‘Getting into the museum sector can be tough, but small museums offer fantastic opportunities for early career professionals’, suggests Dale Copley, Museum Officer at The Fusilier Museum London.
‘LMG gets lots of enquiries from people wanting to know how they can get into the museum sector, and as I’m in the early stages of my career I’ve been asked to share my professional journey in the hope it will help others.
My role is very varied. Now the new galleries are open, my responsibility is primarily to deliver a diverse range of outreach activities associated with the project. These include a community curated temporary exhibition programme, an ongoing documentation and collection care improvement project and developing and managing a volunteer body.
I’ve also had the opportunity to work on our first Accreditation bid, write numerous funding applications, oversee a collection move, answer research enquiries, give tours and write and implement a lot of policies. Working for a small museum gives you a broad skill set and lets you develop strategic skills much earlier in your career than you would be allowed to elsewhere.
I had realised quite early on that I might want to work in museums and this really helped. I had already done a lot of work experience whilst studying for a history degree in Cardiff. On my first day volunteering at the National Museum of Wales, they gave me a car vac and sent me to vacuum a life size model of a woolly mammoth in the natural history gallery. Admittedly, at the time I didn’t realise there were bonifide pest management reasons for doing it, but the reaction of the visiting public had me hooked.
Like many people who work in museums, I believe that museums are a force for good in society. I didn’t want a job which made the rich richer and the poor poorer. I love history and so having the chance to use my undergraduate degree, and to get my hands on the stuff, really appealed.
I also loved that the people at National Museum of Wales came from a variety of academic backgrounds – and I have continued to be drawn to jobs which put me in contact with people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. I am the only person in my organisation who isn’t a Fusilier. As the LMG Share scheme testifies museums are full of fantastically supportive people. They will help you get into the sector if they can. In my third year at University I wrote to 7 people in the sector asking how I could get a job like theirs. All 7 wrote back.
On their advice, I enrolled on the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at The University of Manchester. As I write this, the sector is evaluating the value of the Museum Studies MA and I understand that as tuition fees increase students will have to think very hard about undertaking a further degree, but I believe there is a lot of value to an MA in Museum Studies and I don’t think I would be working in a museum if I hadn’t done it.
Of course, my MA introduced me to core museum skills. It also made me look at museums critically and underpin my opinions with theory, but it was the practical stuff that has been the most useful in terms of getting work. Two of my favourite bits of advice; ‘the best way to improve your own practice is to visit other people’s museums’ and ‘if you want to stay employed, you’re going to have to be prepared to move’. I met some great contacts, but probably more importantly I made some great friends.
An important part of my MA year was the compulsory work placement which we undertook for course credit. I did my work placement at a Contemporary Arts Centre in Manchester called Cornerhouse. I didn’t know anything about contemporary art but I could see the placement they were offering was exciting. I led a project with a visiting Indian artist on a commission, interviewing local women about their experiences of street harassment (Eve teasing) and then creating an installation for the café/bar area of the Arts Centre. It was a concrete project I could put on my CV. When it comes to any sort of work experience, I think you get further if you worry less about the organisation offering the placement and more about the placement they are actually offering.
As so often happens, the success of my placement meant Cornerhouse offered me some hours in the office. It was a foot in the door and I was soon working there full time as the Exhibitions Assistant. Cornerhouse is a dynamic organisation with an 8 week changing exhibition programme, so in my 18 months there I saw six exhibitions from start to finish and it was a brilliant grounding in the basics of exhibition practice.
I left Cornerhouse when the organisation restructured and the equivalent job became more administrative. I went to a HLF funded start-up at a medieval art centrein Norwich. I had never been to Norwich, but following that advice about ‘being prepared to move’ I went for the interview and a month later I moved there.
This was my first experience of being the only ‘museum’ employee. I worked directly for a body of Trustees and with a range of external stakeholders including Norwich Cathedral. It was a huge learning curve. The centre had very little money and no secure revenue. At Cornerhouse I had been used to begging and borrowing equipment and expertise to get exhibitions delivered, but it was much harder without the name of an established gallery behind me. Slowly, the centre became known locally, some events started to work, more people started to visit but as it got closer to the end of my contract it was clear there was not funding to continue the position.
I never thought I would work in a Regimental museum, but when the Fusilier museum job was advertised I could see that I had relevant experience and there was a chance to expand some of the skills I had been developing. I was so glad I was broad minded about it. I certainly hadn’t thought about it before I got the job, but Regimental collections are, at their heart, social history collections. Only a generation ago everyone knew someone who had served in the army in the World Wars or through National Service, which makes Regimental collections relevant to a lot of people.
A veteran from the Korean war takes in the new museum galleries following the 2010 redevelopment (c) The Fusilier Museum London
After three years, I probably know more than most about the Fusiliers and their history -a documentation project will do that to you – but what I am most convinced about is the unique and important role that small museums play and what an asset they can be to the sector. So, young museum professionals, small museums need you! And they can offer you so much in return.’
Author, Dale Copley.
NB: This blog was written by Dale Copley as the Museum Officer at the Fusilier Museum. Dale is now the Collections Manager at the Waterways Museum. The Museum Officer at the Fusilier Museum is now Stephanie Killingbrook.