Careers Guide | Winding pathways - Museums Association

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Careers Guide | Winding pathways

The days of a job for life are long gone and today's workforces will inevitably face and respond to changes. Charu Vallabhbhai talks to five current or former museum and gallery professionals about the paths their working lives have taken
Careers guide
Charu Vallabhbhai
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Alice Strang spent 22 years at National Galleries of Scotland before returning to a career in the art market

Alice Strang

Alice Strang joined the graduate training scheme at Christie’s auction house and continued working there before a curatorial opportunity came up at the National Galleries of Scotland. After spending 22 years at that organisation, she returned to working in the art market as associate director and senior specialist in modern and contemporary art at Lyon and Turnbull Auctioneers. Strang recollects some of the working parallels that have supported her career transitions.

“When I arrived at the National Galleries of Scotland, I was used to cataloguing, handling pictures, condition reporting and having artworks photographed. I knew how to research, the importance of provenance and if works had been included in important exhibitions. I knew artists, artists’ estates and specialists. I understood the publication process of putting a catalogue together, editing and proofing, and the importance of deadlines. The major difference at the National Galleries of Scotland was that it had a permanent collection. In the art market, items are consigned for sale. Hopefully everything sells really well and goes to its new owners. With a permanent collection you’re able to have a really significant relationship with works over time and research them very deeply.

I was furloughed during lockdown and not long after I returned to work the National Galleries of Scotland launched a voluntary exit scheme. Staff were invited to apply for the scheme and I felt that, after over 20 happy years, maybe it was time for a new adventure.

When I left Christie’s in 1999, digital photography was a relatively new thing and companies weren’t using social media and digital marketing. Going back into the art market, the biggest change came during lockdown with the acceleration of the possibilities of selling live online.”

Stephen Beresford

Stephen Beresford graduated in mechanical engineering and worked in three different industries, prior to retraining and setting up his own business. It was this final step that led to his current position as the senior conservation boatbuilder at the Windermere Jetty Museum in the Lake District. As Beresford explains, all his experiences have brought valuable skills and knowledge to the work he does now.

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“When I finished my degree most of my friends went straight into industry but I wanted to take a year out. I spent time in Tanzania with an organisation, Mission Aviation Fellowship, that was flying light aircraft all over Africa for relief, development and faith work. I helped them with maintenance of Land Rovers, generators and various infrastructure, including building an aircraft hangar. My experience taught me the art of improvisation, where you have to make and repair things yourself rather than send them to the local garage.

After Africa I worked for 10 years in the food industry and then moved to Cumbria into the chemical industry. I focused on “reliability centred maintenance” – making processes work well, machines reliable and production predictable in terms of volumes and quality. I worked across the United States and mainland Europe as well as in the UK. Having young children, I didn’t want to continue that long term. I then moved into the British nuclear industry at Sellafield. As a professional engineer in industry, one of the most interesting projects I was involved in was explosive demolition of four big cooling towers at Calder Hall nuclear power station. Although I found it fascinating, I had always loved the creativity and ingenuity of hands-on engineering. This led me to ask Sellafield if I could take a career break and train to become a traditional shipwright and boatbuilder.  

Windermere Jetty was a large and complex project but not dissimilar to my industrial project experience. I came in as a boatbuilder to conserve the collection, while simultaneously being involved in other aspects of the project, such as building construction, specifying equipment and exhibition installation.

With steamboats in operation, Windermere Jetty is a living museum. Drawing on my engineering background has been a critical aspect of my work here, including the managerial, professional, project and people dimensions of my role.”

Ben Tufnell

Ben Tufnell began his career at Norwich Castle Museum before working at Tate Britain for nine years as curator. He describes the shift into the commercial gallery sector that led to him founding Parafin, a gallery off London’s New Bond Street, as co-director. Tufnell also considers how museums and galleries can meet their current challenges.

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“I curated Hamish Fulton’s big exhibition at Tate Britain in 2003 and became very interested in land art. Tate Publishing had commissioned me to write a book about it and that meant I’d been in conversation with Richard Long and various other land artists. A big commercial gallery, Haunch of Venison, was looking for someone to work with Richard, so they asked if that was something I’d be interested in. I was very surprised because I’d never once, for a second, considered working in a commercial art gallery but it seemed like an interesting proposition. They didn’t want me to do sales but to work with artists and the opportunity to work closely with Richard was too good to turn down.

