Museums are like crack

As follow up to my post on our storytelling session at AAM, and Judy Rand’s “Waiting for Eileen”, here’s the second of the stories that were told.

Museums are like crack
by Catherine Hughes

Hello my name is Catherine and I’m a museum addict. No one told me that working in museums is like smoking crack. No one wants to admit it because what does that say about them. No one wants to tell you that you’ll want to do it so bad, you might end up broke, because you’ll practically work for free. You’ll be willing to forgo great benefits, work nights, weekends and holidays. Like meth addiction, you may even lose your teeth, because you can’t afford to go to the dentist.

I came into museum work not by design or desire really. Like many others, I came in through the back door, which is fitting as back alleys are where all good drug deals are made. I was not driven by a childhood epiphany in front of a diorama or a dinosaur. I had no particular affinity for history or science. In fact, by young adulthood I had developed a fairly serious science/math phobia and had convinced myself that I was incapable of comprehending either. I was a theatre person. That was my identity. I was not a museum person. At least not yet.

My road to addiction began with an audition for a series of theatrical happenings that I’d heard about at the Museum of Science in Boston. I knew the theatre director and wanted to work with him, and it paid, basically a dream job for an actor. I think in fact that I only made the second cut of actors. He was hiring a group of four, and I was hired to replace one of the original four. It was an innocuous beginning, but that first 2 month contract began my inevitable slide into museum junkie.

We performed a short vaudevillian piece in pairs inside the huge brand new Omnimax projection booth for people standing in long lines waiting to see the movie. We also entertained crowds and got them engaged with an enormous polarized-light collage on one wall. We were well received. The manager extended our contracts, and we began a sort of open ended run. That’s really how it starts. It starts small. It feels good, it’s fun, there’s no stress. Museum internships are like this, a gateway drug into museum addiction. Each intern thinks they’ll only be there for an 8-week semester, but then they can’t stop. Before they realize it, they’ve agreed to collect data for a new NSF funded project at wages below the poverty line. It’s only for a year, they tell themselves.

Before I knew what was happening, I was visiting other museums and checking out what they did. If I went to a new city, I scoped out the museums. I began meeting with other museum junkies in meetings, Museum Education Roundtables. I began reading about museums. I started writing about the work I was doing. I couldn’t get enough, which led me deeper into my addiction, so much so that I eventually had to get a master’s in museum studies.

Soon I was performing in various shows within the Museum of Science. A key moment for me was playing Ada Byron King, countess of Lovelace, for a Women-in-Science exhibition. I think I can probably blame Ada for getting me truly hooked. Playing her solidified my transformation, shifting my identity, from a theatre person to a museum theatre person, a hybrid.

Ada was a 19th century mathematician that many attribute with writing the first computer program in 1843. She was also the daughter of Lord Byron, and inherited parts of his colorful personality. Playing her before crowds of visitors who had never heard of her and knew little of women’s place in 19 century science was intoxicating. I couldn’t get enough of visitors’ surprise at learning her story.

Each new show we developed held similar kernels of unknown information, surprises and satisfyingly complex dilemmas to share. I did a play about the social and ethical implications of fetal-tissue research. I danced and sang in a play about the Brazilian Rainforest. It may not have been Hamlet, but each performance we did still grabbed an audience. And each time an audience responded, I felt that dopamine rush.

I got a huge high from visitors who wanted to talk after a show, even if what they wanted to do was argue. It was the emotional buzz I sought. The fact that visitors could respond emotionally to a 20 minute play about science – that they could laugh, or cry, get angry or feel moved, truly amazed me. My favorite story about a visitor interaction after a play is this. I’ve recounted it numerous times, like any good addict relating and reliving a fantastic high. I was performing a play about the sinking of the Titanic. It was a crazy comedic one-person piece in which I played a host of different characters, including an albino crab who lives on the wreck and knows everything about it, but which also contained a sharp indictment of humans’ ability to harness technology. After one show, an older Italian gentleman visitor came up to talk to me. He began wagging his finger at me and accusing me, You, you are working magic. You are asking questions you should not ask! And then he grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the theatre and into the exhibition hall, and said Look, look what we have done. We must celebrate it. And I agreed, I said, yes, out here we celebrate those accomplishments, but in there, in the theatre, we question them. We can do both in the museum. This exchange caused all my neurotransmitters to fire simultaneously. My brain exploded. It felt amazing.

By this time, obviously I was drinking the koolaide along with smoking crack.

Soon I was leading others into addiction by forming a non-profit called the International Museum Theatre Alliance. I became a dealer. I enabled newbies by writing a book about the work. I traveled to conferences spreading the word. I was almost missionary in my zeal to attract others to the fold. I did not tell people what would happen if they started. That they wouldn’t be able to stop their museum addiction any time they wanted. I’m only now coming clean.

I finally hit rock bottom. I decided I had to get a PhD.

When I was done with my dissertation, I thought maybe I’d had enough of museums and I could put that pipe down and teach. I thought academia offered new hope for me. But after teaching college for a year, I relapsed, and went back to museum work. Now, like many functioning addicts, I take my daily dose just to be normal, so I’m able to work. You’ll have to excuse me though. I’m starting to get a bit jittery, I need another hit.


Catherine Hughes 


  1. Comparing museums to a drug that’s devastated many Black communities probably isn’t the most welcoming or affirming way to talk about their positive effect. I don’t intend this to come across as a nitpick, because it’s not an un-significant point given current dialogues about diversity in museums. The way we frame stories matters.


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