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  • Writer's pictureLondon Museums Group Team

The low down on the life of early career museum professionals

Originally posted on 11 October 2013 #LMGBlogArchive #LMGBlogArchiveProject Part 1 of 2, by Rachel Souhami

You’ve got to love museums to want to work in one: if you’re lucky, after years of study and volunteering you’ll get a low paid job on a short-term contract, and even getting one of those is a slog. But while senior professionals approach this problem by wringing their hands over training or declaring they have the solution, the voices of early careers professionals have rarely been heard. If you do ask, you’ll hear that entry routes are inadequate, there is a lack of cogent thought, structure and guidance throughout the sector, and that the solution is a wholesale change of approach to museum training and jobs. Rachel Souhami has been listening.

Marginal benefits from a Masters

Many people see a Masters degree in museum studies or equivalent as an entry into the museums sector. However, with fees ranging from £5,000 at UEA to £8,500 at UCL for a full-time one-year course starting 2013, once you factor in living costs an MA could set you back £25,000. Leaving aside for now the implications of this for access and workforce diversity, for those who can afford to do an MA, the question is: is it worth it?

Laura Crossley finished her MA in Heritage Studies in 2011, and Kristin Hussey finished her MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies in 2011. Crossley says her Masters taught her skills she wouldn’t have learned elsewhere, particularly how to write exhibition outlines and interpretation plans which now form the basis of her freelance work. She and Hussey both agree that the reflexive content of their MAs – understanding museums’ cultural, social and historical contexts – was also important: “I’d argue that everybody working in museums should have that background,” says Hussey. For Crossley, that contextualization helps her think about future employment: “I now have a clear idea of what my stance is [on the purpose of museums], and would want to work in museums that share [it].”

However, while both feel having an MA got them job interviews, neither feels it prepared them for working in a museum. Crossley’s first heritage job was at Norwich HEART, and although doing her MA work placement there helped her get in the loop, it was her experience of EU-funded grants gained as a university administrator that actually won her the position. She later managed a small museum in Sheringham but “I didn’t feel prepared to do every job in the museum because I didn’t know how [the different departments] worked.” Her MA had not provided her with information on the structure and roles in a museum.

Hussey is scathing about the omissions from her course. With an ambition to be a curator, she cites a list of things it didn’t cover that would have aided her transfer into museum work: “I went into a museum not knowing what a loan agreement looked like, not knowing what a registrar does… a young professional needs to be able to say ‘I can use Modes, Calm, KE Emu, Adlib, MIMSY, [you need to know] what are SPECTRUM standards, what is government indemnity…” Although Hussey’s course gave a two-hour introduction to KE Emu, it was only the opportunity to use MIMSY during her work placement that enabled her get a job.

While Crossley and Hussey point to pros and cons of an MA, Miki Webb’s experience implies that for some roles the cost isn’t justified. Webb started her MA in Public Archaeology two years ago on a part-time basis. In October 2012 she took an interruption from studies in order to work full time to save up for the next year. Webb is now on a one-year contract as a visitor services assistant at the National Maritime Museum, and finds that many of her colleagues, on the same contract, have MAs and even PhDs. What, she asks, is the point in continuing with the MA if it’s going to get her the job she’s got now? Crossley agrees: she worked full-time at HEART and other heritage sites whilst doing her MA over a period of five years: “it’s difficult to get to a certain age and think ‘wow, I’ve spent lots and lots of money for a career that won’t pay me very well and that I might not get a job in.’” She contemplated withdrawing from her course, given that she had a job, but felt that she needed the degree to get ahead.

Here is the museum world’s sleight of hand. A quick trawl through Leicester University’s Museum Job Desk at the time of writing (August 2013) shows only one job advert in the first fifty that explicitly requests an MA in museum studies; most asked for experience and subject-related degrees. However, this conceals the underlying cutthroat jobs market, in which entry level qualifications have inflated to crazy levels. Forget appearances, if you want to get ahead in museums you need all the experience and qualifications you can get.

Gain skills but not cash

Volunteering is often cited as a way to show your enthusiasm, get experience and learn some skills. Terri Dendy is perhaps an extreme example of this. She doesn’t have an MA, but got her first paid museums job immediately after she graduated from university solely on the back of her voluntary work. She had been volunteering in museums from the age of seventeen and knew even then that she wanted to work in collections. However, the volunteering roles at her local museum were front-of-house and education based, and not aimed at people who were thinking about a museum career. Dendy, however, was pushy enough to wangle her way into voluntary roles behind the scenes cataloguing and accessioning works. At university she continued volunteering: “there was one point [where] I had four jobs: interning [at Orleans House Museum], volunteering [at the Horniman Museum], working at the National Maritime Museum in the shop and working as a supervisor at Waitrose.”

But before Dendy is cited as illustration of how to get into museums without an MA, let’s review what she did: it took her four years of unpaid work to gain the skills get a job; in addition she had to really push to get the experience she needed. In Dendy’s opinion, the volunteer programmes in major museums are over subscribed, but smaller museums may not have programmes that are useful to those wanting to start a museum career. In the local authority museum where she started volunteering the programme was geared to “mainly older women, retired, doing a little bit here and there, pottering around, nothing career based.” Crossley agrees: “I know people who have spent years and years volunteering, and because a lot of volunteering roles are just not very useful [for a career] they’ve just never progressed.”

It is worth noting here that some museums may distinguish between voluntary work (front of house, administration) and internships or work placements (more technical areas such as conservation and registry). Museums and applicants should note that the terms internship and work placement have no legal status, and that some people undertaking them may be considered workers and entitled to the national minimum wage. The Museums Association has guidelines on internships, but even they suggest that three months unpaid work is acceptable.

