The Differences Between Small and Large Museums

Photos courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum and City of Mississauga Culture

By: Justine Lyn

As I am finishing up my undergraduate degree, I am starting to consider what type of career and workplace I want to work in. I have been fortunate enough to work and/or volunteer in multiple museums since 2015 and I know that I have a passion for heritage work and the museum field. However, not all museums are made alike and it is important to know the differences between the two main types of museums: small and large. Both have their merits and, personally, have offered me amazing experiences, it is more an introspective question as to which type best fits you. Before you set your career goals in stone, read the below list of differences I have noticed in small vs. large museums based on my personal experience.

1. Departmentalization?

Often large museums, such as the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) where I intern, tend to be departmentalized, meaning that there is little cross over between different departments. For example, when I work with the curator of the South Asian Art and Culture department, I have very little interaction with staff members from other departments. In comparison, at Museums of Mississauga, it is entirely possible that I could be doing tours and working on the database in the same day. In this environment, I must be a “Jack of all trades” willing to get my hands dirty with multiple different projects across several departments. Therefore, when choosing your preferred working environment, ask yourself if you want to work mainly within your specific department, or be more flexible and wear multiple hats.

2. Education?

Since small museums are more interdisciplinary, the education that many of my fellow colleagues at smaller scale museums have is more hands on and less specific. Someone at a small museum is most useful when they can jump from one discipline to another, so having a degree that is extremely specialized would not necessarily be as useful as being a “Jack of all trades”. Whereas, someone from a large museum is most useful when they are an expert in a particular subject such as South Asian history in the case of my supervisor, but this would not be true if that person applied to work in the paleontology section. Of course, it is entirely possible for someone with a specialized degree to work in a small museum and vise versa, it just tends to be less common. When choosing your preferred career, ask yourself what focus and how much schooling you would want to do.

3. Scope of the collection?

Personally, I prefer working with museum collections, so it is important to be aware of the differences in mandates between different museums. For example, smaller museums tend to be “community museums”, meaning that they collect local history. Of course, this is not to say that there is no global history, but rather that most of the mandates stipulate that it must relate to the local area. For example, at Museums of Mississauga, even though we have a kimono, it is related to Mississauga’s twin city, Kariya, Japan and so is related to Mississauga in this way. Conversely, larger museums are often more globalized. I have been working with artifacts from India and Myanmar at the ROM, which do not necessarily have to be related to Canada at all. Museum workers are usually motivated by a passion for history, so it is important to consider what type of collection you would most prefer learning and working with.  

Hopefully these differences can make a decision about what path to follow a little easier. If you are looking to go into the museum field, just know that both big and small museums are wonderful places to work and offer their own merits depending on your working style. Taking an introspective look at yourself is the first step to taking a firm stride in the direction of your future career.

Want to know about more differences within the museum field? Try reading this article on public vs. private museums.

Want to know more about small museums? Read this artifcle to find out why small museums are "Mini but Mighty".

Want to know more about large museums? Try reading this article about what it's like working in a large museum or art gallery.