There are any number of developments set to reshape the museum world and the roles of those who work in it over the next decade. Some are universal: the fallout from the pandemic, digital advances and globalisation.
But there are sector-specific ones that are already triggering reflection followed by action in terms of what museums are for and how they can continue to act as a platform for the stories and experiences of communities, local, national and global.
Decolonising collections and setting objects in a richer, truer cultural context has become a major theme in the past few years. To understand it, people need empathy, patience and a willingness to talk to those who have different lived experiences, says Liam Wiseman, senior relationship manager, south east, at Arts Council England.
“There is a challenge there about your own emotional intelligence and how to deal with situations that challenge your understanding of the world and the history you learn,” he says.
“Being a museum curator or collections manager doesn’t necessarily mean you will be working on your own with the collections. You are pushing to engage with the widest possible range of people to get their feedback and incorporate their understanding of history and their ideas into the exhibitions and collections you will be working with, so that you can have a more holistic approach to producing this content.”
Responsibilities for this work doesn’t just lie with leaders or bigger museums. If you are volunteering, or in an entry-level job, there are still opportunities to get involved.
“You might propose a small-scale review that centres on a particular part of the collection that you know has the potential to include more diverse histories to try to uncover something,” says Wiseman. “Or you could lead on some community engagement with different groups that you might not have worked with before.
You could try to create a display or educational material that includes narratives outside the established history present in the museum.”
He recommends being proactive. “Instead of an organisation giving you things to do, you could share your ideas and think about how you could push your own professional development.”
Socially engaged practice
Museums know more work is needed to engage with different audiences, but this demands new ways of thinking and working, says Stephen Welsh, a freelance consultant and curator.
“Prioritising communities is going to be what museums and galleries have to do in the future, particularly because funders such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund as well as arts councils are looking for different ways to get money to community groups and charities, which are generally not as successful as museums at accessing their grants,” he says.
Welsh thinks the current model – where museums apply for funding to work with a community group on an exhibition or project – is likely to change. “This will flip, with the money going to grassroots organisations that will be empowered to choose a heritage or arts organisation to work with,” he says.
This means museums will need more grassroots staff working on the ground with community groups to develop projects together. Welsh says that although collections-based skills will always be important, new entrants should explore how they can develop a broader skillset to build relationships with those who may have different lived experiences than them.
Such experience may also need to be gained outside the sector, by volunteering for the NHS or refugee charities, for example. “It could give you the interpersonal skills to work in a museum,” Welsh says.
Learning and engagement
In November 2020, the Museums Association (MA) launched its Learning and Engagement Manifesto. Developed over two years, it is a call to the sector to embed thinking about learning, engagement and audiences in to their work and vision, says Dhikshana Pering, the head of engagement and skills at Somerset House in London, and MA board member, who was involved in the manifesto’s development.
Digital technologies already play a key role in learning and in engaging audiences of all kinds, but the Covid restrictions have highlighted some of the gaps in museums’ digital strategies, she says. “Organisations are looking at what activities and events really help make a connection with their audiences,” she says. “Anyone hoping to build a career in learning and engagement will need to think about how they adapt activities to work in different ways – a gallery, online or classroom – and from multiple perspectives.”
Pering also believes job titles will evolve in the future: “We’re seeing the rise of the term ‘producer’ and it says what it does. Producers do a lot of project management and administration, but it’s also addressing the creative side of their work.”
Museums will also look for more media partners, she believes, as much as collaborating with cultural and heritage institutions. Museums becoming producers, like Netflix and others, is not impossible. “For young people, working for Netflix or Buzzfeed sounds more exciting than a museum or gallery,” Pering says. “But there are parallel jobs in our sector. Bringing more diverse people in would organically help us start to diversify.”
Overall, these shifts are set to change the dynamic in museums, bringing in new ideas, people and ways of working. Charlotte Holmes, a member of the Museum Detox committee, the network for museum and heritage workers of colour, says people entering the sector should look after their own interests and wellbeing, alongside contributing to debates and making their voices heard.
We should try to understand our needs and ask our employer to meet these because if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
“I would encourage new entrants to know their worth,” Holmes says. “Many museums still operate in ways that mean some employees, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, pay a high price. Make sure your basic needs are met, that you can pay your bills and that you feel safe and valued at work.”
Learning to recognise signs of stress and trauma is also important, she adds. “What stops us from speaking in meetings and what drives our need for high levels of detail and control? How can we be open to different approaches? We should try to understand our needs and ask our employer to meet these because if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
The future of study
These developments have implications for the design of postgraduate degrees, which have long been a common entry route into the profession. Many universities already work closely with local museums and wider communities to develop their understanding of audience needs, which informs how their programmes evolve, as well as creating work experience opportunities for students.
Neil Curtis, the head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen, says institutions need to be more critical of what is taught on courses. “We need to challenge students to think about the unequal histories of collecting and museums, and the dominance of elite European perspectives in collections and interpretation,” he says.
“We should be trying to help students so that they can carry out successful work in museums that addresses the legacies of colonialism, for example. At the same time, we also need to look at how we teach and who does the teaching, so we can tackle the racism and other prejudices some students face.”
Curtis says universities should also think about who the students are. “Postgraduate museum studies programmes have been the product and creator of privilege. Universities need to consider how we can contribute to diversifying the workforce.”
Julie Nightingale is a freelance writer