An open evening event where postgraduate researchers at the Hunterian Museum, at the University of Glasgow, make presentations

Building skills

Julie Nightingale, March 2016
Volunteering is deemed essential for students to understand the real world of museums and secure a job
Museums rely on volunteers to help with everything from front of house to archiving, research to conservation, with the result that plenty of institutions now have formal volunteer training programmes.

Universities that work closely with a particular museum may design the training with the institution as part of a placement programme to enable students to extract maximum value from the experience.

Apart from new skills and experience to put on the CV, volunteer placements can also yield great ideas for projects and coursework. And the importance of volunteering when finding a job cannot be overstated.

The Whole Picture, a 2015 report by Museums Galleries Scotland on volunteering, found that students who volunteered during courses did it to build experience, recognising “that they would not be able to get a job in the sector without it”.

Museums also saw “giving students the skills and experience they need to get onto museum postgraduate courses or get paid jobs in museums” as one of the most successful aspects of volunteering activity. Skills development and the opportunity to try different roles in a museum or gallery were also cited as benefits.

Ian Anderson, the director of museum studies at the University of Glasgow, recommends students gain varied experience. “Museum work is multifaceted, so take the opportunity to experience as much as you can and develop multiple strings to your bow,” he says. “In this regard, volunteering for smaller independent museums or galleries can help as everyone needs to contribute to multiple roles.”

University of Glasgow students’ experiences have included placement work on budgeting models for temporary exhibitions, preparing new business models, writing scripts for guided tours, preparing country houses for opening, documenting change in the built environment and working on collection research.

As well as experience of the real world of museum work, volunteering also gives students a reference point for their studies and the situations they will encounter, Anderson says. “I don’t think there are many employers who would consider an applicant without some form of experience.”

Anna Botonakis, a part-time museum studies MA student at the University of Leicester, began a placement in July 2015 at the William Morris Gallery and Vestry House Museum in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, and carried on volunteering there after her MA ended. The internship made up the final module of her master’s.

“The internship started at a time when I was trying to pin down the roles I would like to pursue in a museum,” Botonakis says. “Every day was invaluable as I worked with front-of-house staff, marketing and documentation officers and curators.”

She recommends students think hard about the institution and volunteer role they choose. “It can be hard to satisfy your preferences for both, so it is essential to select somewhere that offers continuous training and development,” she says.

Laura Swithenbank

Laura Swithenbank did an MA in art gallery and museum studies at the University of Leeds in 2013-14 and is now a research assistant at Heart of Glass, an arts organisation in St Helens, Merseyside.

“My role includes administration, finance, evaluation, working on projects and assisting artists and producers. Our most recent project was a season called TakeOverFest in collaboration with the artist Scottee, including Marisa Carnesky’s Haunted Furnace, where we produced a feminist horror experience with 27 local young women.

It isn’t the kind of job I expected following the course. I expected to apply for traditional museum and heritage-based engagement work and was also anticipating working on a more temporary basis in front-of-house or visitor services as I was aware of the increasingly competitive nature of the job market and cuts in the sector.

During interviews it was common for me to be competing with PhD students and older, more experienced candidates for entry-level positions.

But the course prepared me for this role because it embedded a transdisciplinary approach to work and research, and drew on modules from related courses in the School of Arts and Cultural Studies.

For instance, I worked on co-curating a fine art exhibition and on a local museum’s offer for disabled people as well as with a theatre, which prepared me for working with corporate organisations.

I’m now looking into applying for a collaborative doctoral award with Heart of Glass and our evaluation partner, which would follow on from the research and writing I did for my master’s at Leeds.”


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