Voluntary work isn’t the only way to gain skills; there are plenty of training courses available but these are expensive ­– unless, of course, you have a job and your employer will pay. There are some exceptions. Crossley speaks with enthusiasm about Share Museums East’s free courses, which it can fund because it was one of nine recipients of funding from Arts Council England’s museum development fund. It is not clear, however, whether the other eight recipients offer the same opportunities, nor whether Share Museums East’s courses will continue when the funding ends in 2015.

Given the price of training courses, in the highly competitive museum jobs market poor quality volunteering roles and unpaid internships become highly problematic. How else to gain skills not acquired elsewhere and/or show your enthusiasm for museum work? Doing unpaid work has become accepted practice in the sector, and although one understands there is an all-round lack of funding, it would appear that the sector has adopted an iniquitous attitude towards its future workforce.

Workplace woes

Forget the difficulty of actually getting a paid job in a museum, once you have one life isn’t a bed of roses. “I am shocked at how bad [employment practices] are” says Hussey, who has now worked on four 6-month contracts. Dendy left her job at the Science Museum to be an art technician because “I kind of got fed up of playing that contract game of waiting until the end of the month and then being told that you might actually work the following month.” There are even anecdotes that allege some museums play fast and loose with continuous employment.

Hussey and Webb have both experienced a kind of snobbism towards, and ignorance of, their roles in the museum. Walking back to the Royal Observatory after our talk, Webb eyed the masses of visitors waiting to get in and sighed, “the people in the office jobs think we [visitor services assistants] just stand around all day. If only they knew.” Hussey has found a that curators’ lack of understanding of her role can even be detrimental to the museum: “Today we found an object in … a transport room, because a curator had bought it for an exhibition, didn’t think to write any paperwork for it, now can’t quite remember where it came from, so who owns this object? Then it becomes the registrar’s problem.”

It is worth noting that Hussey, Dendy and Webb are working for large museums where, if their experience is typical, ignorance of the museum’s structure, organization and roles is endemic. Hussey’s experience in a five-month temporary job confirmed this. It was a much smaller museum and she rapidly learned what other people were doing, and felt she was able to contribute more. Crossley concurs. Talking of her experience at Norwich HEART she says, “I was part of a very small team. I was always asked for my opinion at the team meetings so I really learned what everybody in that team did.”

As if the in-post frustrations aren’t bad enough, career progression is nigh on impossible. Dendy wants to move back to a registry job but “if I was to change I’d have to go back to work in an entry level position, or just one above. My vast experience should put me higher, but [museums] seem only to employ internally when it comes to second and third level jobs.” The idea that much sought after jobs should only be available to ‘insiders’ may sound shocking, but a quick skim through some museum websites shows that at the time of writing the V&A, for example, is advertising for a “Curator of Paintings, internal applicants only”.

The job market also makes an impact by enabling museums to be picky about whom they employ. Hussey describes museums as “nothing if not judgmental about the background that you have”, explaining that friends of hers have taken short-term contracts in education or events “because that’s where the work is” only to find that this now seems to bar them from applying for registry, documentation or curatorial posts regardless of other experience. Hussey herself has experienced an apparent hierarchy of qualifications in which having a PhD trumps any kind of previous museum experience. This makes her question museums’ claims about the skills they seek: “what’s the point in gaining all these skills and experience when an obscure PhD with no experience is still valued higher by the industry?”

Structured on-the-job training also seems rare. In spite of having worked at the same institution for four years, the only way Hussey could gain the additional skills and experience she needs to progress was to take five months unpaid leave and do a temporary job at another museum. For Crossley, as a freelancer, the cost of continuing professional development is prohibitive. She would love to do the Museums Association’s AMA but “you need to be massively rich” (it costs over £700 over three years at current prices).

The over-heated jobs market and unwillingness for museums to train their staff has resulted in Dendy experiencing the job-seekers’ Catch 22: not having enough experience of loan agreements, but not being able to acquire that skill without having the job. She points out that she can’t solve this problem by volunteering because she has to hold down a full-time job, and she can’t afford to go on a training course.

Surely though it must be possible to ask for guidance, even if a mentor can’t conjure up jobs and money? Hussey’s mentor is the person who supervised her work placement during her MA. The others have not been so lucky. “I would love a mentor. How [else] are you going to know what is the next step [in your career]?” asks Dendy. Crossley agrees, “I just think you need someone who knows the business and you need someone to bounce ideas off.” Crossley feels so passionately about mentoring that she mentors other people trying to get into museums jobs “but trying to find a mentor for me has been impossible.” Thus it seems that in a difficult, complex job market many people are left without help to navigate their way.

Museums’ fixation on rigid person specifications and their inability to support and nurture their staff has led Hussey to take a fairly extreme measure. In spite of an MA in museum studies, three years’ experience working with scientific collections and an undergraduate degree in politics, history and economics, she has struggled to gain a curatorial post. She is now applying to do a PhD in the history of medicine: “I want to be a museum curator more than anything in the world, and I’ve been fighting for that for quite a few years now, [but] I don’t think I’ll get where I want to go without a PhD.”

What is evident from these accounts that the lot of an early career museum professional can be pretty miserable: there is no career structure, no guidance, no training and no stability. Furthermore, Webb, Dendy, Crossley and Hussey feel frustrated that senior members of the profession don’t seem to want to listen or engage with them. That is greatly to the museum sectors’ detriment: not only does it serve to maintain the status quo, but also young professionals have some clear ideas on how the sector could change.

In part two next week, Webb, Crossley, Dendy and Hussey set out their thoughts on the future of museum training and careers.

Author: Rachel Souhami is a museums academic and organiser of Museums Showoff

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