Resilience has been a watchword in museums over the past decade, as funding cuts prompted restructures, streamlining and, for staff, job insecurity in the form of short-term contracts.
Yet a focus on social justice – promoting a fairer, more-inclusive and equitable society – has widened the scope of work undertaken and given fresh impetus to efforts to expand the workforce to better reflect the communities museums serve.
Initiatives such as the Museums Association’s (MA) Museums Change Lives flagship campaign – with its themes of promoting health and wellbeing, creating better places and inspiring engagement, reflection and debate – has highlighted those whose work serves the public directly.
In 2020, the campaign’s awards focused on the people and organisations that had made a genuine difference to their communities during the pandemic. The winners included the staff at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle upon Tyne, who – armed with snacks, puzzles and much-loved literature – took reading sessions to the front gardens of youngsters forced to stay at home.
Last year, the Museums Change Lives Awards digital engagement category was won by the Mixed Museum for its Brown Babies exhibition, which tells the stories of the British children born to Black US servicemen and white mothers during world war two.
Meanwhile, work on decolonising collections has become a strategic priority for many institutions. At the end of last year, a Decolonising Working Group convened by the MA published guidance to help people across the sector engage with decolonising practice.
For the past two years, the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent has been working on reinterpreting its programme to address its image as a museum named after the explorer and hunter Percy Powell-Cotton. It launched a social media campaign to explore what decolonising the museum actually meant and to challenge the myths of what is involved. Like many others, the Powell-Cotton is also undertaking work to become actively anti-racist.
The pandemic may have closed physical doors but many museums doubled down on their digital offerings, enabling people trapped at home to explore collections virtually, attend talks and take part in online workshops and conferences.
Climate change and the existential threat it poses has also forced museums to rethink how they operate, as well as how they tell the story of the battle for the planet.
The challenges these issues continue to raise require different skills from those sought by the sector even a decade ago. There is now a variety of roles that are as creatively and intellectually stimulating as ever, but are also underpinned by a deep sense of mission in education and social justice, and real urgency in the context of the climate crisis.
This is sometimes a shock to those unfamiliar with the sector or aspiring to enter it who may still think in terms of traditional curatorial roles.
“I prefer to think about what I call ‘job families’,” says Tamsin Russell, the MA’s workforce development officer. “You might have a job family that is associated with collections, another that targets audiences and one that acts as an enabling function.
“There are community roles, individuals who tend to work in a learning capacity, who could be responsible for running workshops for schools, visitors or external audiences.”
‘Museums are no longer places that just look to the past. They must reflect what’s going on socially’
That variety makes museums dynamic places to work, says Catherine Doran, learning facilitator at the Northern Ireland War Memorial Museum and the MA’s Northern Ireland representative.
“One day you could be working with the collection, the next day you could be dealing with a moth infestation,” she says. “Museums are no longer places that just look to the past. They aren’t allowed to be stuck in the past either. They must reflect – or be aware of – what’s going on socially in the world.
“You have to know your collection inside out, but you also need to know what else is going on out there. In the next few years, the focus will be firmly on the pandemic, decolonisation, climate change and anti-poverty.”
Antonia Canal, the MA’s policy and campaigns officer, joined the sector through a paid traineeship programme funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and run by London-based arts charity Cultural Co-operation (now Culture&).
“It offered development opportunities for people of colour and working-class people with an aim to increase representation in the arts and heritage sectors,” she says.
“No prior experience in the sector was required – it was all about passion and potential. The traineeship was a game changer for me, not just in entering a new sector, but in my professional development.”
Traineeship programmes have played a big part in broadening entry routes into the sector and have influenced wider recruitment approaches.
“Fair Museum Jobs, a collective that campaigns for more transparency around the criteria for museum jobs, has also had a big impact on how the sector thinks about recruitment,” says Canal. “Its recent manifesto challenges museums to do better.”
“I’m noticing more vacancies where there’s clearly been a change to how job descriptions and person specifications are put together, to ensure more people can put themselves forward.”
University postgraduate courses, which are still a common entry route into the sector, have adapted to reflect many of these developments.
The MA museum studies curriculum at the University of Aberdeen now features a module on museums and the digital world, and will add one on decolonising museums for 2022-23.
“We also have two online on-demand CPD courses, one on digital museum practice, and soon we will launch one on museums and sustainable futures,” says the programme director, Alison Brown.
“Issues such as climate change and social justice are embedded into our courses,” says Brown. “So students get a good grounding in these matters and how museums are addressing them.”
Toby Louch and Julie Nightingale are freelance writers