Working knowledge

Museum professionals are having to adapt rapidly to the changing needs of the sector. Geraldine Kendall reports on efforts to help them gain new skills and experience
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
What kind of skills – and people – does the museum and heritage workforce need in order to thrive in the future?

That was the question asked by the Museums Association (MA) and the sector skills council, Creative and Cultural Skills (CCS), five years ago when they collaborated to produce the Cultural Heritage Blueprint, a workforce development plan for the cultural heritage sector.

By the time the document came out in December 2008 against a backdrop of global financial meltdown, that context already looked like it was going to change rapidly. Since then museums have witnessed unprecedented upheaval in their funding landscape and an exodus of skilled staff through redundancy.

There are also external pressures, including the introduction of high university tuition fees, which affects museum studies courses. And there are new ways of working, such as using digital technology to engage audiences.

Faced with these new realities, the MA and CCS brought out an updated version of the blueprint last year specifically for museums. A UK-wide action plan based on the blueprint’s core recommendations will be published this month. A CCS-funded workforce development post at the MA is also in the pipeline.

Strategic support

The action plan, which was paid for with a grant from Arts Council England (ACE), has been put together by a steering group of representatives from a broad range of stakeholders, including Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS), Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

It maps out the strategic support and resources that are already available for each recommendation, as well as highlighting areas of concern that still need to be addressed.

The Cultural Heritage Blueprint’s (2012) five key recommendations for the museum workforce

  • Strengthen leadership and management
  • Develop business, enterprise and entrepreneurial skills
  • Open up entry to the sector and diversify the workforce
  • Commit to Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for staff
  • Develop sector-specific skills 

“Workforce development is as vital as ever and hopefully this will support it at a difficult time,” says Sally Colvin, the MA’s collections coordinator and author of the final action plan.

“It’s about giving people an overview on what they can do in their organisation. Times are tough, so the only option is to step up and be brave, both institutionally and individually, in taking this forward.”

Iain Watson, the director of TWAM, led the steering group. “One of the big things for us has been recognising the level of change in the past five years,” he says.

“From the 1990s to the late 2000s we had a period of some quite fantastic growth and some people thought grant-in-aid was going to pay for everything forever, but that’s not the case.”

Entrepreneurial development

It was clear across the steering group that there has been a significant shift in the thinking of the sector, says Watson, with a much sharper focus on generating and diversifying income, building business acumen and planning for the longer term rather than just the current funding cycle.

A key plank of the action plan focuses on how museums can develop their business, enterprise and entrepreneurial skills, as well as connecting with those who have valuable experience in other sectors.

The document lists examples of the work being undertaken by various regional groups in response to the growing demand for support in this area: in the east of England, Share Museums East is running a series of training events focused on learning from the commercial sector, while the Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales’s annual conference in March took “adding value to your museum” as its theme.

TWAM, which is facing substantial local authority cuts next year, has built an ongoing relationship with a “business mentor”, says Watson, in order to explore commercial work streams.

“We are looking right across the organisation and getting people to think differently and to approach income generation in a completely different way. We’re not going to stop being mission-led, but in order to do that we need to expand our activities.”

“I think it’s a really fascinating time,” says museum consultant Gaby Porter, who represented the MA board on the steering group.

“People are thinking much more radically about the skills we need at every level of the organisation – including outside consultants as well as paid staff – to really equip ourselves for very new ways of working.”

In this funding climate, the requirements of leadership and governance are changing, she says. “Key experts say that what we need in challenging times are leaders rather than managers. People who set a direction rather than maintaining consistency, who are courageous and embrace risk and change.”

Rethinking CPD

To this end, the MA will relaunch its Fellowship of the Museums Association (FMA) later this year to “recognise individuals that go above and beyond their job role to lead change in the sector”.

And although schemes such as the Cultural Leadership Programme have been lost to cuts, all of the major national funding bodies feature leadership and management programmes in their strategic plans.

One area of concern identified in the action plan is continuing professional development – and leadership training – for mid-career staff and the growing number of people who work on a contractual or freelance basis.

“There is an issue of creating opportunities for people to lead whatever level they’re at,” says Porter. The MA is planning to investigate this year how more support might be provided for those individuals.

In both organisational and individual development, the steering group noted that there has been a move away from traditional steps, such as one-off training courses, towards more continuous, integrated learning.

“What we need now are specific, local, customised development opportunities,” says Porter. “There’s also real value in people learning soft skills – sharing, mentoring, facilitating and communicating.”

To facilitate this, the MA and CCS have partnered to develop a website resource that allows organisations to post free listings of training opportunities on the MA’s online Find an Event page. The MA will also be highlighting workforce development at its forthcoming members’ meetings in Birmingham and Belfast.

