University of Aberdeen's MLitt course

Why it's vital to volunteer

Julie Nightingale, 01.03.2018
Getting hands-on museum experience while studying can be invaluable when it comes to applying for a job in the sector, says Julie Nightingale
Volunteering at a museum or heritage site is the perfect preparation for a career in the museum sector. Katelyn Smith’s hands-on experience of archaeological digs, for example, stood her in good stead when she did her MSc in museum studies at the University of Glasgow in 2016-17.

“I was involved in handling objects and researching and recording, which was invaluable,” says Smith, now the documentation officer at the David Livingstone Birthplace Project, Blantyr, South Lanarkshire. “Without those experiences, I do not believe I would be where I am now.”

It was in stark contrast to her volunteering stints at small historic houses, which had largely concentrated on administrative work, with little or no access to objects.

“That’s potentially why many of us seek out higher-education degrees,” says Smith. “A lot of volunteer positions in museums are front-of-house or in administration and the potential to build a strong CV isn’t there.”

Finding your place

Smith also took up student placements at Glasgow’s university museum, the Hunterian, as part of her course.

“My first one was as a cataloguing assistant, decanting bird skins, photographing and cataloguing them before placing them in storage,” she says.

“I was thrown right in and was using Emu [a collections management system] on my second day. The birds I catalogued could be seen illustrating Museums Journal’s recent profile on the Hunterian’s new director, Steph Scholten. That cataloguing placement is 100% the reason I am in my post now.”

Mix theory and practice

Nicola McHendry, the museum officer at the Garioch Heritage Centre, Aberdeenshire, was on the same course, part-time, from 2015-17 and volunteered at several museums beforehand, including the Royal Scots in Edinburgh Castle and the Dundee Museum of Transport.

Volunteering at one-off events during her studies gave her a different insight into museums, complementing the theory that she learned on the programme.
“Finding a balance between theory and practice at the beginning of your career is vital and volunteering while studying gave me this balance,” she says.

How to get the most out of volunteering

  • Ask what kind of tasks you should expect to do before you accept. Working front-of-house or in the gift shop may seem OK – at least you’re in a museum – but you may not get what you want or need out of it.
  • Follow institutions you like on Twitter and Instagram. Sign up for newsletters and check websites such as Creative Scotland and University of Leicester Jobs Desk.
  • If your university has a museum, ask if they need help. They almost always do.
  • When you get that volunteer position, don’t settle for the task in front of you. Ask if there are opportunities for you to explore other activities.
  • Know your limits. These are not paid positions, so do not let them affect your university work or relationships.

Links and downloads

Courses guide and listings (pdf)