Fourteen Hours

The day is already steaming. It’s just before 8 am and the Virginia Beach Boardwalk has a steady flow of early bird cyclers, walkers and runners making their way through the dense soup of summertime humidity.

I assume the tourist position of stopping, crouching, and pointing my phone at the 3 mile concrete ribbon. I have a favorite spot for photos, offering just the right angle to give the capture a chance to be something other than a casual snap.

The urgent beeping of the alarm pad follows the click of opening the museum door lock. After clearing the entry, I offer my usual greeting to the souls here before me. I always make certain to offer the building’s ghosts a hello in the morning and a bid of gratitude with my goodbye at day’s end.

The lighting of the museum galleries brings a warm glow to the empty spaces. These first minutes in the building always invite reflection. If but for a moment, my thoughts digress to one of a thousand treasured memories of imagining, designing, and building these exhibits.

With a full view of the beautiful Atlantic, it’s Mother Nature that daily paints the white office landscape. Her mood pours unfiltered through the windows. This day is about a brilliant light with a sharp ocean blue that chalks into a fine haze along the horizon.

As the computers begin to whir, the smell of coffee offers its first challenge to overcome a subtle perfume of historic books and floor polish. The day’s first task is social media. I’ll process the photo I took through three different social media accounts. In these next minutes I’ve Grammed and Tweeted and Facebooked and may have even YouTubed. I’ve created the posts, dropped the hashtags, and have visually reached out to our many dedicated followers.

My co-worker usually comes in a few minutes behind me. Kasey walking into the office means the entire full-time staff is here now. That’s a thought I’ll savor for a second. Our morning banter includes intention for creating some type of blueprint for order amid the chaos we know is about to ensue.

The phone rings and the day is running. Some days dozens, some days a hundred times, but the phone will not stop ringing from here to close. What time are you open? When is the Ghost Walk? Is the museum free? Why isn’t it free? Where do we park? Customers, vendors, members, tour operators, robotic sales calls, real people sales calls, more robotic sales calls.

I have 73 emails since clearing my list the previous night. Kasey is swamped with a similar influx. The chatter of our keyboards sounds like rodents on wheels. We take turns fielding calls, swimming against email currents to get to a place we might refer as zero. The interns are checking in now, with the schedule different every day. This morning three have arrived; working on content and more social media, exhibit research, and graphic design. Our interns do real work, so they are already setting up their stations, preparing to jump head first into the craziness of a busy, small museum.

It’s 9:30am; a clear time mark on the day’s progress. Jessica, our part-time store manager, brightens the space with a fresh good morning. If I have time to chat with her, I’m about at zero and have a chance of getting ahead. Today, we get ourselves up for a few minutes and help her set up for opening. The flag goes up, register is set, signs go out, gallery media turned on; we are ready to open for business.

Wait. There’s a problem.

I spot a lifeguard plaque that looks like it wants to fall off the wall. I’m a little mad at myself for not seeing it on my first walk through. The plaque brings the first task juggle. Life at a little museum means you juggle. I don’t mean multi-tasking. The average multi-tasker won’t last a week with us. We’re jugglers. Axes and fire sticks in both hands, stand on one foot, toss them under the leg and then up high and catch it behind your back jugglers.

I shift to being an exhibit tech. That means getting the space safe for the ladder, getting out the ladder, setting it up, getting help to hold the ladder, getting gloves so I don’t smudge the plaque, getting the plaque right again, and reversing the process.

It’s 10am. Along with a half dozen visitors that enter, a group of 32 people begin filling into the store. Kasey recognizes the leader. It’s her tour group. Since this is shaping up to be a pretty normal Wednesday, Kasey informs me that they are here on the wrong day. They actually scheduled it for next week, our tour sheets confirm it. The tour leader knows it, too. But something happened this morning with their other event, so they figured they would just come today.

New schedule.

Since our volunteer guides are scheduled for next week, we jump into being tour guides for the next hour. I share a smile with Kasey, knowing we also share a sweet ache for even a slightly foreseeable workflow.

Noontime means more coffee.

