Although his office walls are still adorned with shelves containing volumes of text relating to biology, archaeology, geology, and history, Ron Brister no longer is Pink Palace's collections manager. Recently retired, the history buff plans to volunteer at the influential Mid-South museum on a bi-weekly basis. Meanwhile, names for his replacement are being tossed around before a decision arrives from the Memphis city administration. After 37 years under Brister's tenure, the collections manager positions became open.
Brister recalls his early days as collections manager, a position he says he created and the type of candidate he feels the museum should look for to replace him.
How was the beginning of you career as a collections manager and the simultaneous growth of the museum?
When I graduated from the University of Memphis, I wished I could have a job in history, geology, and biology. I did volunteer work on their (Pink Palace) Indian collections where I met the fellow who was the curator of education and became full-time in '71. My first office was a converted bathroom. Now weve got a wonderful facility.
I remember when all of the collections were in the attic and all of the birds would come in and there would be bird poop. But after a year, I was hired as curator and really didn't know what was expected of me. That was clearly uncomfortable, but it gave me a lot leeway to develop the museum.
You've been here 37 years. Why such loyal and long term service?
The people I work with. I had a fellow from one other major museum and he said 'youre not city employees' because everyone is self-driven. We try to give employees autonomy and a lot of respect. The pay is not all that good here, but you got people who are really passionate about their jobs.
Do you think the museum represents Mid-South history well?
We go to great lengths to try to be inclusive in our collection. It's not just about rich white people. It's about Anglo-Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans. One of our developments for the future is expanding the Hispanic and Asian culture.
What kind of characteristics and responsibilities does this job demand?
The first thing is management skills. The second is collections management. We have very stringent ethics in collections management. Plus, there are several federal, state, and local laws that we have to know because we have eco-center collections. Those are federal regulations about archaeology collections.
What are the qualification requirements?
Knowledge of history, archaeology, geology, and biology. You've got to have knowledge of those areas and specialize in at least two of them. This is because we have a small curator program.
Does this job prefer older more experienced adults or can it value self-starters looking to get into museum management and collections?
It's going to require an experienced mature person. Someone who can play a managerial role because you're going to have to know how to do budgets and personnel handling. You've got to be able to do some of the budget programming on the city computer. And it helps have a mature person. It took me 10 years to get used to the job. It was quite a learning curve for me.
Overall, how would you describe collections work?
We have proprietary information here just like a bank would. We keep the donor information anonymous and you've got be sensitive in the decision making because you're dealing with public collection trust.
What would you say to hopeful job candidates?
Good luck and have fun. It's great. I'm not fading from the scene though. I'm thinking about coming in a couple days a week. We've got some special projects and I'm hoping to stay and do things like that.
-- Yann Ranaivo