Tamsin Russell (L); Neil Curtis (R)

Head to head

Tamsin Russell; Neil Curtis , Issue 113/10, p21, 01.10.2013
Does the museum sector undervalue older workers?
Neil Curtis is the senior curator at the Marischal Museum, University of Aberdeen; Tamsin Russell is the president of the Scottish Museums Federation

Dear Neil:

Arterial cuts to museum budgets are leading to the redundancy of established and competent (often older, but not always) museum professionals – literally haemorrhaging talent out of the museum sector with nothing visibly being done to stop the bleeding other than pumping in more.

These transfusions manifest themselves in the plethora of resources and initiatives that are being made available and implemented to bring in new blood to the sector. But what does that mean for the knowledge, expertise and commitment that is being lost?

Tamsin

Dear Tamsin:

I agree that we are losing a lot of talent, and damaging many people and museum services, but this does not mean that we don’t need people to join the sector.

New people, not only younger people, can bring new perspectives and skills that we need for changing museums. The difficulty with the body analogy is that it assumes that our aim is to maintain museums as they are, as if on life support, instead of seeing them as changing as society changes.

Neil

Dear Neil:


Thank you for your reflection and I agree entirely that new blood is absolutely essential for growth and development – that is how we evolve.

What I object to is how newness equates to youth. I was at a conference recently where the word young was used 21 times in less than an hour as if this was the elixir for the sector.

We can not put all our eggs in this basket and place such a heavy burden on this generation. Surely, as established professionals we should be applying our expertise and insights developed over time through experience rather than on a paid masters degree?

Tamsin

Dear Tamsin:

I agree that newness does not equal youth, and that the greatest challenge to the status quo often comes from those with experience.

Academic study that encourages critical thinking and enables people to consider the experiences of themselves and others is, however, still important – and not just at the start of a career.

I am also struck by what appears to be a paradox: that the age group of most job applicants is also the age group that is least likely to visit museums. We should be thinking about what this mean for museum programming – and recruitment?

Neil

Dear Neil:

I think this whole dialogue and situation equates to a paradox where we as a sector are looking for talented and committed individuals to join yet at the same time are either saying goodbye to similar individuals through redundancy or disengaging them by talking about the next Firebrand as if they themselves have missed the boat.

At this point in time retirement age for me is 67 and that means that I have another 25 years to work in the sector and by work I mean inspire, innovate and develop not settle or coast. Yet most of the development interventions seem to be focused on age-related potential.

Tamsin

Dear Tamsin:


We clearly agree that talent and potential exist in people of all ages and that discriminating in favour of any group will not help museums to become more inclusive and innovative.

Rather than relying on young people to bring innovation, we need to invest in ways of inspiring and challenging existing staff and people of all ages who are interested in working in museums.

As well as doing this, we need to make sure that people who want to enter the profession in their 20s can see it as an attractive career that could last a lifetime. Museum studies courses, internships and volunteer placements need to offer high quality learning, not just fees or free labour!

Neil

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