An attempted lunch meeting is better characterized as a brainstorm in a windstorm. The din of ringing phones, visitor questions, the crashing giant Jenga from kids playing in the upper gallery provide the background. In about 25 minutes, in between sandwich bites, we manage to outline a plan for next week’s events and feel extremely excited about the coming fall membership campaign.

I attempt to chain myself to my desk. Work must be done. There are a dozen thank you letters to write, a fundraising campaign to continue, permits for two future events to finish. Imprisonment is welcomed. We’ve worked many days longer than this one back in the spring, renovating the galleries in preparation for this kind of success.

Jessica pages me with another success story: new members. Shackles broken, I actually get to spend 30 minutes being a director. Sharing the view from the historic Lookout Tower is one of the pure, simply joys of working in this historic jewel. We share the view with members and supporters. Some locals have joined; offering the kind of celebratory enthusiasm for our non-profit’s new energy that makes these hours worthwhile. Today the tower’s oppressive heat is as breathtaking as the panorama of beach goers, baby dolphins, and an outgoing aircraft carrier in the channel. We all happily linger, in no rush to return to the world below.

It’s 3pm. Another time check. Another run through the to-do list. I have one hour scheduled for juggling yet another axe; graphic design. Though we have interns help, projects still come from staff desks. We both do design work, and created almost everything you see inside the museum. Knocking out the graphic work for next week’s happy hour event means I immediately toss another fire stick high; web page designer.

Almost all of this work is done in-house as well. It’s our normal routine to dive into the website to create new landing pages for our ever changing offerings. The website is always a work in progress, but with today’s tasks being pretty straight forward, I don’t have to be a web master for very long.

We’ve made it to 4pm and it’s time to change roles again. This time we double the fire sticks; we’re party planners. Tonight’s happy hour event starts at 6pm and there’s a ton of work ahead to make it all seem effortless.

First thing: change clothes. Setting up a party is old-fashioned get your hands dirty work, so you learn early in a small museum career to keep extra work clothes on hand for events. You keep another set of clean event clothes in your bag, too.

Fresh volunteers come in to help, and their energy renews my own. By 5pm we’ve reconfigured the lower gallery space, moved four exhibit panels, put up party lights. We’ve stocked two bars with beer, wine, and ice. We’ve set up snacks, plus a water station. We’ve reset the outside as well, placing all of the event signage, moving the cornhole boards, and bringing the giant Jenga from upstairs to the yard. We’ve reset the front desk as well, preparing for ID checks, wrist bracelets, and selling drink tickets. And we’ve done something that’s very special to us this year; we’ve opened the main gallery doors. It transforms the already gorgeous space into an indoor/outdoor oceanfront oasis.

It’s 6pm and the party starts. The volunteers amaze me. Now a resplendent kaleidoscope of Hawaiian shirts and dresses, their passion for this history, this place, is a driving force behind the museum’s transformation. Their dedication and professionalism remind me why I adore this work, and why community spaces like this are so vital to our culture.

For the next three hours we meet, we greet, we laugh, we share, and we work. We sell tickets, we bartend, we restock, we bus tables, we give tours, we share stories. First ten people, then 50, then almost 100. The blaring music fills an air now electric and we laugh even harder.

And then we clean.

It’s just after 9pm, so now we must transform the lower gallery from party space back to museum. Our exhaustion brings hilarity, shaping the grubby clean-up into a bearable, and even fun hour. The old building has its moods, and tonight the big, wooden doors don’t want to close. It takes hands, straps, and a bit more sweat to pull them shut that last inch so we can bolt them tight.

The night is steaming. The summer humidity relentless. It is just about 10pm as I close the gate behind me. I’ll raise my phone to take a night shot for our Instagram and say thanks to everyone for supporting us today. I say goodnight to the ghosts.

On this day, through this night, I’ve been a director, a content specialist, an exhibit tech, a fundraiser, web master,  tour guide, party planner, a co-worker, a friend. I’ve been through three changes of clothes, as many pots of coffee, two sandwiches, and one cold pizza. I’ve juggled fire. Axes.

I’ve run a small museum at the height of the summer season. One day.

Fourteen Hours.