Going off track this week, I thought I’d address something that I’m asked about a lot in my real life job, and that’s how you get a job in a museum. When at work, there are lots of helpful, positive and constructive things I tell the enquirer. But in this post, I share a more honest version of working in the museums and galleries sector. Here goes:
So you want to work in a museum. Good for you! Who needs money anyway?
She’s got another 5 of these in her bag
The Qualifications Arms Race
Working in the museums world has got incredibly popular in the last few years, which we can’t just put down to the ‘Night at the Museum’ films, which are actually a tiny bit inaccurate. At the same time, the universities have been pumping out an every growing number of graduates wanting to work in museums. So to stand out from the crowd, pretty much everyone in that crowd goes and gets 1 or 2 postgrad qualifications. Maybe even a PhD. Consequently, most people entering the profession are overqualified, or at least in possession of qualifications beyond the needs of most entry level jobs. This sucks, but does make break-time conversations very high-brow. The ability to write and research will help too. Hopefully.
Most people start their careers by volunteering. Volunteering props up most of the museum sector. That said, people are now volunteering for longer and longer before getting paid work and there are lots of former paid jobs repackaged as voluntary, unpaid roles. These are often branded as ‘internships’ and are annoyingly listed on jobs pages.
There was an outcry some months back when a voluntary curator position was advertised and the applicants needed a postgraduate qualification. This had been coming for quite a while – expecting more an more from unpaid staff while dangling the ever shrinking carrot of future paid work over their heads.
If I’m being honest, volunteering is still quite a good way of getting experience to pad out your CV and hopefully do something interesting and fun. But I’d advise against any wannabe future museum worker feeling guilt-tripped into doing huge quantities of unpaid work for months on end.
Speaking as someone who has shortlisted an interviewed and recruited staff? That paid job at WHSmiths or the box office of the local theatre is far more use than volunteering 5 days a week in the director’s office of anytown museum. And you weren’t exploited. As much. You can also use the money you earn to buy books, visit other museums and conferences. Just package it well on any application. Mention proactiveness. We love that.
Slightly more than an annual full-time museum salary
Museums do not pay much. £22,000 for a full time job in central London requiring a Masters, minimum? Yeah. Welcome to the sector.
There are two main reasons for poor pay – Museums have little money but lots of people want to work for them. So wages stay low. As mentioned above, museums make heavy use of volunteers, so however little you are being paid, there’s someone who would probably do your job for free.
It’s a bit rubbish, but unless you are a professional cat burglar, you don’t work for a museum in order to get rich.
Look at those evil bureaucrats… bureaucratising…
Working for ‘The Man’
A lot of museums are actually owned and run by councils, local authorities and governments. So if you work for a museum, you will probably work for the sort of larger organisation that is regularly criticised by the local paper, local politicians and angry people at bus stops.
As well as all that museum stuff, you will also find yourself needing to know about Service Level Agreements, Data Protection, Committee Systems, Internal Budgeting Processes, Performance Management, etc, etc, etc. Also, your IT system will be rubbish.
Actually, this is where a previous job with a restaurant company or high street store can come in helpful – you’ll be aware of corporate structures, processes, balancing personal politics with the workplace culture… or not.
Sometimes the bureaucracy can be overwhelming and you’ll never quite know why it takes so long to get a lightbulb changed.
But you’ll also see that what’s left of the public sector is there to help people and try and make life less awful, and it’ll warm the cold cockles of your heart that there are still places that see museums as a vital public service that exists for the wider public benefit.
Also, knowing about this stuff will really help when applying for jobs.
Networking (aka moaning about budgets over coffee)
95% of people who work in the museum sector are lovely, helpful and unnecessarily generous with their time, skills and ideas. I have no idea why, but it’s an incredibly decent workforce.
Wait… so I manage people now?
OK, so somehow you’ve applied for a load of jobs, and your qualifications, awareness of public sector issues, decent qualifications and lack of materialism has bagged you a paid job. Well done.
But wait! What happened to all the fun museum things you used to do? Well, once you are actually paid (and not just in cups of tea and nice references) you’ll be the person who manages other volunteers and staff. As a former volunteer, you’ll find yourself very protective and supportive of your volunteers. You will make them tea and organise birthday cards. They will adore you and work hard and follow you into battle, if needed.
But managing people can be quite tricky as well so, I don’t know, maybe read a book on management. Something short with lots of pictures.
Oh, and do some coaching and mentoring training. That stuff is gold.
So the money’s bad, the budgets are small and most people you meet won’t know what you do even after you’ve explained it with charts and finger puppets. You have ten graduate degrees and a secret passion for nitrile gloves that you can’t share with anyone. Why on earth would anyone want to work for a museum?
Because it’s great. It’s really, really great.
When you first get excited by history or art and you look through books and see photos of paintings or ancient axe heads or mummies or whatever, you work at a museum and you actually get to look after the real things. You move them around, clean them, display them, tell people about them, it’s fab.
You write a paper on a subject you passionately care about and maybe 10 people read it. You condense all that knowledge into a children’s quiz trail, and 10 ,000 people do it. Super fab.
Exhibitions… exhausting but one of the most inspiring, interesting and creative intellectual challenges you can set yourself.
Meeting artists. That’s good.
Oh, and actually inspiring others? Amazing.
So I’m aware that this post if probably not a super helpful guide to acing interviews and applications,. So, in conclusion, be passionate, realistic and keep trying, and you’ll get there.