Engaging with visitors in Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts’ first interactive exhibition was not exactly my initial goal when I applied for volunteering. In fact, I was hoping to work in administration, or most preferably in the library, because I figured I was not exactly the popular “hostess” type of person, but obviously more of a book-lover. Well, I learned two things during my 4-month experience: 1) Even if you apply for a totally different position, you will most likely come to like whatever the HR offers you, because museums are generally interesting and unexpected like that; 2) I might not love customer service, but it turns out I’m pretty good at it. Wait, what?
Anyway, let’s start with the basics. I had to work at least 8 hours a month, in 4-hour shifts and only on weekends. Not that bad, right? There were months when I took on more, and times when I backed out, due to finals and once because a virus fell in love with me, and chained me to my bed. Stuff like that happen, unfortunately, no matter how absolutely romantic they must sound.
About my tasks: I was one of the many girls (in an all-female group), who participated in the St. Gallen exhibition as a… I don’t really think we had a proper term for our position, actually. Once a museum guard called me a hostess, once I was an “entertainer.” As for me, I creatively just called it customer service, because that’s what it entailed: creating interaction between the pieces of art and our lovely guests. But how exactly, you may ask, as all my family members did, when I told them about my new hobby of a sort. Well, we had a small, but friendly little room right next to the exhibition itself, where people could draw, create montages, stick, cut, and come up with whatever artwork they had in mind in a fairly well-equipped studio. (Fairly, because some people were kind enough to steal coloured pencils, scissors, etc. Depressing, yes.) These they could either take home or put up on a board we had on display, showcasing previous guest-made art. Besides this, we also had some booklets called “Looking at Art Cards,” which I normally described as a source of inspiration with facts, details and thought-provoking questions about the graphics they could see inside.
(Sorry for the bad image quality, I made these with my phone and casually over-sharpened them in Photoshop, so you could at least guess what they are trying to depict.)
I handed them these before they entered the exhibition hall, and most of them liked the idea, while others carefully asked me, if they are free, or sometimes they just didn’t care enough to read and refused to take one. Which is pretty sad, because the whole collection wasn’t about what one saw, but why one saw it, and to get that through, they needed to read… something that people don’t seem to be used to in museums, it seems. Anyway, friendly advice: if you ever visit something marked as abstract expressionism, make sure to do your research and ask docents, if you can. Truth to be told, I was not a huge fan of the artworks presented, but the stories behind them were typically very interesting, so when people ran out saying “I can draw something like this, too!” I wondered, if they really could. Probably yes. The only difference would be that their works wouldn’t reflect a trauma, a tale, a feeling or a tragedy, only arrogant self-proving.
The studio also offered writing-based activities, which included guests noting down their thoughts about certain pieces, what they learned from them, how they think they came to life, etc. Drawing proved to be more popular, though! Another feature of our cozy room was a video with subtitles, detailing the process of lithography-creation and a press (where they could design their own), which us, volunteers operated.
There was a demand for pamphlets to take home as souvenirs, as well. Oddly enough, we didn’t have anything like these, not until the closing week of the exhibition, when we received a rough 100 English- and another 100 Hungarian-language ones. I guess I don’t have to say that half of these would have sufficed, if not less. So many remained, that I actually spent my times of boredom by doing origami and folding airplanes. (Yeah, I’m such an adult, really. But I was just being creative, and that’s exactly what our studio was all about! Go figure.)
The exhibition was not terribly popular, and sometimes hours went by without me having to approach anyone, so I made sure to always have a book with me after a while. A rather good idea, because many security and museum guards praised my flawless taste, when they saw me reading A Clash of Kings, which ended up in long-winded discussions about the HBO series and how they compared to A Song of Ice and Fire.
Both types of guards were very great, very kind and very funny. There was only one girl around my age I didn’t take much liking to, after she claimed my plans of working in publishing sounded utterly boring and she would most likely die, if she had to do anything like that. What can I say, my smile became quite forced during that conversation. Everyone else turned out to be really nice, though. To be honest, I am no good at small talk, but this seemed to work out quite fine with them preferring speaking to listening, anyway.
(This one is our lovely press, where people could create their own reliefs.)
As for the girls working with me, I didn’t get to meet them too often. Trainings, meet-ups and extra museum programmes were the only occasions, where we crashed, even though I really did want to get to know them better. But while I’m writing about extra activities, I should dedicate at least one paragraph to that time, when the museum held an event centered on water, and yours truly was lucky enough to oversee and lead a painting session in one of the museum’s biggest spaces called Baroque Hall. Children, parents and elderly grabbed brushes and did their best alike, which was really fun to see after a not so hectic weekend at my usual place next to the St. Gallen exhibition. Also, this time I got to work in pair with one of my team mates, which made it the more enjoyable. (Cleaning all the paint-pots and swiping up the floor whenever a small drop of paint attacked the costly tiles was less merry, but still funny in a frantic way.)
Meeting all sort of Hungarian and international guests was interesting, and I got to practice my language skills, as well! (Avoiding speaking German, because I was really fed up with that by this time – the reasons being my upcoming finals.) I also met up with some of them for a beer after work, mostly talking about vacations and future study/volunteer/work plans.
This post is getting a bit lengthy (more than I intended it to be), so now let me get on about the trainings and benefits. Communication trainings seemed to be very useful and cool at first, but after the second one, I was ready to wail at hearing “situation practice,” where we performed various possible happenings (e.g. guests complaining and acting troublesome, methods to deal with them). I admit, they were reasonable, but I had already serious issues with sitting in one place and “learning” anything, actually, because of, guess what, FINALS. I did that at home plenty enough. But even now, I would cry, if I had to attend another practice like that. I would smile and do it and try to be good at it, but under my mask tears of blood would be flowing endlessly.
My pre-training involved going through the museum with a questionnaire in my hand and answering them by checking paintings, hall numbers, signs, and so on. The guards were really helpful with this, too, some rather eager to share their wisdom with me, so I wouldn’t run out of time. (I had about 1,5 hours to complete this task.) I also had to spend 2 hours in the information desk handing out maps, answering queries about collections, other museums, Budapest attractions overall, and WHEN XYZ NO-NAME ARTIST WILL HAVE THEIR NEXT EXHIBITION ANYWHERE, ACTUALLY (this one got me). My mentor, a really knowledgeable woman in her 50s or 60s, I’d assume, praised and reassured me that I did a great job, and I like to believe I did. Overall this was also pretty much fun. Thankfully our guests at the St. Gallen exhibition mostly asked about lithography and the collection itself – questions I could answer.
I didn’t use most of my benefits, like discounts in the museum shop or café. Not even my free tickets to a current temporary exhibition involving photography. Not even my right to go to see the permanent ones any times I want. I did attend a museum event for free, though! (And just like this, I think I listed all my “volunteer advantages.” If I missed something, that’s probably because I forgot that extra by now. My long-term memory is pretty bad, after all.)
Now that the exhibition is closed, chances are I’ll either be placed to the library (according to my original plans) or say goodbye to volunteer work, because of a paid one. Unfortunately the library is only open during weekdays, which means that if my future employers decide that I should work late, I won’t have any time and energy left for this kind of activity. Pity, because I really wanted to be enclosed by books in that gorgeous museum library!