Interview with Joe Sullivan
In the first of our regular interview posts, Joe Sullivan, Outreach Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology and Learning Assistant at Brooklands Museum, talks dinosaurs, early career struggles and education outreach. Also take a look at his ‘Thoughts on Jack the Ripper‘ post of 25 September.
Hello Joe, can you describe your career path?
After making the possibly foolhardy decision to actually enjoy my job by pursuing a career in a sector with few jobs and bad pay, I initially studied Archaeology and Prehistory, followed by a Museum Studies MA. Out of university I gained experience in volunteer, exhibition enabler and consultant capacities, going wherever there was work (which mid-recession was nowhere). Slightly disheartened by the prospect that the sector was more open to people who could afford to volunteer ‘til they got their foot in the door, I abandoned museums for a year. I started up a walking tour company and undertook merchandising work with the Olympics. Finding the latter far more disheartening than anything else I’d done (bar box-folding in a warehouse at 4am), I resolved to get back into the museum sector. I ended up at the Royal Courts of Justice and Brooklands Museum, working in education roles – something I had never considered previously – and absolutely loved the work, putting together and delivering projects, workshops and talks, and working with students and older learners. From there I moved onto an outreach role at the Grant Museum of Zoology, and currently sit on the LMG Committee.
What have the next 12 months got in store for you?
As a primarily freelance worker I’m never really sure! I want to develop myself further, though with few suitable roles and huge amounts of competition it is a hard thing to do at times. Brooklands are currently revamping the learning program, which I have been involved with, bringing more social media and digital aspects into play, and developing new sessions. Over the next few years the museum will be looking to complete and open the HLF-funded Hangar project. I will likely keep things ticking over and look into opportunities for personal development, potentially with a view to museum consultancy.
What Museum (other than the one you might work for) would you like to be locked in overnight?
From a survival point of view probably the Natural History Museum – it has a right nice café and plenty of animals to split open Taunton-style if I’m cold. For my own enjoyment it would probably be the London Transport Museum depot over at Acton – it is an Aladdin’s cave, full of so much stuff to see that even with a whole night there I would barely scratch the surface.
What’s the most encouraging thing a visitor/user has ever said to you?
The most satisfying interactions I have are not with visitors, but with schoolchildren during outreach work, for example their wonderment at seeing things they’d never heard of, and being told the unique ways they survive – like what the hell is a Cookie Cutter Shark, and how it eats its food. However, the best response always comes from this question: “What do you think the closest relative of a T-Rex alive today is?” – the answer being, of course, a chicken. The response from a group of 8 year olds is, without fail, a collective yell of “A CHICKEN??!!!”
If you could highlight one Museum Object, either in your own museum or elsewhere, what would it be?
The thing that got me into museums was a love of dinosaurs, especially some of the weirder ones. My favourite was Baryonyx, a Spinosaurid found in a quarry in Surrey. The skeleton is one of the most complete British theropod skeletons and is reconstructed and displayed at the Natural History Museum. The thing I love to highlight about this dinosaur is the overlong forefinger – used for fishing – and the speculation its snout may have contained dimples that gave it a rudimentary radar-like sense that could track fish as they swam past, before spearing them with its giant claw. I think the features on the specimen give a really interesting insight into the lifestyle of the animal and show the differences between the public view of ‘Jurassic Park’-style dinosaurs and the varied and unique lifestyles they actually led – something that to me sums up the key role of a museum.
What would you have been if you hadn’t been an Outreach Officer?
Over the last few years I’ve been touring and recording in a band, so a logical choice would be musician. That said, a musician is not a logical choice of job for so many reasons, not least that it’s impossible to actually make any money doing it, so I’m not sure it even counts as a job. Therefore I’m going to go with Photojournalist for National Geographic.