Age of opportunity

Maurice Davies, 11.02.2014
Maurice Davies is moved at Moving On Up
The Museums Association’s Moving on Up event was bursting with ideas and suggestions for people in the first few years of their museum career.

They were encouraged to be “radical” – to challenge convention, to be creative and to innovate.

That’s all very well, said people in my discussion group, but in practice most museums are cautious about change and rarely quick to act on new ideas.

They were told that there’s no such thing as a career path any more (if there ever really was in most areas of museum work). Instead they have to create their own career.

To do that there are three key things:

Be yourself – don’t compare yourself to your peers and don’t model yourself on others (sometimes this is called being authentic).

Take advice from others, but be guided by your instincts and, most importantly, by your values. See what you believe in and achieve professionally as something that transcends individual jobs. Realise that everyone (or almost everyone) being interviewed for a museum job has the necessary skills and experience. You’re more likely to get selected if you have that extra something.

Set yourself goals, and use professional development to break them down into manageable chunks, but don’t be afraid to tear up the plan if you change your mind about what interests you, or if a great opportunity comes along.

Talking to people mainly in their twenties reminded me what a great age of opportunity it is. If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of money and no commitments, make the most of it.

Try doing different jobs, live in different places, perhaps overseas, and take some risks. And do it while you can. It’s much harder when you have a mortgage, children, or care for elderly relatives (or, in my case, all three).

The event also showed the importance of Museums Change Lives; having a profile in the sector outside of your job, as exemplified by the witty Ministry of Curiosity; and the virtues of kindness, as promoted by the kind and lovely People United.

With an audience of early career people, it was inevitable that discussion got round to the vexed issue of postgraduate qualifications.

Graham Boxer, director of Imperial War Museum North, argued strongly that qualifications didn’t matter when recruiting. By far the most important thing is a person’s attitude.

His fellow panellists Katy Archer, director of the People’s History Museum, and Kate Brindley, director of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, both agreed – but warned that many employers do still take account of qualifications.

I added a bit of heat to the discussion by suggesting that if people were going to take a postgraduate qualification they should make sure it’s at a good university. Whereas A-levels are the same wherever you take them, university qualifications are not.

I was speaking from personal experience: I left school at 16 and so took my A-levels at the local tech, but they’ve always seemed as good as everyone else’s. In contrast, when I finally made it to postgraduate level, I’m relieved I chose to study at the Courtauld.

I didn’t realise it when I applied, but I now know that a qualification from there really counts – and I got access to a brilliant network, sometimes, and not unreasonably, called the Courtauld Mafia.

Getting into the museum workforce, and building a career in it, has long been difficult. A few years ago I wrote about it a report called the Tomorrow People.

Since then, many more entry routes have been introduced, which is excellent – but it’s too early to know which are the most successful for people.

Creative Apprenticeships seem promising, as do HLF Skills for the Future traineeships – although I was alarmed recently to be contacted by someone coming to the end of a Skills for the Future traineeship, asking me which postgraduate course he should now do.

Surely no one should be expected to do a traineeship and a postgraduate qualification before a museum will give them a proper job?

If you were unlucky enough to miss Moving On Up then you will find an outline of the day on our Storify of the event, and plenty of advice and guidance in our Careers section, while you might also be pleased to know that the Museums Association will be running another conference next year for early career professionals.

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Roy Barratt
Director, Claymills Victorian Pumping Station
12.02.2014, 19:29
This is interesting. I've been involved with restoring and operating the Claymills Victorian Pumping Station in Burton-on-Trent. I've always believed that you are never too old to learn so at the age of 70yrs I'm now contemplating the M.A. in Museum Studies by distance learning at Leicester University. Am I crazy?
13.02.2014, 13:59
Re Advice for those starting careers.
I am sure most of the posts listed are important and have their place. But from my experience with friends in London museums I would say that the primary goal must be not just a good general knowledge but expertise in a particular area, optimally inspired by the museum in which you work but with a thought for moving on to a nationally important museum if not already there.
My interest is glass, antique to modern to a certain degree. Although an amateur I am considered one of the national experts on the subject.. Usually a second string interest is necessary and for glass it is inevitably china in all its forms. The late Robert Charleston (V&A) and Hugh Tait (BM) were unique as experts on both.But it took both of them a lifetime to get there, as it has done me, now age 82. The current London museum keepers that I know tend to have a bias one way or the other. So it is crucial to start early. Learn and analyze critically what is already known and explore those areas where it is not or remains contentious.I am sure social skills etc. are important but the basic reason for being in the job MUST take priority.