Joe Sullivan is the Heritage Outreach Officer at the RAF Museum. Here he investigates the myth of the Museum Studies MA, talking to three fellow professionals at Brooklands Museum (seen above competing in Museums Dance-Off) about their alternative routes in the sector.
Despite what a Museum Studies lecturer may have you believe, the museum sector has a long history of employing people in various capacities from outside of the traditional academic sphere. With the devaluing of Museum Studies and heritage-associated MA courses due to larger numbers of applicants, there is a discussion to be had about the value of considering alternative entrances into the sector. This is something that reflects two inherent problems faced by young professionals in London. Firstly, the cost of living in London means many graduates can’t afford to volunteer for a long while and get a foot in the door – you often have to work out of the sector for years to make rent. Second is an age gap problem, where in previous generations there were plenty of graduate jobs, now due to the higher number of graduates there is stronger competition and you often have to find yourself in the right place at the right time to find a suitable post. Even then, your funding could be cut at any point!
To explore this debate a little more I talked to several staff of varying ages and backgrounds at Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, a motoring and aviation museum with a strong site heritage and a location just outside of the London zone. The relatively small museum staff gets the most out diverse working backgrounds to make the museum a success, and have interesting stories to tell about how they came into the sector, how the skills they developed helped inform their role in the museum, and how the best route is not always an MA in Museum Studies.
With a motoring and aviation museum as you may expect there is a natural draw for those with science and technology backgrounds, and John Silver, the Volunteer Manager, was initially one of those people. Starting with an engineering apprenticeship, his career developed alongside working within machine care in various large companies, including machine safety guarding role for car plants, which led to a role as the works manager. However, this then developed into shipment inspection roles stationed around the world – Nigeria, Kenya, Germany, Switzerland and Pakistan – mostly focussed on capital loss. He later moved to Guinness rising to Commercial Operations Manager, and then moved to an Operations Manager position at 3663, a catering company. Despite starting out with an engineering background, John’s career developed very differently, moving into inspection and operation management roles. So, does this relate to managing volunteers at a museum?
In John’s own words: “Not really!”
Well, fair enough.
However, he continues: “The ‘logistics’ parts have helped manage getting everything in some kind of order. The people skills came from managing large teams and being part of the management of their graduate recruitment programme.”
Through working in these high-pressure recruitment and management environments, John developed a skillset that enabled him to reach out and recruit and train hundreds of new volunteers to the museum, making a huge success of the programme. Volunteers of all ages and backgrounds now prop up the museum to a large extent, carrying out work on vehicles, the collection and the site, and partaking in public-facing roles such as tours and school visits. Interestingly, this is how John came to be involved with Brooklands himself:
“I left  to come here in 2010 in the role I’m now in, however I was volunteer here from 1999. That came about from helping with an Air Cadet parade on the old runway and then being asked if I would help restore the Link Trainer (in a room off the Stratosphere Chamber). I then did some weekend Stewarding, and then the National Aviation Heritage Skills Initiative where I met the Viking [aircraft] Team Leader, and moved across to help restore that. I still help on that on the odd Saturday!”
Volunteering certainly is a route into the sector for many, though it is often associated with young professionals – that image of new graduates moving home to save money and volunteer till they get a foot in the door. The problem is, even then it takes a while to gain the necessary experience. John’s career shows that those skills can be gained in other ways, and transferred to the museum environment. This is something also true of Tim Morris, the Brooklands Trust Administrator. Before his current role running the membership programme for the museum, Tim spent several decades as a Police Officer, with a beat around Weybridge. Tim also had a previous relationship with the Brooklands site:
“For me personally it is a close affinity to Brooklands through many years that drew me here in the end. My father worked for Vickers and BAC in the 60s and 70s and I would come here to go to the annual Christmas parties held for children of the workers at the factory. As a slightly older child I would often go fishing in the River Wey… and sometimes sliding down the banking on bits of old corrugated iron. [While later working for the Police,] I distinctly remember the day in 1987 when the VC10 landed at Brooklands and my ‘team’ had thought it a good wheeze not to tell me about it – it was most terrifying when it seemed to skim the top of Surrey Towers on its first fly around – terrified most of the residents of Addlestone and Weybridge as well!”
Outside of the Police, Tim’s interest in classic cars led him to join the MG Car Club, and he had been responsible for organising events, as well as founding and editing a club magazine – which he continues to edit and administer subscriptions of today. These skills put him in an excellent position when he retired from the Police in 2008, and saw an advertisement for the new role of BTM administrator. With a wide range of interpersonal, communications and organisational skills from the Police and his MG Car Club background, it was a natural fit for his long-held affinity with Brooklands and the skills he had spent decades honing in communities, events and administration – something that has again led to marked success:
“It seemed like a good idea to apply for this position as I wanted to ‘semi retire’… now I have more than doubled the Membership to over 5,500 [and] the job has developed to more than just subscriptions and renewals as it now covers marketing, social media, website, events, publicity and more”.
Something that again stands out here is that Tim, like John, gained his post by using a volunteering role to demonstrate his suitability due to previous experience, rather than to get a ‘foot in the door’. The transferable skills each of them display speak to something unique about the heritage sector: it’s never too late. Although people have a tendency to stay in roles long past retirement age in this sector, that in itself speaks volumes for the life-long learning aspects provided by museums. There is of course an age gap related to this. John and Tim’s experience is a product of a time when museums had more jobs available. It is often a different challenge for younger professionals, some of whom, like Brooklands’ Learning officer Olivia Clandillon-Baker, instead trained in a related sector before moving into museums. Olivia’s role at Brooklands involves arranging school visits and workshops, developing new educational material, and running community panels, but she formerly trained and worked as a teacher, which gave her skills that provided a unique insight into a museum education role:
“As a former classroom teacher, I have experience teaching from the curriculum which helps us plan more suitable workshops and activities at the museum, as well as being able to think about what a teacher looks for in a good school trip. Being a teacher helped me to see things through the eyes of children.”
Brooklands Museum provided Olivia with her first full-time role in the sector, something which has been difficult over the last few years. Through placement schemes and out of work hours volunteering she picked up contacts and experience of education within the museum sector, discovering that museum education was about asking the right questions to children to work things out for themselves, and that museums provide an exciting and engaging change of scenery for young people. Looking back on her career move Olivia advises being proactive, and to seize any opportunity to gain those skills to help get a foot in the door.
I would agree with this – before taking on my current job, I worked at Brooklands Museum for three years. Working at the museum gave me excellent experience in designing and running education workshops (and lots of experience of how to answer a telephone), but one piece of advice that really kicked me on career-wise was my former boss telling me I needed to network more. Following that advice led me to give a talk at a Museums Showoff event, where I was made aware of the LMG, where a board member recommended me to the board of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs charity group. Developing skills in team management, finances and community interpretation through those volunteer groups fast-tracked me to learning skills it may have taken years to get the opportunity to learn otherwise. Long story short, a museum qualification won’t solve all your problems so if you are finding the job market difficult – as Olivia suggests, seize whatever relevant opportunities are there instead – it may well lead you back to where you want to be.