Museum professionals at the MA Conference and Exhibition

Faster, higher, stronger: adding value to your MA

Charlotte Holmes, 17.09.2012
Charlotte Holmes looks at how young professionals can get ahead of the pack
It was hard to escape the Olympics this summer, particularly in east London where the Museums Association's (MA) offices are. The commitment and focus that the athletes have shown during the games and the Paralympics has been inspiring; years of training, sacrifice and dedication all go into making sure they are the best they can be on one crucial day.

In my role at the MA I support the career development of those undertaking our professional development awards, and I often find participants' examples of how much can be achieved through focus and commitment equally inspiring.

It has never been more difficult to get a job in museums and galleries. Whether embarking on postgraduate study or pursuing an alternative route to entering the sector, those seeking a career in museums and galleries need near-Olympian levels of focus, determination and creativity if they want to stand out from their "competitors" and secure an elusive-entry level museum post.  

However, the rewards of a career in museums and galleries are great; few other sectors offer such interesting employment opportunities and so many museum professionals enjoy their job and make a difference to the people around them on a daily basis.

This article sets out some ways students can add value to their museum studies experience, along with useful continuing professional development tips for anyone trying to break into the sector.

On the job

Take a look at any entry-level job advertisement and you will see that postgraduate qualifications alone are not enough to secure employment in museums and galleries.

Candidates also need to have a strong portfolio of museum-based experience for most museum jobs, with some “entry-level” posts actually requiring up to two years’ experience.  

Recent graduates are increasingly finding themselves competing against people who have lost their jobs as a result of restructures and cuts in funding. It is really important that anyone wishing to gain employment in the sector organises some form of ongoing museum-based work experience (internship, volunteering, casual work).  

That may sound obvious, but on a recent trip to a city with a large museums studies department, I was surprised to hear that very few students had approached the local museum service regarding work experience and volunteering opportunities.

Make sure you have thought about:

  • The skills you can offer a host organisation
  • The skills you want to improve during your placement or while volunteering 
  • The appropriate people within the organisation to contact
  • Why you are approaching that specific organisation and/or department

Even volunteer posts can be competitive, so it’s important to approach organising volunteer work in the same manner as paid work. And remember that while larger organisations may look good on your CV, smaller museums can often offer a chance to develop a broader range of skills.

Museum-specific skills and knowledge

Wherever your aspirations for a career in museums lie, it’s essential that you can demonstrate basic object-based skills, experience of working with the public and an understanding of museum ethics.

These areas are likely to be covered on museums studies courses; however think about how you can deepen your experience and understanding through work experience and conversations with colleagues in museums.

It’s also essential that you keep up to date with good practice and current issues affecting the sector, so keep reading Museums Journal and Museum Practice, and discussing issues with your peers.

Mind the gap

Although competition for entry-level posts is incredibly fierce, there are some skills that museums find difficult to recruit. These tend to be around business and entrepreneurial skills.

True entrepreneurialism is a rare attribute – so if you have it, foster it. On the other hand, we can all improve our business and financial awareness.

Increasing numbers of heritage professionals will at some stage in their careers branch out into freelance and consultancy work.

Understanding cost/benefit, financial planning, and income generations are becoming essential skills for heritage professionals, whether based in a museum or working freelance. Developing or honing your skills in this area could really help you stand out from the crowd, and will certainly stand you in good stead for the future.

Another area where museum professionals are quickly having to up-skill is around new technologies and social networking. This is an area of expertise that you can cultivate during your studies, developing an online profile for yourself and/or an organisation you are volunteering or working for.

Networking

It's not what but who you know. A real strength of museum professionals is their willingness to share skills and knowledge.

Networking doesn’t have to be about slick introductions and business cards. There are also a huge range of regional and subject-based groups that you can join.

Joining a group (be it your local museums federation or the Group for Education in Museums) is a great way of keeping informed, accessing cost-effective training and making useful contacts.

Think laterally

Many of the skills that can add value to your CV can be developed outside the sector, and it’s important to recognise and value this. Few people are able to spend up to two years undertaking full-time volunteering.

Think about the paid work you are qualified to undertake and how the transferable skills from this can help your career in museums.

As an undergraduate archaeology student I had part-time jobs in retail, as a personal assistant for someone with disabilities and as a receptionist for a mental health organisation. I also volunteered for a peer counselling service.  

These roles and activities taught me so much about working with people, and were really useful in evidencing transferable skills when applying for my first role as a learning and access assistant in a museum.

Be on top of your game

It’s essential that you CV and interview technique are as good as possible. Employers have to sift through hundreds of applications and usually have quite rigid recruitment practices in place, so you need to demonstrate that you are the best candidate at every stage of the recruitment process; sloppy CVs and applications simply won’t get through.

Some postgraduate courses include a unit on professional development and preparing for the workplace, but if yours doesn’t then book an appointment with your university’s careers service/adviser as they should be able to give you advice on putting together a CV and interview techniques.

For those not connected to a university, great advice can also be found online. Try Directgov's National Career Service and Prospects, the official graduate careers website.

In addition take some time to look at the job specifications of the types of job that you would like to apply for and make sure you use the next year or so to fill any gaps in your CV.

Keep an eye on the bigger picture

There isn’t really a defined career path in museums, and it’s very easy to see the next couple of years as an insurmountable hurdle. But with focus and determination you will get there.

Whatever combination of study and work experience you undertake, try and enjoy it; this is a unique opportunity to work in a field that you are passionate about so spend some time learning about the sector, try and identify what excites and interest you about a career in museums and let that guide the future direction of your career.

Throughout your career you will have to keep improving skills, compete for posts, take chances, and make compromises. But as an AMA mentor once told me, we are not in this for the money – so enjoy the journey.

Charlotte Holmes is the museums development officer at the Museums Association and oversees professional development

Additional advice on careers in museums and galleries:

Careers and jobs on the MA website

Creative Choices

Comments

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Rebecca Lucas
MA Member
09.11.2012, 15:26
The William Morris Society at Kelmscott House Hammersmith is a fantastic place to volunteer - it's a small museum where there is an opportunity to get involved in just about every aspect of museum life. I've been volunteering there for a year now. If that's too far away from you then try the other Small Historic Houses at London SHH.
19.10.2012, 19:21
Could you recommend me some small museums/galleries in London where it could be interesting obtain experience as volunteer? I could do it also in the Museum of London but I should choose just a department, so maybe this can be a limit. What do you think? Thank you for your attention.Carla Di Grazia