Making a mark with your career - Museums Association

Making a mark with your career

How new entrants can stand out from the crowd when job hunting
Careers guide Workforce
Caroline Butterwick
Attending events and conferences is a key way to develop your knowledge, networks and understanding on the sector
Attending events and conferences is a key way to develop your knowledge, networks and understanding on the sector

The chance to work with fascinating collections, make a difference to your community and meet interesting people – there are lots of reasons why a career in the museum sector may be right up your street.

But being a new entrant can be tough. There are more applicants for jobs than vacancies, and short-term and zero-hour contracts are rife. Low pay is endemic, with the cost-of-living crisis having a disproportionate effect on heritage professionals, according to the union Prospect.

Austerity and Covid have made things harder, with many museum services undergoing restructures or freezing recruitment and promotions. Disabled professionals and people of colour are still chronically underrepresented in the sector. All this is having an impact on staff morale.

Despite these deep-rooted challenges, there are still plenty of reasons to want to work in the sector.

“There are lots of things I enjoy about the sector, especially about the benefit our work can provide to so many people,” says Lucy Bickley, who works as public engagement project manager for the National Trust and is also a rep for the Museums Association.

“I get to work with amazing people every day – most experts in their fields – who are so willing to share their knowledge. And I can step over that rope and go behind-the-scenes in these beautiful places, getting up close and personal with the collection items.”


Many who work in museums love knowing they are making a difference.
“I’ve had a variety of jobs within the National Trust and all have focused around people,” says Bickley.

“It’s wonderful to be able to put a big smile on a child’s face when showing them the summer activities they can take part in, and to read comments of how a story about our collections has resonated with an individual.

“I got into the sector because my soul is full when I experience beautiful landscapes, discover collections belonging to amazing people and immerse myself in this country’s varied culture. It’s an honour to be able to bring that joy to other people and show how vital this sector is to public wellbeing.”

So, if you love the idea of working in the museum sector, what can you do to stand out and make a mark as a new applicant?

Take a values-based approach to your career

Understanding exactly why you want to work in the sector will help you narrow down the roles you want, and then communicate your passion to potential employers.


Gary McNally, a careers expert and researcher at Staffordshire University, says  it’s not enough to say “I really like museums” or “I think collections are interesting”.

“Everything is interesting to someone,” he says. “You need to identify the values that underpin your desire to work in the sector.”

McNally advises asking yourself questions such as:

  •  Why do museums particularly interest you?
  • Do you think museums are important to society or culture? If so, why?
  • What would be the problem if all museums shut down tomorrow? Who would lose out? Why is that a problem?

“The answers can inform your understanding of your underlying motivations for wanting to work in museums,” he says. “But they are also key in terms of articulating why you’re the right person for the job.”

McNally gives the example of applying for a role in a transport museum, and suggests that candidates dig deep as to why this particular place is important to them.


“Is it because you’re passionate about public transit and urbanism?” he asks. “Is it because you think climate catastrophe can be, in part, solved by public transport solutions of the past? Underlying motivators for why you want to work in the sector will come across as genuine and impactful.”

Look at the variety of roles

There are many roles in museums that people might not have heard of, such as  development managers, registrars and community learning producers.

“We hear a lot about curators or guides, but there are a wide range of job titles that may be a better fit for your interests and skills,” says Bickley.

Regularly check the roles advertised by museums and take the time to read the descriptions for jobs you wouldn’t usually look at. Talking to people who work in the sector can give insights into the variety of positions.

Networking and professional development

It may send a shiver down your spine, but networking can be a great way of making new connections, learning about the industry and finding opportunities.

“The term ‘networking’ is scary and disingenuous, but it doesn’t have to be,” says Bickley. “People in this sector are friendly and passionate about what they do, so they love talking about it.

“Be curious, ask questions, strike up a conversation when you’re getting coffee. Tell the person with a cool scarf that they’ve got a cool scarf and
see where the conversation takes you. If you treat it as making friends, rather than something transactional, you’ll find it a lot easier.”

Online and in-person conferences, workshops and events are great for meeting new people as well as widening your knowledge. Social media platforms such as LinkedIn and X are good places to connect with others and find out what’s going on.

Networking and events are also a chance to learn about issues and to use your voice to make change in the sector – marking you down as knowledgeable and passionate.

Volunteering and making the most of opportunities

Volunteering can be a good opportunity to learn exactly what working in a museum involves. This can help you decide whether you want to pursue this career, and gives you lots to talk about when you apply for paid roles.

Volunteering is something you can do alongside paid work. It might be in a front-of-house role one day a week, or on a board or committee for a museum-affiliated organisation.

Consider how to develop skills by volunteering outside the sector – working in a charity shop at weekends is a great way to get customer service experience, for example. If you’ve organised a fundraising event at your child’s school, helped with marketing for a local arts festival or taken an active role in your place of worship, put it on your CV.

Consider your transferable skills

These are skills and experiences you’ve developed from other roles, your education or volunteering.

“It’s important to recognise that there is no such thing as irrelevant work experience,” says McNally. “The most important thing with applications and interviews is being able to demonstrate the skills required to do the job.
If you need good customer service skills for a role, it doesn’t matter if those skills were developed in a museum or a hardware store.”

He recommends listing the personal specifications for a role and considering how you can demonstrate those skills.

“If you’ve worked in customer service or retail, did you speak to the public?” asks McNally. “Did you build rapport with angry customers to help resolve complaints? Did you communicate in a professional manner with
the public and colleagues? Nobody is born working in museums and galleries. Most people are bringing in skills they developed from outside the sector.”

Look after your wellbeing

Job hunting can be tough. A lack of responses, struggling to find roles or not being offered a position after an interview can be upsetting and stressful. Support networks – whether friends or family, your university’s careers adviser or professional museum networks – can help.

“I would like to remind everyone they’re amazing, and if you’re finding it hard, this job search doesn’t reflect on you as a person,” says Bickley. “There could be a million reasons out of your control, so please don’t let this weigh heavily on you.”

It can take time to find the right role. But there’s lots of support out there,
so don’t feel as if you are tackling this alone.

Caroline Butterwick is a freelance journalist

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