Careers Guide | Look beyond traditional job roles
When people think of a career in museums, the first jobs that normally come to mind are curator, director and gallery guide. But for those entering the profession, it pays to think beyond traditional roles.
The sector offers a wide range of jobs, encompassing the broad work that museums do – covering collections, education, events, audience development and community engagement. And then there are the departments that support this work, including human resources, facilities and marketing. Within each job family there are different roles, from junior assistants to officers, team managers and heads of department.
As the sector develops a greater focus on social justice and the climate crisis, backed up by the ever-changing use of digital technologies, the wide range of jobs on offer, each with its own approaches and skills, continues to grow.
How museums engage with audiences is vital, and public relations is a key part of this. Alice Wyllie is the communications manager at National Museums Scotland. The former magazine writer has found her written skills to be incredibly useful – from bringing an exhibition to life by distilling a complex piece of research into something a general audience can engage with to carefully outlining an organisational position on a tricky issue.
“I’ve spent my career in the business of storytelling, and museums have the best stories to tell,” says Wyllie. “Last year, I was involved in the announcement of a major acquisition – a silver casket believed to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.
“Revealing that this exquisite object had been saved for the nation was truly memorable but one of the more special moments came when I overheard an excited visitor ask a member of staff where to see the ‘casket that was on the news’. It’s a privilege to be a cog in the machine that creates those experiences for our visitors.”
Many people also engage with museums through their learning programmes. Ellie Chambers is the secondary and post-16 science learning co-ordinator at Manchester Museum – her second official museum job, although she has done lots of volunteering.
“One of the best things about the role is that I am trusted to use my own ideas and experience to create an engaging learning programme addressing big questions like the climate crisis, decolonisation and systemic racism, but to make them understandable and not terrifying for a young person,” she says.
“Last summer, for example, I took part in the Green Bees climate assembly, a two-day programme of activities by Manchester City Council for students with special educational needs and disabilities. The event was based on the climate crisis and used the idea of what kind of world we wanted to live in and how we might achieve it. It was such a hopeful, positive experience.”
Volunteering was key to finding opportunities in the sector, says Chambers.
“I got this job partly because of my archaeology degree but mainly because I volunteer with Girlguiding,” she says. “I had experience of planning activities, safeguarding requirements and all that comes from working with young people in a voluntary capacity. I was working with young people every week, so I knew I could do it as a career.”
Fundraising is another key role that is becoming increasingly important because of ongoing cuts to public funding for museums.
Sofia Lazaridi is a development officer (trusts and foundations) at Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales. Her core role involves writing and submitting applications to trusts and grant providers, liaising with project teams across the museum, and dealing with the terms and conditions that come with funding from grant providers.
After gaining an art history degree and a master’s, she took part-time jobs in arts organisations and museums, doing a bit of everything, from front-of-house to collections work, before moving into a full-time role. That early variety was important in helping Lazaridi to progress.
“It allows you to talk about having breadth of experience in your application or interview,” she says. “Make note of different tasks as you do them, so you remember examples of experience and skills you have acquired.”
Freelancers are a vital part of the museum workforce, and many who choose to tread this path enjoy the freedom and variety it offers.
Kathleen Lawther is a consultant specialising in decolonisation of collections documentation. She has a collections management background, and her work as a freelance consultant focuses on documentation and decolonisation, identifying where different voices, perspectives and experiences have been overlooked.
Her most recent work was with the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent – funded by a Headley Fellowship – to catalogue and digitise a collection of photographs from Somalia.
“I was looking at how the museum could approach its cataloguing in a more people-centred way,” says Lawther, who is also a Museums Association board member. “We thought about the users of the collection – how information about the people represented in the photos was recorded – as well as those instrumental in making that collection.”
Critical-thinking skills are key to this kind of specialist work, she emphasises, alongside the knowledge of collections management and museum practice.
“I gradually realised that the documentation of some of the collections left a lot to be desired in terms of the way things were described. Other documentation was simply missing, which prevents the museum from being able to use the collections to their best potential.”
Many people working in museums are concerned about the key challenges that society faces – and the sector offers lots of opportunities to make real change. Alex Smith is Museums Galleries Scotland’s (MGS) first climate officer, a post that was created to meet the need for expertise on the climate crisis and sustainability matters, and to communicate their value across the institution.
“There’s a real need to explain those issues in the right way, connecting them with people – and that’s what culture can do,” says Smith, who has a science policy background.
“It can sometimes seem a distant global problem, but we’ve seen fantastic work across Scotland with museums that have explored global warming through, for example, the effect it will have on the biodiversity of the natural landscape where people live. Being able to make that connection is the key skill.”
He advises colleagues interested in a similar role to reflect on the skills they already have and see how they can be deployed in terms of climate and sustainability.
“Climate is often thought of as the domain of science or economics, but it’s a growing element across the cultural sector.”
Whatever issue museums are trying to engage audiences with, having staff with excellent communication skills is vital. Such expertise can often be developed in other sectors, such as marketing or publishing.
Scott Billings, the digital engagement manager and redisplay project manager at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, wrote about the museum world as a journalist, before deciding to volunteer in the sector in his spare time.
That led to a job working on an education project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. He then became the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s digital engagement manager – a role that has been extended to project managing a major collections redisplay.
“It involves everything from working with collections staff, identifying specimens to display and liaising with the design consultancy to managing the budget, working with the case contractors and editing the text,” says Billings.
His creative skills proved useful when changing career a decade ago. “I wanted to get into museums because I liked the combination of disciplines. In exhibition design, you have the mix of graphical and physical things – the spatial and conceptual.”
Billings took his writing and communicating skills for granted, but realised when he joined the museum that not everyone had these attributes.
“People here realised that their skills can be turned to so many things, from writing a funding application to putting in for an award to writing exhibition text or sequencing the elements of a digital interactive. They’re all versions of communication.”
Julie Nightingale is a freelance writer
It’s always interesting to observe how the museum workforce across the UK is perceived. The majority of our 1800 or so Accredited museums don’t have departments or even clearly delineated roles, say either in collections or in learning. The majority of our museums are small and staffed by 1-5 people with most of those working part-time, supported by volunteer workforces, bringing in skills from their other or previous jobs to the museum too. What is good in this reflection of careers in museums is that it no longer pitches the ‘specialist’ against the ‘generalist’. The truth is that one multifaceted role requires multiple specialisms. It is also the case, in my experience, that it seems relatively easier for museum workers to transition from smaller to larger institutions but less easy the other way around. I am not convinced that social justice causes are leading in any way to structural changes in the museum workforce beyond job descriptions in usually the wealthier museums. MJ needs to remember the majority of museums and the experiences of their workforces when discussing careers. The mention of ‘volunteering’ is important and that voluntary experience doesn’t have to be in a museum. However we should take a look at the influence of how museum volunteer workforces work in symbiosis with staff in many institutions rather than just see it as getting a foot on the ladder in a museum career.