Specialist skills and a passion for collections have long been prerequisites for aspiring museum professionals. But those qualities now need to be backed up by an understanding of the new roles and responsibilities expected of individuals, as well as the many functions that modern museums have in the wider world.
There’s an increasing need for digitally savvy practitioners with a wide range of skills and interests, from websites and app development to the possibilities of online learning and digital interactivity.
“The sector has been prioritising digital engagement for a long time but what’s happened over the past two years has obviously accelerated that change,” says Tamsin Russell, the Museums Association’s (MA) workforce development officer.
“An individual needs good digital knowhow across the board, whether that’s running a database or knowing how to make a mark across social media.”
As a result of museum staff struggling during the pandemic, Victoria Ryves,
the programme manager at Heritage Doncaster, started an online wellbeing group.
She set up Glam Cares (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums), a support network for sector professionals, which enabled staff to talk about their concerns and socialise through online events.
“In museums, we spend a lot of time looking after the people that come to our sessions, but we’re not always as good at looking after the people doing that work,” says Ryves. “We’re looking into skills development and working with counsellors to write a mental health first-aid kit with tips on mindfulness and mental resilience. We want to provide support that’s personal and professional.”
In recent years, cultural sector organisations have made decolonisation a focus of policy and practice.
Understanding what this crucial issue means and how it plays out in terms of representation and audience development is just as important for individuals as it is at an institutional level.
“Many museums are embarking on decolonising work, but this needs to start here and now, with the quality and nature of the ways we work,” says Charlotte Holmes, a member of the Museum Detox committee, the network for museum and heritage workers of colour.
“We all need to do the work to understand and address the oppressive ideas we have internalised if we don’t want to repeat them.”
There’s demand from museum audiences to act on climate change, says Sara Kassam, the sustainability lead at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and an MA trustee. “They want to see how we engage with the issues and how we are thinking about sustainability,” she says.
Someone looking to enter the sector and interested in working in sustainability could usefully look to develop their understanding of systems and how they work, as well as behavioural and social change, adds Kassam.
“Basic carbon literacy is important. Understanding the terminology and activities that emit more carbon than others means you have the analytical skills and baseline knowledge for your role.”
Co-creation and facilitation are skills that entrants to the sector should look to develop, says Margaret Middleton, an independent exhibition designer based in Belfast.
“It’s important to know how to advocate for social justice work in museums,” they say. “Students learn about the opportunities for this work in museum studies classrooms, but museums are conservative workplaces and initiatives need to be championed.
Co-creation and facilitation are skills that entrants to the sector should develop
“You need to be savvy about money, partnerships and community relationships. Just be ready to be persistent.”
Sam Bowen, a museums development officer in Kent, is a campaigner and activist for the inclusion of children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) in museums, work that was recognised by her winning last year’s MA Museums Change Lives Radical Changemaker award.
“Anyone wanting to enter the profession should learn more about this world,” she says. “Follow Send advocates, parents, teachers and young people themselves on social media to start understanding the realities of the pressures faced by this group.
“We are making slow progress and need to shed light on why that is.”
Toby Louch and Julie Nightingale are freelance writers