Cast an eye over the staff list of a medium-sized UK museum and the variety of roles on offer might surprise you. Today’s treasure houses – from world-famous national museums, heritage sites and regional galleries to independent institutions, historic homes and town museums – all require a range of skills, knowledge and experience that casual visitors may not suspect.
While the size of a museum will in part determine the staff it has in-house, and many positions encompass different roles, departments in museums include:
- Visitor services and front-of-house
- Audience development, community, learning and education
- Facilities and estate management
- Marketing, media, digital and events
- Exhibitions, collections management and curatorial.
“It’s useful to have an idea of what kind of museum work you want to do because there are an enormous number of specialisms,” says Alistair Brown, the policy manager at the Museums Association (MA). The sector is an exciting place to work not just because of the amazing collections that institutions hold, but also because it provides a chance to shape how people see the world.
“That’s one of the most fascinating things you can do: encourage people to look twice at stories that they think they already know, introduce them to new ideas and change people’s lives,” Brown says.
The pandemic has brought immense challenges to the sector. The financial impact on museums means that jobs have been lost and hiring freezes are in place. Jobs at senior level as well as lower-paid posts are the most at risk of being made redundant, sending well-qualified people into the job market to pursue fewer vacancies.
The pandemic followed a period of economic austerity, which had already hit museums hard, with cuts to local authority and central government funding, fuelling the rise of short-term contracts, reliance on freelancers and job insecurity.
There are structural problems, too. Competition and demands for higher-level qualifications has made entering the sector difficult. Poor wages at lower levels are also a barrier to entry.
But the past few years have also seen the emergence of a new sensibility in museums, one that is mindful of these limitations and keen to address them. Recruitment practices are also changing, though slowly, says Tamsin Russell, the MA’s workforce development officer.
For students or people hoping to work in museums, volunteering remains an excellent way of getting to know the sector and gaining experience and contacts. Most venues have structured volunteering programmes that ensure participants get what they need from the experience as well as vice versa. And the union Prospect accepts volunteers as members to help protect them and also avoid undermining the professionalism of the sector.
Following job vacancies – which you can find on the MA website as well other sites and via social media – enables you to better understand the skills and experience you need for the jobs you’d like to apply for. If you are interested in a role, contact the postholder and see if they will share how they got there. It’s also important to follow developments in the sector and to keep up-to-date with current practice and standards.
Competition remains keen, so when applying for an internship, voluntary work or a paid position, think about how you can draw on your experience of other jobs and roles – and think creatively about how to package it, says Russell.
Digital skills, such as running personal social media accounts and working with databases, as well as organising teams for a student society, are all transferable skills that are useful to museums. And dealing with customers via work experience in a pub or restaurant can be rebranded as problem-solving.
In the early part of your career, you can capitalise on professional development opportunities by knowing what you want to develop and seeking it out.
“Professional development needs to be purposeful. Think what it is that you want or need to have to move ahead in your career,” Russell says.
Julie Nightingale is a freelance writer
Kate Knowlden did a master’s in curation at Norwich University of Arts and is now the curator of the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket in Suffolk, where her role includes managing an Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and Headley Trust supported project to reinterpret collections.
She was drawn to the sector through her love of history and enthusiasm for lifelong learning. Knowlden volunteered with the collections team at the National Trust-run Ickworth House near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, to gain experience.
“If you are able to get experience volunteering, do as much as you can and take any opportunities that come your way,” she says. “If that doesn’t work for you, look at other routes into the sector.
“At Norfolk Museums, for example, we have a paid traineeship programme for people new to the sector or who want to make a career change. Don’t think that you have to do a degree to get your foot in the door, as there are plenty of other ways in.”