Starting out

Student debts, limited job prospects and low pay – who would want to start a career in museums and galleries now? Julie Nightingale talks to some people doing precisely that
Julie Nightingale
Never mind “beauty is truth”, “the ideology of the museum exhibition” or “the ethics of taxidermy”. A key message emanating loud and clear from university sages to today’s bright-eyed postgraduate students is: “The career – it’s an endangered species.”

“Every student hears from us that we are in a recession and that the publicly funded museum sector is in a bad way,” says Graham Black, admissions officer for the museum and heritage management MA at Nottingham Trent University.

And yet it is not deterring them, Black says. “They are all very realistic. They recognise that you get a job through a combination of postgrad qualification and substantial practical experience and that they are going to have to put their heads down and go for it.”

Student numbers on the Trent course have remained stable since it began in 1994, until three years ago, when..., they went up. It’s the same picture elsewhere. The University of St Andrews’ MA in museum and gallery studies is well over-subscribed – 80 applications this year for 23 places. In 2011-12, Manchester had its largest enrolment ever with 45 students accepted on to the master’s programme in art gallery and museum studies.

Richard Sandell, director of the school of museum studies at Leicester University, says there is “buoyant demand” across all its programmes with year-on-year increases for its full-time and increasingly popular distance learning options.
The numbers can’t be explained by a rise in international students, either. All the courses above say that the number of UK students applying is stable or growing.

In one way the healthy demand for postgraduate courses is hardly surprising: further study makes sense precisely because the job market is so tough, provided you can afford it. But therein lies the problem.

The Museums Association’s (MA) recent Museums 2020 consultation identified the development of a radical and diverse workforce as an essential goal if the museum world is to better reflect the people it serves. How will that be achievable when only those who can afford tuition fees of £5,000 upwards and lots of unpaid volunteering can gain the qualifications they need to progress?

Mark Taylor, the director of the MA, says that the sector also needs to find more ways of recruiting people other than via the traditional university path. And it will become even more pressing in future.

This year’s undergraduates are the first to pay the higher tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year so will emerge from HE in 2015 with even bigger debts. How many will want to add to it with postgraduate fees? Even the bank of mum and dad might balk at that prospect, leaving full-time postgraduate study an option only for the very rich.

Julie Nightingale is a freelance journalist

Ruth Bott, 24

Graduated from the master’s in museum studies at Leicester in 2011. After a short-term contract at Falmouth Art Gallery, she is working at the University of Birmingham as an admissions officer.

“I started at Leicester in 2010, having done my first degree in history of art there. In between I’d volunteered at local galleries and realised it was something I wanted to do as a career.

It was the time when all the cuts were happening and our first lecturer stood up and said: ‘This is the worst time you could possibly be entering this sector.’ In a way it was good that he was so frank. It meant we knew the negative side but also focused on how to get through those cuts and make something positive happen.

The fact that jobs are low paid isn’t a deterrent, though I’m at the age where you want to start saving up, perhaps buy a house and you do have to look at salaries.

The difficulty I’ve found is that there are gallery jobs like the one I had on £15,000 and the next level up is £22,000-£23,000. But I have been told I don’t have enough experience for those jobs and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between. So even though we have got the qualifications, done the volunteering and work placements and perhaps even short-term contracts, it still doesn’t really appear to be enough to step up and get a proper job.”

Lynsey Fairweather, 25

Participation coordinator at Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum. Studied for a master’s in museum studies at Leicester by distance learning.

“I was already employed at Thinktank as a gallery enabler and I wanted to carry on working but study at the same time. My first degree was in archaeology.

Doing the MA has definitely changed my career path. I wanted to work in curatorial or exhibition design but am now leaning more towards the education and participation field.

The sector is incredibly competitive – it took me 40-50 applications to get a job in the first place. Most roles I see coming up in learning teams and in community and participation are short-term posts with two and three-year contracts.

But I do think that is healthy for museums because they can’t be static, offer permanent contracts and think that needs will never change. They should be more dynamic and fluid.

My advice to someone looking to work in museums now would be to be more flexible and open, and don’t focus on archetypal curatorial options. There are plenty of jobs out there that you’ve probably never heard of.”

Emily Stone, 25

Studying for a master’s in museum studies at Leicester University.

“I graduated with a degree in museum and heritage studies from Brighton in 2011 and have spent the last year volunteering and working part-time to gain more experience. I’d ideally like to go into interpretation and programming.

I did an internship in the interpretation and design department at the Natural History Museum this year and the people there had all come from different parts of the sector, so I know it’s going to take some time to get into that field but that’s where I’d like to be.

I am realistic. I know it’s going to be hard pursuing a career in museums but it’s something that I really enjoy. I’ve seen some of my friends go into different areas and they are making lots of money but they don’t really enjoy the jobs that they do. I’d be happier working in the museum sector for lower pay than doing something else for more money.”

Kristin Hussey, 24

Collections information officer at the Science Museum on an eight-month contract. Graduated from University of Manchester with an MA in art gallery and museum studies in 2011.

“My first degree was in politics but after four years I decided I wanted to move into the heritage sector. My specialism at Manchester was ethnography though my first short-term contract was with the pharmaceutical team at the Science Museum and I’m currently working with marine engineering.

I’d like to see myself heading in a curatorial direction but that’s very challenging. I find that I’m beaten to curatorial-type jobs by PHDs. The rest of us who have recently graduated are stuck on this spinning wheel of short-term contracts. It’s fantastic that I’m employed but it’s very stressful always being temporary.

I think that short-term contracts are going to be a big problem for the museum sector. On the one hand it’s how museums are able to function but on the other the temporary staff that they train will always be looking at any chance to take a permanent job or something in their specialist area. So they will keep haemorrhaging staff and the institutional knowledge goes with them.

You don’t do it for the money, you do it because it’s something that you’re passionate about. At my interview in Manchester one of the first things the programme director said was: ‘You do know that you will probably never have a well-paid job?’ If you don’t know that going in, you’re going to be severely disappointed.”

Iain Kelly, 26

Verger and volunteer collections assistant, York Minster. Graduated from the postgraduate diploma in museums and heritage management (part-time) at Nottingham Trent University this year.

“I became interested in a museum career while I was doing my first degree in history. I did some voluntary work in my local museum and found I absolutely loved working with the objects and being able to help people engage with history. The fact that the job market is so tough didn’t deter me – it actually made me more determined in some respects.

I do feel that museums need to broaden their horizons and to make it a more enjoyable experience for more people. To do that, they need to recruit staff who can engage with a huge range of people and are able to get them to be enthusiastic about history. The voluntary role I have now involves collections management and some aspects of interpretation.

I love being with historic buildings so a property manager role in a historic property would be brilliant for me in the future but I know it’s going to be a hard slog.”

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