As a child, I wanted to be a vet. Specifically, I wanted to be a zoo veterinarian, and even more specifically, I wanted to work at the San Diego Zoo. In third grade, on the advice of my parents, I wrote to Joan Embery. I had no idea who she was, but I’m sure Mom and Dad had seen her on The Tonight Show.
At any rate, imagine the thrill of receiving a (mimeographed) letter back from her, encouraging my dreams yet cautioning me of the long road of hard work that lie ahead for anyone wishing to accomplish my goals.
In the meantime, I continued to spend countless hours outside, poking through tide pools at the beach or getting dirty and mucking around in the woods. I know we went to museums (growing up in the DC area, how can you not?) and I remember trips to parks and historic sites with my family. It was just what we did.
In high school I got my first job at a large vet clinic in Northern Virginia. I started out cleaning the kennels and assisting the techs and doctors with their patients, and eventually moved through the ranks. I took x-rays, cleaned stinky doggie teeth, worked at the front desk, assisted in surgery, staffed the pharmacy, and became a part of this large, dedicated family. To this day I thank them for instilling in me a work ethic that focused on compassion, responsibility, and customer service.
The experiences one has as a pet owner are not always happy, and often our human clients would be upset, worried, or grieving when we interacted with them. It was our job not only to provide comfort and care to the animals, but to provide a reassuring and comforting experience to their owners. I think this is where the idea of experience first began to solidify itself in my mind.
It wasn’t just bringing in a cat to get its annual vaccines; it was seeing the cleanliness of the waiting room (and having separate waiting areas for cats, dogs, and “other”). It was not having to wait in the exam room for the vet to arrive or the assistant (me) to prepare for the exam. It was frequent and comprehensive communication between the doctor and the owner. It was the explanations of procedures or tests being done. It was the tenderness and care with which we handled the animals, whether in the presence of owners or out of sight in the treatment area. It was the compassion and sympathy we extended and the sadness we shared when someone lost a pet–a family member.
While there are great differences between working in a vet clinic and working in a museum, some of the basic tenants of museum experiences still apply. Our work was to preserve and care for something (in this case, a living companion animal). We provided information and guidance about the animal, did our best to create an environment in which both animal and owner would be comfortable when visiting us, and tried to help owners learn how to better care for their pets. We wanted them to leave our building have had the most positive experience as possible, from the time they checked in at the front desk to the time they walked out the door. We also wanted them to trust us enough to bring their pet back. Does it sound at least a little bit like a museum visit?
I may be stretching, I know. My point is that I started out my work thinking about the care and experience of others. People and puppies alike both had to have their needs met—and those needs were diverse. I think of museums in the same light, to a degree. Visitors come in with incredibly diverse needs and past histories, and museums need to create a positive interaction for all of them. Impossible? Yes, probably. But certainly a noble goal.
Now sit. Stay. This won’t hurt a bit.