I was the director of exhibitions when Haunch of Venison closed very suddenly in 2013. Running a business wasn’t something that had ever crossed my mind and starting my own really felt like leaping into the unknown. I saw how stressful it can be and thought it wasn’t for me. That’s why it was important to do it with co-director Matt Watkins and the other people in the team. The important decisions are made in discussion and dialogue, and it’s not all on one person’s shoulders.  We talked to a lot of people who were very kind in offering their advice and guidance. It was surprising how quickly Parafin came together. We’re eight years in now.

A key challenge for museums is funding, and I think partnerships and collaborations – including with galleries – are going to become more important because sharing resources enables under-resourced institutions to do things that they otherwise couldn’t do. It feels good to be collegiate and I think that’s a way forward. We’re always looking for collaboration, whether it’s with other galleries, with public institutions or commissioning agencies.”

Ali Brikci-Nigassa

Ali Brikci-Nigassa was security manager at London’s Hayward Gallery for 13 years and now works in security at a high-end jewellers. He arrived in London from Algeria in the mid-1980s following his studies in computer programming and worked in different sectors, starting as a kitchen porter. He gained management experience at London Waterloo railway station before returning to his studies. Here, he recalls the opportunity to join the security team at the Hayward and reflects on difficulties faced by security personnel in museums and galleries.

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“When I first started working at the Hayward Gallery, I was studying IT and became a gallery assistant for the arts venue. It was maybe after six months that the security manager position became vacant and, as I’d been a manager before, I decided to apply for it. I was in the right place at the right time. In my previous role I was ensuring that train crews moved safely and efficiently, including monitoring trains that were delayed and in a  tunnel. I learned how to make an operation work well, regardless of obstacles, and how to manage teams on the move.

In museums and galleries, the security and front of house staff are often paid a minimum wage. As their manager I would be thinking about how to motivate them in their responsibilities for artwork security and visitor health and safety. The success of the team relied on my relationship with each of them as individuals, as well as a group, so they felt valued. At the team briefing each morning I would always start by being positive and think of something that would make them laugh. Colleagues can have all kinds of personal issues in their lives so, ideally, I wanted them to have a good day at work and to maintain a happy team. I was always on the ground and would check in with them on an individual basis. They knew they could come and speak to me in private if they needed to, but I also felt it was important to be present and understand their experience in their visitor facing role.”

Nusrat Ahmed

Photo by Maryam Wahid

Nusrat Ahmed’s law degree and professional qualifications put her on track to work as a solicitor, but she soon decided to focus on families in need, representing parents of children who have disabilities. Later, working with Manchester’s communities on the Asian Parent Carers Project, she became involved with Manchester Museum. Here, she talks about the transition into her current role as the curator of the museum’s South Asia Gallery, and of some challenges museums face.

“I was connected to Manchester Museum because it was looking for a heritage partner for its British Museum Partnership project Object Journeys. The museum was reaching out to South Asian communities to recreate some of the artefacts in their collections. Our older women’s intergenerational group were shown a shawl at the British Museum. They scrutinised techniques and recreated a small part of it, which was showcased alongside the original. Seeing them side by side, what really pulled at their hearts was the fact that their skills had been recognised not only by a museum, but by themselves, their families and all those who came to the space.

This led to my journey with Manchester Museum and the development of its South Asia Gallery. I worked as a community connector and then took on the role of community producer at the museum. I was able to offer my shared language, history and lived experience in Manchester’s South Asian community, and I now lead on the South Asia Gallery. Our vision for reaching out to the diverse communities we serve is building continuous relationships that are sustained and not temporary.

A definite challenge for museums is to break down hierarchies and create this space where everyone feels valued. In developing the South Asia Gallery, whether you’re from “our” communities or you’re at the top level of your practice, for co-curation it has been an even playing field where every member is the same. Titles don’t matter and, for the sake of naming, we say community co-curators and museum people.”

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