Last week, four early career museum professionals recounted their experiences of getting into, and trying to get ahead in, museum work. In a nutshell: it’s unnecessarily tough. There is no career structure, no guidance, no training and no stability. But identifying problems is one thing, overcoming them is something else. What should the museum sector do? Well, engaging with young professionals would be a good start: they’ve got some very clear ideas on what could be done. Rachel Souhami listens in.
The stories of poor quality training, difficulty getting jobs and lack of support recounted by Laura Crossley, Kristin Hussey, Miki Webb and Terri Dendy shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Maurice Davies’s report on this subject, The Tomorrow People, was published in 2007 but very little seems to have changed between then and the publication of Iain Watson’s Working Wonders (pdf) report in early 2013. Why should that be? One answer is that there is very little incentive to initiate change. Why would museums want to do away with cheap labour? Surely universities are happy that a high demand for jobs means there is a similar demand for their Masters courses? Another answer presents itself when you look at who is consulted on this matter: Watson’s report, for example, leans heavily on the opinions of senior professionals. Perhaps unsurprisingly its first recommendation is “strengthen leadership and management.” However, it is also the case that there is no apparent over-arching leadership across all parts of the sector (museums, universities, funders etc): no one seems to want to champion this cause. One might expect the Museums Association to fill that role, but given that it commissioned both Davies’s and Waston’s reports but has done little with them, it is difficult to have faith in its ability to do so.
There are some new initiatives for training, notably new museum-based training courses. Museums & Galleries Scotland (MGS) and the British Museum, for example, introduced trainee schemes in the last few years, and more recently Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service (NMAS) set up The Teaching Museum. All three offer a combination of work experience and classroom teaching and are certainly a refreshing move. However, they are not without their own problems. In particular, experience is limited: on the NMAS scheme, trainees are assigned to one department for the whole course, and it is NMAS staff that decide that placement. MGS offers few curatorial placements, whereas the British Museum offers only curatorial training. In addition there are limits outside of the control of the organisations: the NMAS scheme only has funding for five years, and the MGS scheme appears to need to renew its funding each year. Plus, of course, there is no guarantee of a job afterwards and the schemes do not address the problems of career progression. What is really needed is a profession-wide, holistic approach to training and careers.
Fortunately Webb, Crossley, Dendy and Hussey have some clear ideas about what should change and how. What is striking about their ideas is that although I interviewed them separately, they gave very similar answers.
All four are adamant that museums and universities need to work together to produce clear career guidance at undergraduate level. They suggest that universities should offer elective modules on undergraduate courses such as history-based degrees, anthropology and archaeology that will introduce students to museums and museum work. They recommend that museums should reconsider their approach to volunteering to ensure that it is mutually beneficial to the volunteer and the museum. They also suggest that funding bodies and museums should work closely together to create programme of free workshops for those thinking of embarking on a museum career. These could be skills based, or simply open days.
Most importantly, though, museums and universities need to be honest about what qualifications you actually need for certain roles in a museum. As Crossley says “education jobs tend to go to teachers” so there’s no point in doing an MA in museum studies if you really need a PGCE. But as Dendy points out, there is no co-ordinated approach to museum qualifications, and no single place (website etc) that has all the advice you need.
Finally Crossley, Dendy and Hussey point out that in their experience many people leave an undergraduate degree not knowing what opportunities are available to them, and so decide on a career in museums because they can’t think of anything else to do. Better all round careers guidance at universities would help with this, and perhaps would help reduce the number of people wanting to work in museums.
The underlying principle of Webb, Crossley, Hussey and Dendy’s vision for museum training is that it must include theory and practice. Students must gain an understanding of all the different roles in a museum, specific skills such as how to use databases and write a grant application, they must have at least one substantial work placement, and they must gain an understanding of theoretical, reflexive approaches to museums to enable them to contextualise their work. Furthermore, places on these courses must be limited.
It is easy to imagine academics throwing their hands up at this idea and wondering how on earth they’re meant to fit all that into a twelve-month programme. That is easy to answer as soon as one realises that a museum studies MA is a professional qualification. As Crossley points out, other professional MAs, such as those in social work, take place over two years full time (see here for example). Webb, Crossley, Dendy and Hussey suggest that universities and museums should work together to develop a similar scheme. The first year would comprise some theory, introductions to the different aspects of museum work and skills training, and a long placement. If students then decided a museum work wasn’t for them they could leave with a Diploma. Those continuing in the second year would specialise in one area of museum work, write a dissertation and do an additional work placement.
This is a remarkably simple solution and has some important features. First, it combines skills training, experience and theory. Second, it enables people with little understanding of museums’ behind-the-scenes jobs to see the variety of different roles they could undertake; as Crossley explains, “people often don’t know what is available.” In addition, a long work placement will give students the experience that museums demand in a meaningful way. That experience will also help students discover whether this is what they really want to do. Finally, the theoretical modules will enable students to become reflexive practitioners and understand museums as political sites; as Dendy says “I think you need a critical mindset [to work in a museum]. A critical outlook on the way the West collects.”
However, this scheme is not perfect. In particular, students will still need to pay fees and living expenses while doing it. Postgraduate course fees are an issue that the university sector recognises but hasn’t got far in addressing. But as this problem remains whether courses are reformed or not, it might be an idea for museums, universities, funding bodies and others to work together to find a way to offer financial support to students.
It is difficult to know how to address the thorny issue of career progression, except by suggesting that museums need to be far more transparent in their person specifications than appears to be the case at present. What is clear, however, is that Dendy, Crossley, Hussey and Webb all feel that mentoring is essential to help with this. The long work placement in the revised MA they suggest could offer students the chance to establish mentoring relationship with their supervisor. An alternative solution might be to establish a kind of ‘museum mentor matching’ service in which people who would like to be mentors are put in touch with people who want to be mentored.
Perhaps with one eye on the parlous state of museum funding, Dendy, Webb, Crossley and Hussey feel volunteering has a role to play in museum careers, but to a lesser extent than at present. In particular, they think it is particularly useful before embarking on an MA as it enables people to decide if museum work is for them. With a proposed two-year Masters degree that would be very important, even if undergraduate degrees were adapted to offer an insight into the sector. However, Crossley and Dendy in particular feel strongly that volunteering must be mutually beneficial. It can’t just be seen as a way for museums to fill a shortfall in paid staff, it must also offer useful, constructive experience for the volunteer. This would probably require a new approach to the recruitment and management of volunteers.
Pay and conditions
Dendy, Webb, Crossley and Hussey could not offer any solutions to the perennial low pay except perhaps that museums should try harder. However, repeat short-term contracts, lack of on-the-job training and lack of clarity about the possibilities of progressing within an organisation can and should be addressed.
The way forward is through engagement
In spite of a list of grievances it is striking that Webb, Crossley, Hussey and Dendy are far from bitter. None of them was thinking of leaving the profession, but all were frustrated that their voices had not been heard before. This is a great loss to the sector, because senior professionals cannot possibly have an in-depth idea of what needs to change if they don’t ask. Furthermore, it is clear that early careers professionals have some interesting and imaginative ideas of how these problems could be resolved. Even more importantly, they are the senior professionals of the future and including them in the future direction of the sector must help to ensure a long-term outlook. If the sector really wants to change it must engage with them, and it must do it soon. And then there must be action.
Author: Rachel Souhami is a museums academic and organiser of Museums Showoff