'Lifeblood of the museum'

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 20, 2011 - 7:58 PM

The Science Museum mobilized its volunteers to help visitors understand the Tut exhibit. Without its volunteers, the museum could not afford to bring in blockbuster exhibits.

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Loren Garlets, a volunteer at the Science Museum of Minnesota, answered questions from Olivia Leighton and Kirra Tjeltveit, who were visiting the museum on a school trip.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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It takes a village to show off King Tut's empire.

Long before Tut arrived at the Science Museum of Minnesota, officials knew extra help would be needed to handle the massive crowds expected at the largest exhibit in the museum's century-plus history. They put out a call for volunteers that was met with an enthusiastic response.

"It's been like waiting for Christmas for this day," said Dawn Ziegelski, 47, a stay-at-home-mom from Marine on St. Croix who answered the call. She just finished a crash course on Tut to get up to speed on Egyptian archaeology and museum procedures.

Ziegelski is among the museum's newest crop of 25 volunteers -- picked from 60 applicants -- who hit the ground running Friday and Saturday. In all, more than 300 people, including 83 volunteers, will work at the exhibit during its seven-month run through Sept. 5. They're part of a large year-round group that dedicates time to the museum. (Last year about 1,300 volunteers ages 13 to 95 worked 73,000 hours.)

Ziegelski is fresh off several days of training to prepare for the barrage of questions sure to come from throngs of schoolchildren and other visitors.

On Saturday she got her first opportunity to use the information she gleaned from three evenings of mandatory training classes and workshops taught by museum staff.

She also had to study several handouts, including a 17-page mummy training manual.

"It's exciting," she said.

Of course, the nine hours of training don't cover every occurrence.

One girl told volunteer interpreter Loren Garlets that "mummies are scary because they chase you like on 'Scooby Doo.'"

For Garlets, a retiree from Cannon Falls who started at the museum in November, such statements not only give him the chance to debunk myths, but also the opportunity to set the record straight.

"I want to draw people in, ask them questions to get them involved and make [their visit] more enjoyable," said Garlets, 65, while standing next a mummy that has nothing to do with the Tut display but is always at the museum. "I have to know the topic. They see me as an expert. I don't want to let them down."

That's one of the characteristics the museum's volunteer coordinator Heather Cox looks for when selecting volunteers, whose duties range from serving as interpreters in exhibit halls to working at activity stations.

They also staff the information booth, serve as chaperones for school and church groups, organize special events and even lead events at off-site locations such as the Warner Nature Center in Marine on St. Croix.

Six times a year Cox brings in groups of people interested in helping at the museum for an official "job interview," she said. ("Tut" drummed up more interest than usual.) While formal science training is not necessary, applicants are screened and judged on such attributes as their knowledge level, speaking ability and passion for being involved.

"They are our unpaid staff," Cox said. "They are expected to know things. We hold them to high expectations."

Those expectations include committing to working at least one four-hour shift per week and one four-hour shift every other weekend, and finding a replacement when they can't make their shift.

Despite the stringent requirements, turnover is low. The average volunteer stays five years. One woman has been there for 49 years.

If operating with only paid staff, the museum could not afford to bring in blockbuster exhibits such as Tut, and many programs and activities would cease to exist.

"Volunteers are essential," Cox said. "Volunteers are the lifeblood of the museum."

Tim Harlow • 651-735-1824

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