From books to bones – a mid-career crisis

Roman pottery in shape of a question mark.
Mid-career crisis or mid-career opportunity?

15 years working in libraries, and I gave it all up for museums. I have worked in academic, public, law and media libraries, but in the space of a few months I have moved from institutional repositories and copyright in a London university to repacking human bones from my local Roman ancestors. I gave up a salary and a pension to volunteer and take home nothing at the end of the month but a passion to learn more and do more in museums.

I think I must be a little crazy. Everyone has those mid-career moments; things don’t seem to be going anywhere, you are not inspired or fulfilled, but it is rare you can do something about it. Lack of relevant experience, change in salary, fear of the unknown are hurdles that seem impossible to overcome.

Things all came to a head for me, a change in financial situation, a change in family situation, coping with 3 children under 10 and the life changer – a daughter diagnosed with Autism. Something had to give and it was my career.

I knew I couldn’t stay at home: my confidence would disappear, my sanity would be at risk. I needed to do something meaningful, make a difference, learn more and challenge myself.

I love history, I love museums, but it was acting as judges for the 2012 ‘Kids In Museums Family Friendly Museum’ Award that showed me the way. Really observing my children as we visited the Museum of London I discovered the visceral impact museums have on children, not just exhibits and displays but the museum space has a special power to engage and nurture. This was what I had to be a part of, this would make a difference.

Child looking at display in Science Museum.
An autism friendly session at the Science Museum. Museums, changing lives and inspiring children.

I read up on volunteering in museums. The Museum Association recommended volunteering in my local museum, they need people to help and it is a great place to start.

So I did. I volunteered at Bromley Museum and over one year on I still volunteer there. I do anything and everything: front of house; admin; prep for education visits; cutting and sticking. I have seen the sharp end of museums, curators who do it all, days when the museum had to close because of staff shortages.

After a few months I joined their panel for Participation and Learning as part of their Heritage Lottery Fund bid. I have gone out into the community and consulted with family groups, worked on collection reviews, carried out surveys and promoted the museum to everyone I meet.

My career has not stopped because I don’t get paid. I take my volunteering seriously, I work hard at it, I will do what ever needs to be done and I take every opportunity that comes my way.

It is not always easy: not earning money; people’s perception that I am throwing all those years hard work away. There is less stress, but a lack of power and influence. I feel I have years of experience to offer, but you can’t walk into a local museum and tell them what to do. You do what they need, you take time to understand the constraints they work under, it is too easy to walk through the door and be critical.

I met someone from the Museum of London, they introduced me to a volunteer inclusion project working in their archaeological archive and it inspired me to begin blogging. My blog was for me: I can’t do a ‘proper’ job, but I can write my thoughts and feelings about the volunteer work I am doing. I thought it would be like a CV, a record of my time and experiences.

A small piece of Roman glass held up to the light.
The opportunity to be hands on with Roman glass.

The blog has been a gift. People have read it, I have made contacts, been invited to review exhibitions and ultimately it has brought me to the attention of senior management at the Museum of London. I have an unofficial mentor, who helps guide me and provides opportunities I would not otherwise have had.

I am not sure what the end goal is- a job in museums? I hope so, but where? I completed a Masters in Library and Information Studies and earned £18,000 as a graduate trainee 15 years ago. Do I want an entry-level museum job on less pay than that? After so long with no pay, any pay begins to look attractive. It is not all about the money, but is my experience worth more than that?

So, I volunteer. Much is written about museum volunteering – the ‘pros and cons’, but for me it is a lifeline. There is no other field of work where you can volunteer like this. I can’t go to my local bank and volunteer as a cashier, I can’t go to my local restaurant and volunteer in the kitchen.

Volunteers can be taken advantage of but this opportunity to see how museums work is invaluable. I have heard volunteers say they are just doing ‘front of house’, but to me every volunteer opportunity is a learning opportunity. You can observe visitors, chat to them, see why they come, what they enjoy. I have volunteered in archaeological archives and now I am spending 10 weeks on a collections cleaning course at the Museum of London. The opportunities and varied volunteer roles do exist out there.

I am very aware that a lot of the work I have done has been funded by the Arts Council; my current course at the Museum of London is a prime example. That funding has been vital in expanding my knowledge. I might not be getting paid but I am being given amazing access to the museum world.

It is not easy to change career, it doesn’t matter what profession you come from and where you are headed. Museums do need to open up, to diversify their workforce. The fast changing museum environment, the advances in technology, social media, and fundraising are examples of the bridges to bring in expertise from outside.

Someone moving mid-career, they have experience and knowledge they can bring and share. They have a confidence, professionalism and a passion to know what they want and where they are heading.

I have loved every minute of my time in museums, I have met inspirational people who support, encourage and challenge me at every step.This is not a career break, this is my career. I only need to take my children to a museum to see the impact it has and to know that making this change was the most important decision I have ever made. I am not sure what the future holds but I know it will be in museums.

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Claire Madge, Volunteer at Bromley Museum and Museum of London

I am currently on a 10 week Collection Cleaning Course at the Museum of London which you can follow on my blog.

blog – Tinctureofmuseum.wordpress.com  email Tinctureofmuseum@gmail.com

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