For them, museum directing is a family affair

Keeping a marriage solid while both partners work in the same field can present a challenge for some couples. Patricia and Richard Fiske, who both run museums, seem to thrive on it.

''I wish more people did this - it works so well,'' says Pat Fiske, a warm, organized woman who heads up the small but important Textile Museum here. She is speaking of her marriage to a fellow museum director, Richard Fiske. Dick, a lifetime geologist with shaggy white hair and clear blue eyes, joined the Smithsonian's vast Museum of Natural History in 1976, rising to the director's chair in 1980; Pat took the helm at the Textile Museum in 1982.

Comfortable in the world of PhDs and monied supporters, the Ivy League couple (she's from Wellesley, he's from Princeton) are described by the head of the prestigious Museum of American Art, Charles Eldridge, as ''just folks.'' Says longtime friend Margaret Hird, who works as the Smithsonian's legislative liaison, ''Pat and Dick are not at all stuffy, so they're especially good at adapting the scholarly work in their fields for the average visitor to their museums.''

Dick, who laces his conversation with words like ''marvelous'' and ''exciting ,'' bubbles over with plans for an exhibit on ''electron-microscope images. We're even going to have an actual electron microscope for the visitor to use!'' he explains in an interview held in Pat's office, while she suggests repeatedly that we adjourn downstairs to see her newest exhibit - Yoruk Weavings from the Toros Mountains of Turkey.

Making unapproachable subjects approachable is not the sort of task you'd think a geologist and a math major would set for themselves. In fact, Dick - who wanted to be a geologist ''since I was a little boy'' - would rather spend his time backpacking in the Sierras or Japan, looking for extinct volcanoes.

A volcanologist who still manages to produce new works on his subject, he has spent the bulk of his career, since getting his doctorate at Johns Hopkins in the early '60s, climbing mountains and peering at minerals.

It was at Johns Hopkins 24 years ago that he married Pat, who was applying her math skills to a job in the Johns Hopkins Aeronautics Department. They'd met years earlier, however, when he was a senior and she was an eighth-grader at Baltimore Friends School. Was he a flame? ''I didn't aspire that high,'' she says with a smile.

She married him at Johns Hopkins, accompanying him to the University of Tokyo (where he did his fieldwork for his dissertation) and back again to Baltimore (where he wrote it). ''I was lucky that Johns Hopkins gave me my old job back, but I began to see that art is where I wanted to do serious work, and the Baltimore Museum [of Art] became my haunt,'' she says.

She secured a job there as curatorial assistant, where both she and her husband learned the art of exhibitmaking (''Dick used to lug the ladders around''), until their two children were born.

Dick still uses the skills and approaches they learned in Baltimore with exhibits - and still does the heavy work. ''See those walls?'' he says, pointing to a weaving-bedecked area in Pat's exhibit. ''My first job here was to scale them on a ladder and fix some pulleys.''

''Dick does the tangible things,'' says Pat (''I do all the installation photographs,'' he interjects), ''and I'm more of a sounding board to him. It's amazing how many similarities there are between our two jobs - personnel, budget , planning.''

Because their jobs are so similar, they think they're especially ''empathetic to each other's problems and successes,'' Pat says. ''Neither of us has a museum in the arts, so we're treated differently by the media than art museums. We spend a lot of time chewing on that.

''And we know just how good it can feel to finally get to an opening, and empathize with that success,'' she says. ''I don't fuss about going to Dick's parties, and he doesn't fuss about going to mine.''

''There are a lotm of parties, . . .'' Dick says, grinning and groaning.

''But they're like family reunions; it's a chance to see our supporters and catch up on their lives,'' she says.

Is he introduced as Mr. Pat Fiske? ''Well, it's never quite that bad, but I am introduced as Pat's husband. I enjoy it.'' She says she's introduced as ''Dick's wife,'' and she says many times people say, '' 'And did you know she's the head of the Textile Museum?' It seems to fascinate people for some reason.''

When she was under consideration for the director's job, being married to a museum head made her ''a more attractive candidate - there's no doubt about it, '' she says.Other things that helped were the administrative work she'd done as associate curator and her insider's point of view, developed when she started at the Textile Museum in 1972 as a docent.

She describes that ascent: ''I was thinking about going back to graduate school, maybe getting a degree in museum sciences, and someone resigned from the staff. I was there and a known quantity, so they took me on as assistant curator. I went from being a docent to the coordin-ator of docents.''

She then took over the $1 million budget in 1982 as director - and has been going strong ever since, bringing in exhibits that are accessible to the public - a passion she shares with her husband. ''It was at the Textile Museum that I learned museums are for people, not just for scholars,'' Dick says.

His exposure to Pat's job also gives him ''this marvelous window on the world of anthropology, which most directors - certainly those who are geologists - simply don't have,'' he says. It also sparks more ''curatorial contact,'' he reports - a cross-fertilization that he thinks will pay off in the new anthropological portion of a planned Smithsonian building.

Do they always talk museum? ''Well,'' he muses, ''there's not much time left over to ourselves.'' When there is, they like ''escapist movies'' like ''WarGames,'' or taking off for a weekend at the seashore.

How about the regular chores? Who takes care of the children and laundry? ''The kids do the laundry, and they take care of us,'' laughs Pat, explaining that the children are grown, though they've ''always been wonderful about this.'' ''Marvelous!'' Dick says.

Museum directing is a family affair for the children as well. ''Nepotism is alive and well at the Textile Museum; our son works as a receptionist here on Sundays, and our daughter, who's in college now, has worked here,'' Pat notes.

Being a museum family, they conclude, is ''useful - we can respond to each other, because our jobs are so similar,'' Pat says.

''It's not anything we really think about, though,'' Dick adds.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.