sharing how one became a "museum person" often shows you what we're really passionate about, and how we see ourselves having an impact on the world. I love my story of how I fell into museums. I think it showcases both my best self and my not-so-best self. It has connections to family, including a little bit of sibling drama. And, of course, it takes place in one of the most iconic museums of them all: the Louvre.
In 2007 I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Rome, Italy. My sister flew out to visit me for a week around the Thanksgiving holiday. Knowing we'd have plenty of time to spend exploring the Eternal City, I decided to surprise her with a quick trip to Paris. It seemed like a fun, spontaneous adventure. It was also a cool way for us to explore part of our mom's youth - she spent a few summers during her teens doing foreign exchange in France.
I'm the oldest of four siblings, and much to my visiting sister's dismay, I exemplify most of the stereotypes associated with being first born. Poor girl stood no chance when it came to this "fun surprise trip!" On top of the busy week we had exploring Rome, I micro-managed our Paris itinerary down to the hour and did research on all the sights we were going to see. I tried hard to balance all the fun cultural learning with time to rest, time to eat, and time to shop. This kind of balance is something I'm still not great at.
Our first stop on our visit was to be the Louvre. Aside from the obvious reputation which precedes it, it is a museum our mom spent time at in her summers abroad. Even our dad has a charming story of quickly visiting while on layover. Both of us were excited to see the museum - just on very different levels. I was ecstatic. I made us get there early. I researched which entrance was reported to have the fastest line and marched us there. I spent hours pouring through my art history books cataloging all the works displayed there that we must see. This could be my only time in Paris. I was not going to miss anything. The doors opened, we enter, I unfold my map, my sister turns to me and says: "You get two hours in here, and you better show me the Mona Lisa last. After that we're leaving."
Honestly, I can't blame her for her mandate. I'd already forced her to walk miles and take in so much culture in Rome. She was in need of a break; I was full steam ahead. Never one to back down from a challenge, I started marking up my map of all my "must sees" and tried to plot out the most logical route through the museum. On my list of destinations was the Venus de Milo. I'd been studying it for years. I needed to see it. My zealot-like focus to check this object off my list would later be my downfall.
We began our tour easy enough. We started with some Byzantine and Medieval art (a personal favorite), then moved onto Renaissance sculpture. We we trying to get to Venus before moving towards Ancient Egyptian artifacts (my sister's favorite) and that's when things fell apart.
Try as I did, I could not read the museum map. I kept leading us in circles, always back to the same gallery with Bernini's Cupid and Psyche, looking straight ahead towards Nike. I love those works - but they were not Venus! After our third or fourth circle I started to freak. Time was running out! Rather than being reasonable and asking for help, I began a very mature, ladylike rant about how godawful the map was, blaming the idiot who designed such a useless tool, spewing about how they need to help visitors find the highlights... going on and on. It was not a good moment for me. I think my sister was both amused at my stress level, and also really embarrassed of me. Eventually, I calmed down as I declared something to the effect of: "What kind of idiots work in the place?!"
"Oh.... I could work in this place!" was my immediate thought. I care about how visitors get around museums (clearly). I love soaking up cultural history and forcing it upon people near me. I love being here. At the time, I was an art history minor and a business major. I was miserable when thinking about my future career options. This presented the first clear opportunity for me to use my skills that I was excited about. It felt right.
About eight weeks later I was back on my college campus. I marched into my campus art museum and announced: "Hello! I'm work study, and I love museums. How can I help?"
I became a museum person.
This story has another happy ending - once I calmed down, my sister and I were able to easily find the Venus de Milo. We took many hilarious photos posing with and like her. We also had plenty of time to tour the Egyptian artifacts she loves. And, we got to see the Mona Lisa, taking a selfie there before those were cool, connecting with our parents who stood on that same spot so many decades before us.