For many, a city break or weekend away isn’t complete without a trip to at least one museum. These cultural sanctuaries surround visitors with beautiful art, fascinating history or mind-bending technology, so it is perhaps no wonder that taking up a position in one of these institutions is seen as a great opportunity.
From an entry level role in the coffee shop right up to chair of the board, being part of a respected and highly regarded institution can be incredibly rewarding. But working in the museum environment is certainly not a walk in the park, and the challenges that staff can face (particularly in the upper echelons) are quite unique.
Let’s take a closer look at the responsibilities and requirements of life in the museum workforce.
How do you get a job in a museum?
First and foremost, saying that you work in a museum doesn’t really give much away about your line of work. After all, there are a broad range of positions within even a small museum or gallery. From curators to designers, archivists to tour guides, HR teams to marketing managers, the skills and disciplines on show are diverse, to say the least.
The museum sector is also highly competitive. So, what can be done to stand out from the crowd?
Experience is key. Certain positions may require less sector-specific experience than others, such as administrative or fundraising roles, but generally museums want to know that you have developed valuable knowledge and skills over time, combined with an appreciation for the unique demands of museum work. A passion for the subject matter is also essential – perhaps more so than in other sectors. While in some industries it’s possible to simply say, a job’s a job, museum employees have a clear duty towards arts and culture and everyone within the institution’s workforce is a custodian to some degree.
For those looking to find employment within museums, making time to stay up to date on current developments in the industry and attending events, workshop or conferences can be crucial to gaining an advantage over other candidates.
Head of Human Resources at the British Museum, David Wraight, says that “in curatorial areas, we would expect evidence of qualifications and some activity in that field.”
He goes on to describe how experience can mean many things when it comes to applying for a museum role, such as “having participated in an excavation or having their first research papers published.”
How are roles changing
While traditional roles still exist, there has been an influx of new employment opportunities in museum over the last two decades. The most notable of which come in the form of digital roles. Social media managers, website developers, IT teams and data analysts can all now be found either within in-house teams or as subcontractors to museums.
As museums are driven to innovate and stay relevant, they must look for new skills and expertise to meet the evolving demands of their audience. This can mean bringing in team members from outside the museum community; but it can also require long-standing staff to up-skill and add new strings to their bows.
In particular, the role of a curator continues to expand and change. Beyond being an expert and preparing exhibitions for public viewing, the curator’s role is also increasingly about improving accessibility, creating new narratives and blending the physical world with the virtual one.
In an Art Insights whitepaper entitled “Who is the 21st century curator?” it’s suggested that curators must now “evolve from being keepers of objects and specialist knowledge towards this broader hybrid”. But as a word of caution it is stated that curators “need to be mindful of what may be lost in the process”.
Similarly, the challenges that face museums today require senior manager to approach their work differently from the way they did 15 years ago – particularly in light of funding changes over that time. For example, financial pressures require institutions to diversify, turn their premises into function spaces, reach out to the community and invest in new equipment to appeal to a new generation of “content consumers”.
As budgets tighten and the need to find additional revenue streams becomes more urgent, museums may choose to look out side the industry to bring in commercial expertise and senior managers who have a track record in squeezing profit out of every pore of an organisation.
But it is safe to say that museum directors, managers and curators will always come from a variety of career backgrounds. Take, for instance, the contrast between Tate Britain’s Alex Farqueharson – a curator and art critic of many years’ experience – with the current director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt, who took up his role having left his post as MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central.
Why work in a museum?
The wonderful thing about museums is that there are a variety of exciting roles available. Perhaps the main appeal of working in a museum is the opportunity to spend the working day surrounded by what one loves, whether that’s art, history or science. Working in a museum can, according to Head of the Department of Museum Studies at Leicester University Dr Richard Sandell, help to build “both theoretical knowledge and other skills such as critical thinking and creativity.”
Most museum roles allow staff to engage with collections in a variety of ways. Archivists spend their days documenting and managing vast collections of pictures, films, documents, maps and books on any number of subjects. Exhibition designers use artefacts to tell a story or communicate a particular message, by interpreting them creatively. And even admissions/bookings officers can share their passion for a collection with hundreds of people every day by recommending exhibits.
This excitement is something shared by assistant curator of community history with Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, Cat Newley, who talks about the “variety” of working in a museum, and the sheer range of tasks available.
Travel is another key benefit. Many of the larger museums have working relationships with other major international institutions, which allows their staff to share their ideas and experience with colleagues in different countries.
No two days working in a museum are the same, so adaptability is key, as is a love of the subject, and a willingness to learn more. It’s safe to say that getting a museum job requires hard work, but the result of those efforts is an exciting, rewarding and stimulating career for life.
Interested in working in the museum sector. Keep up to date with the latest employment opportunities in the sector with our Museum Jobs section.