In Scotland, MGS has launched the National Skills Development Programme as part of its 10-year national strategy for the Scottish sector. This umbrella programme offers informal and formal development opportunities in many different areas of work.

“Skills, particularly upskilling, came up time and again as a priority in the roadshows we held for the national strategy,” says Catherine Cartmell, MGS’s account manager for skills development.

The development body has taken steps to decentralise the training it provides, says Cartmell. “We still offer formal courses in Edinburgh but we’ve set up a fund to empower the sector to address its own skills gaps elsewhere through local partnerships.”

This chimes with the ethos of the MA/CCS action plan, which places an emphasis on organisations forging partnerships and collaborating with each other to share knowledge and support. The document also asks funders to better coordinate their resources for workforce development.

One key theme from the 2008 version of the Cultural Heritage Blueprint remains equally pertinent today: opening up entry routes to the sector and diversifying the workforce.

With the cost of tertiary education spiralling, today’s new entrants – particularly those from disadvantaged or diverse backgrounds – face even more barriers in entering a sector that requires costly qualifications and extensive unpaid experience.

Now, several projects are in motion to address those problems (see Teaching Museum project box). MGS has just launched the second round of its HLF-funded paid internship scheme, which is aimed at new entrants who can’t afford to do a postgraduate degree.


CCS won funding last year from the Depart-ment for Business, Innovation and Skills to expand its National Skills Academy (NSA) network of training providers to include the cultural heritage sector. As part of the skills academy, a £15m Creative Employment programme is being run jointly by CCS and the arts council.

This gives cultural organisations, including museums, an opportunity to host up to 6,500 apprenticeships and paid internships for unemployed young people.

Through open days and careers events, NSA partners such as the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge are also providing schoolchildren with a behind-the-scenes insight into their work, giving them better information about their choices from the start in order to attract those who may not have considered museums as a career choice.

Catherine Large, joint chief executive of CCS, says she has been impressed by the museum sector’s commitment to improving entry routes. “In comparison to other creative sectors, museums are absolutely brilliant at taking on their social responsibility and thinking about the next generation,” she says.


One problem acknowledged by the steering group in this area, however, is the oversupply of new entrants to the sector, particularly at a time when jobs are scarce.

“We don’t want to crush aspiration but we also want to ensure young people have a sense of the reality of the environment and how competitive things are,” says Large. “We want to let people know where the real jobs are.

“On one hand, graduates are coming out [of university] with lots of generic skills that aren’t specific to the sector. On the other, it always surprises me that even in a sector that lots of people want to work in, you’ve still got skills gaps – things like technical areas, or people skills for front-of-house work.”

To tackle that disparity, CCS aims to do more to signpost – to new entrants and recruiters – roles that require flexible, transferable skills, in order to enable some graduates to move in and out of the sector more freely.

The skills council is also working with 20 higher-education providers to make the training they offer “fit for purpose” and ensure their courses are delivering the right specialist skills for the museum and heritage workforce, including those, such as digital expertise, that are growing in importance.

That question of sector-specific skills is the final theme in the Cultural Heritage Blueprint – and not just in relation to new entrants. Serious concerns have been raised about specialist knowledge being lost through redundancies and cuts to staff development budgets.

The action plan calls on organisations across the sector to emulate proven, low-cost initiatives such as the MA’s Monument Fellowship scheme, which enables retiring professionals to pass on their knowledge.

But despite those difficulties, one thing that most members of the steering group picked up on, says Gaby Porter, is the current feeling of enthusiasm across the sector for moving forward on workforce development.

“There is an energy there – but we must keep up that momentum.”

Geraldine Kendall is a freelance journalist

Tea parties

On the first Thursday of every month, Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) and Creative Scotland host a free, informal cafe- style gathering that brings professionals from museums and other cultural sectors together with researchers and academics in order to discuss the issues of the day.

Featuring one theme every month, the Insights and Ideas event invites people from across the sector to share their projects in an informal setting, with the aim of offering opportunities for networking, knowledge exchange and peer support.
Last month’s cafe took science as its theme, and showcased collaborative work between the cultural and science sectors.

“It’s a great way of bringing people together,” says Catherine Cartmell, MGS’s account manager for skills development.


The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service is opening up entry routes to the sector through its Teaching Museum project.

The model is loosely based on a teaching hospital, and the idea is to recruit starter posts across the service designed to prepare people from diverse backgrounds for careers in museums. Each participant has a tailored programme of on-the-job training.

The starter posts do not require applicants to have a postgraduate qualification or previous experience, but applicants are expected to demonstrate transferable skills.

Some elements of the training will be used to support the continuing development of existing staff.

The service is also running workshops for staff at all levels to enhance the skills they need to support the training programme. Eight starter posts have been in place since January this year.

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