This week I got to interview my supervisor, Tessa Davids, a collections manager at the Social History Centre. Tessa is probably one of the coolest people I’ve ever met in a work setting; she’s approachable and easy to talk to (the first full day we talked for a solid half hour about Game of Thrones and Criminal Minds), but she runs a tight ship and always makes sure that what needs to be done is accomplished. It was great to hear more about her personal views and experiences concerning her work.
How did you get started at your position? Had you always wanted to work in a museum or was it by chance?
It’s been a long journey for me, but I’ve always been good at history at school, but only started liking it in grade 10. I studied it throughout my academic career and have a master’s degree in Social History. I worked at the Robben Island Museum as a researcher working on the ex-political prisoners database, and it’s there that the two passions of mine merged: administration and history. In 2006, I got the job as the Western Cape Provincial Collections Manager and so found my perfect job. Studying and loving history would probably landed me in a museum at some point.
What are some things you enjoy about your job? What are some things that you find difficult or frustrating?
Giving access to the collection and seeing it bring people together that was divided for so long is the best part of my job. And with that also, sorting out a collection, making it possible for everyone to access it. And so, seeing it come alive. My motto regarding history is as follows: history is only useful/productive and positive if one learns from it, so I don’t fear history. What I dislike most about my job is when the collections are being politicized. Nothing frustrates me more because it leads to neglect and misrepresentations, and so not given the priority it deserves (money, personnel, equipment, storage, etc, etc.).
Were there any requirements for your job (previous experience, a specific degree, etc.)?
Yes, my post-grad degree in Social Sciences, experience, management skills and experience helped much, and in my case, my training, skills and experience in retail management, of all things, really helped, especially with museum collections audits. I am really comfortable and excited by large collections and managing people.
What parts/responsibilities of the job have surprised you?
I guess how much other government legislation has now impacted the collections. The South African Police Services Firearms Control Act really freaked people out and caused many firearms to be badly damaged when it was de-activated. And now GRAP 103… now finance wants to take over management of museum collections! Absolutely ridiculous!
Do you have any advice for young people who are looking to work in a museum and/or be a collections manager?
You must have a passion for history because money is scarce and we get the thinnest slice of the budget and we are the first to be cut. There is room to grow, of course, and it has been quick for some, but not for others. Study and do training, whatever is offered. That will help. Systems change and update all the time, so keep up.