What Skills do Future Museum Professionals Need?
Times are changing
All art forms change. Sometimes those changes are dramatic and abrupt – like what happened to the record industry after 1999 – and sometimes they are gradual and incremental. Either way, the result is the same – everything is in a constant state of evolution and rediscovery. No art form, no cultural experience can afford to become a fixed point. As the famous paraphrase of Darwin’s theory goes, “it is not the strongest or most intelligent of the species that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. And so it is with museums. The greatest challenge confronting museums today is deciding which parts of our 150-year old identity to let go of and which parts we are going to carry forward with us into a bright, energetic and fundamentally relevant future for our industry.
Nowhere is this challenge more apparent than in the question of skills. The story of the past 30 years in the history of museums is the story of professionalisation and modernisation. On the positive side, our industry today is far more professional, adaptive and representative than it was in the 70’s. On the less positive side, in the name of codifying professional practice, we run the risk of creating a ‘canon’ – a body of ‘museum skills’, which exclude bright, innovative and creative people from joining us in our mission to create brilliant museums.
So the real questions, for me at least, are:
What kind of museum sector do we want?
How do we inspire a new generation of people to help us achieve it?
And how do we give them the technical tools they need to do it well?
The Hit Factory
I met recently with Chris Wild, the genius behind www.anywhen.com, and we got to talking about the Retronaut ‘hit’ – the jolt of surprise and otherworldliness that you get when you look at the pictures on Retronaut. All great consumer experiences fundamentally understand what that ‘hit’ feels like to their customers. For Apple, it is the lust of simplicity and unfettered functionality. Car companies have built entire marketing campaigns reducing years of engineering and prototyping to the satisfaction of hearing the ‘click’ of a well-made door. Although it can be incredibly difficult to express in words, we all know what the ‘hit’ of a brilliant museum feels like. That moment of discovery that can change a person forever.
The future success of museums depends, in my view, on focussing not on what we think they are, or what we want them to be, but on how we strip away everything extrinsic and give people the simplest, most undiluted experience of that hit. That, to me, is the most important thing we need to look for, nurture and inspire in the museum professional of the future – the personal conviction of the value of that unique moment that museums give people, a belief that it matters in a complex and chaotic world and a commitment to enabling as many people to experience it as possible.
The Importance of Trust
The Museums Association’s recent research into public attitudes and values toward museums revealed something really fundamental about our industry. People trust museums. In a world in which people feel let down and betrayed by many of their public institutions, museums stand as one of the civic institutions that have retained their trusted role. The foundation of this trust is integrity and professionalism, and while we could argue for hours about whether this foundation is as firm as the public perceives it to be, we need to acknowledge and embrace this civic role at the heart of our job.
Museums don’t just make stuff up. We don’t look at broken things and have a go at sticking them back together. We don’t, generally, skew the facts to tell the story. We do the job properly, because doing the job properly is the best way we have of living up to the responsibility that society has given us.
So alongside a belief in the importance of museums in a civilised society is a personal integrity – a set of values which mean that we won’t follow the path of least resistance and we will take the time to do our job to the best of our ability. This professional attitude – in other industries you would call it deontology or a cultural imperative – lies at the very heart of the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics.
A Museum MBA
Once our museum professionals of the future have established a connection to the essence of what a great museum feels like, they need to know how to run one. Management and collections management are technical disciplines – there is a body of skills and knowledge that is built on a foundation of nearly a century of trial and error, science and deep insight and understanding. The point is not that our museum professional needs to abandon this body of professional knowledge, but that they need to respect it, to know when to use it and when to ignore it. Treated right, the professional practice of running museums is nothing more or less than a tool. Like a paintbrush in the hands of an artist, what really matters is what you want to say.
Whichever way the political and economic winds blow, it seems sensible for our sector to embrace the armory of ‘generic’ management skills alongside the more technical skills of collections care, interpretation and display. We need people who can plan, innovate, budget. We need people who can develop people. We need people to feel that they can move between careers and artforms, bringing fresh ideas and perspectives. This is why the Collections Trust is investigating the development of the first specialist Museum MBA qualification, combining the disciplines of professional practice with a broader understanding of management, strategic development, budgeting and growth.
The Path to Diversity
We need to open up the opportunity of discovering a career in museums to as many people as possible. After decades of ‘positive action’ programmes like ‘Diversify’ which seek to promote museum careers to specific groups, I have become convinced that the path to diversity is to be an exciting, well-paid industry. Yes, we need to get out there – to the careers shows and the school libraries – and tell people how exciting a career in museums can be, but we also need to make sure that the actual experience of working in museums lives up to the hype. A career in museums can be incredibly rewarding. It brings you into contact with so many opportunities to learn – about marketing, business administration, subject disciplines, finance, politics (big ‘P’ and small ‘p’), HR, copyright and so much else. There are few other industries that require such a broad spectrum of skills.
We need to be excited about our own industry. This means providing varying points of entry, such as NVQ and apprenticeships, which don’t require a higher second degree, but still supporting those that want to study the theory and practice of museology. It means being good employers, investing in people, giving them opportunities to grow and learn.
And yes, I am aware that it is a fiercely competitive job market, and part of the reason for the qualifications race in our industry is the ratio of candidates to jobs. But if we can find ways of transforming our sector from a closed shop to an open, creative industry, I firmly believe that this will be the key to diversity, new investment and, ultimately, the ability to scale our work up as a genuinely competitive cultural offer.
The Museum Professional of the Future
A student to whom I had just given a lecture about how wonderful it is to work in museums once said to me, ‘I’m going to have to spend the next 5 years in the store cataloguing records before they’ll let me at an exhibition. How can I sustain my passion for the job?’ I’ll give you the same answer I gave them.
‘Each generation gets to invent a new museum sector. Whatever the job you end up doing in museums, the challenge is the same – do the job you have well, seize every opportunity to do things better, learn from what came before you, but don’t be bound by it. Don’t give up, don’t get bitter and don’t get bored. Museums do amazing things every day and we get to do more of that for more people. It’s the best job in the world’.
Yes, the museum audience has changed, and museums are adapting to survive. Simon Cane at Birmingham Museums Trust once told me that success depends on 3 things: skills, resources and attitude. You can train people and enhance skills, you can provide resources, but you can’t give someone the attitude they need to succeed. It is this attitude – the belief in the art of the possible – that will sustain a museum professional through their career.
I’d like to thank the London Museums Group for asking me to put this post together, because it has really given me the opportunity to explore what I would look for in the museum professional of the future. On reflection, it’s not the most earth-shattering list in the world, but I think it’s important. For me, it comes down to:
• A belief in the unique power of museums to delight, inspire and educate all people
• Personal integrity & professionalism
• A positive attitude and the willingness to learn
• Technical ‘collections’ knowledge & skills
• Broader management & HR skills
• A desire for museums to be genuinely open, diverse and adaptable
Museum professionals are sharing their thoughts on the future museum professional on the LMG blog space over the next couple of months, and we’d like you to ask you keep this conversation going and share your thoughts too. Over the next few months, we are hoping to work with the London Museums Group to develop an event looking at Skills Sharing and the future needs of the sector, so watch this space!
Author | Nick Poole, CEO, Collections Trust, www.collectionslink.org.uk