Precision work

We often hear from the curators, architects and designers who have shaped a museum, but what about the men and women whose passion for their craft is behind the meticulously built displays? Stephen Hays, Exhibit Technician and Cabinetmaker at D&P, discusses singing, his commitment to precision and early starts with Rosie Wanek, Senior Content Designer at Event.
October 16, 2023
Reading time
4 minutes

Rosie: Before I worked at Event, I worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I believe you also came from museums before you joined D&P?

Stephen: Yes, I worked at the Smithsonian Institution, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, for about 24 years. Originally, I went to college as a voice major, studying singing. I liked it, but it didn't pay anything, so I followed a truck to a construction site! Being that I had two grandfathers that built houses and a dad who did hobby work down in the basement, I've been around construction and machines forever.  I ran my own businesses for a couple of years, then went to the National Zoo and then from there I moved to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. D&P has now been a home for me for about 24 years. I still like to sing in my spare time - I’ve participated in local productions of The Nutcracker.

Rosie: There’s definitely a big difference between general construction and the museum construction world.

Stephen: Museum work is AA work. I work in the 64th of an inch hairline, whereas in carpentry it’s an eighth of an inch. That's an industry standard but I won't tolerate that. My dad was a stickler.

Rosie: And is that what you like about it? it's got that precision and attention to detail?

Stephen: Correct. Either you have the touch, or you don't. If you have the touch, then you can move forward. If you don't, you're going to be running against a brick wall. A good job, for me, is a perfect one.

Rosie: Are there any other aspects of working in the museum world that you enjoy particularly?

Stephen: While being here, I've had the opportunity to do electrical work, lighting which I already knew how to do. There were situations where I've had to do plumbing, that was easy to do because I already I built houses. It’s the fact that I'm not doing the same thing every single day. There's diversity and it allows my brain to work. I like diversity.

Rosie: I've got quite a few friends who are technicians in the museum world, and that's what they all say. They love creating mounts and showcases - every object being different every time.

Stephen: I've done mount work too. You’re talking to the person that's had the Hope Diamond right here [points to his hand].

Rosie: Oh, wow! What are the favourite bits of your job? What do you love best?

Stephen: There are two things. One is the diversity of it. And the other is that my work is respected by my peers. That's the biggest thing for me. It's a tough field to be in, but once you get it and you're good at it, it's great. Here at D&P, if I see that if something is awry or can be done better and faster, then I'm given that leeway.

Rosie: Talk me through what a normal day for you would look like.

Stephen: I get up at 3am and I'm here by 4.30am. I make sure that everybody has a safe working area. A lot of the kids in the shop, they're 30 and 40 years old, don't have housekeeping skills. So, I clean the table saws, clean the benches, clean everything, get it ready to go, so that when they come in, they have a safe and clean workspace to work in. After that my day starts when I'm going back to the drawings. I'm one of these people that think about them almost all the time. If I'm getting ready to go to sleep, I'm thinking, okay, what do I do first? A lot of times I'll solve a problem when I'm going to sleep.

I just finished the Zuckerman Holocaust Museum in Michigan. And that was a good project. I did all the mouldings, made sure that everything fit perfectly and there were some flaws, because wood is a natural object, and it does move.

Rosie: What’s been your favourite project?

Stephen: That would be the frames I built for the Library of Congress. I had to make a jig to run everything through the planer. They're all out of mahogany and were so heavy that it took 14 people to carry one frame upstairs. They were 13 and a half feet long and about 9 feet tall, and had metal inside them, but they house some of the greatest artefacts. They frame some of the most important documents that have ever been recorded on paper. So yes, that would be my best project. I enjoyed that.

Rosie: Nice. And you talked about building houses in your spare time as well?

Stephen: The first one in Fairfax County was fun. It was a 4400 square foot home. My wife and I lived in it for 10 years.

Rosie: That’s amazing. I wish I could build my own house. So even though you're making things all day, you're happy to go home and do more?

Stephen: Oh yeah, I've got one more house left in me!

Rosie: I find it fascinating to hear this side of it because, as much as I'm on the ideas end of projects, the practical end is also close to my heart.

Stephen: The one statement that I can make is, if you've been into any museum, any museum in the United States, you have seen my work.

Rosie: That's a legacy to be proud of.

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