How can you progress your museums career?

Patrick Steel, 24.09.2012
Read a summary of the MA's Careers Q&A
Building a career in museums has always been tough, but the economic climate is making it harder than ever, seemed to be the general consensus of the expert panel in today’s Careers Q&A.

Nicola Hayes is demoralised after 30 job applications that have resulted in no interviews or even replies, she says, despite an MA in art history and volunteering experience, leading her to take a job in a production company although she continues to volunteer at weekends.

Keep up the volunteering as there is no substitute for being on-the-spot, was the panel’s message. According to Maurice Davies, the MA’s head of policy and communications: “Quite often there's an element of 'being in the right place at the right time' when it comes to getting that elusive first job, or that new short-term contract.”

Vanessa Trevelyan, director of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, agrees: “In Norfolk we employ quite large numbers of front-of-house staff, many of whom are seasonal.

“This is used by many graduates as a way of getting some useful museum experience. It also puts them on the spot when other jobs come up. Indeed, the visitor services manager often jokes that her team is just used for head hunting within the service.”

Trevelyan had positive news for those looking to enter the sector through unconventional routes: “As an employer I have no problem with applicants who have experience in non-museum fields.

“In fact, one of my sparkier members of staff, now director of a major regional museums service, spent some time as a manager in a McDonalds. Museums are about public service as well as subject specialisms and any experience that hones those customer care skills and demonstrates that you can deliver them is a definite bonus.”

Rachel Cockett, partnerships and performance manager at Birmingham Museums Trust, asked the panel what they thought were the pitfalls of people applying jobs that were more junior than their previous roles.

This had come up in a job that Richard Sandell, director of the School of Museums Studies at the University of Leicester, was involved with shortlisting. The applicant was successful, he said, because they addressed the interviewers concerns by clearly setting out their interest in the post and showing why they were applying.

A non-linear career is a fact of today’s museum sector, thought Charlotte Holmes, the MA’s museum development officer - we will all be working for longer, with traditional roles and specialisms disappearing.

The Q&A was part of the latest issue of Museum Practice on starting a career in museums.


Museum Practice: Starting a career in museums

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27.09.2012, 15:59
I think there's a difference between volunteering and internships. Huge numbers of people find a few hours a week to give free to a cause they want, but the expectation that getting a job means you have to give weeks or months unpaid is unfair.

I would agree about 'non-museum' work experience, though. In favouring those who have spent ten years working unpaid on MODES records, we forget the great skills that other sectors can teach in terms of customer care, mangeing finance, manageing staff, writing plans and raising funds. No work experience is wasted - you always learn something useful!
MA Member
26.09.2012, 10:11
While I appreciate financial constraints, I do not agree with encouraging volunteering in the sector. Only a few can afford to work for free (while often working full time elsewhere), and it in no way guarantees a job at the end of it. In my opinion volunteering encourages elitism in museums. Either that, or positions are filled by retired professionals. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing as they often have a wealth of knowledge to offer visitors but it rather defeats the point of creating positions geared towards career development.

From a museum perspective, it is the institution's duty to provide volunteers with meaningful projects and valid experience. These take time and effort to plan and implement. The nature of volunteering means individuals sometimes leave part-way through projects due to other commitments, a new job etc, leading to incomplete projects that can cause more problems than solve them. Training new volunteers takes more time and again, the project may not be carried out to completion.

Wages are already pitifully low for employees in the sector compared to similarly qualified and experienced workers in other areas. A culture of 'working for free' merely encourages this mindset where culture is undervalued and underpaid.