[This article has been written by Fair Museum Jobs, a grassroots organisation that campaigns for fairer and more ethical recruitment and job practice in UK museums. As such, the articles and campaigns referenced below relate mainly to the UK market.]
If you are here because you want to work in a museum. Welcome! If you are here because of the wave of redundancies cutting a swathe through UK and international museums as a result of Covid-19, you are doubly welcome.
Museum work can be extremely rewarding, with a large variety of roles for different interests – more than you might imagine. But, the sector is extremely over-subscribed and there is often a lot of competition for paid roles.
The current picture is a bleak one as many cultural organisations who have lost income during lockdown are turning more and more to redundancies, meaning that competition for paid roles will be even greater after 2020. The sector frequently states its ambitions to be inclusive and diverse, but inherent structural issues, exacerbated rather than caused by Covid-19, directly prevent inclusive practice.
The most important thing you can do as a prospective museum employee is to take care of yourself above all. If you are still reading, know that the sector needs you, your skill, and your passion.
Do you want to be a curator?
Many people assume that the majority of museum professionals are, or want to be, curators. This is not true: the Character Matters: Attitudes, Behaviours and Skills report produced on behalf of Arts Council England, Museums and Galleries Scotland, Museums Association and Association of Independent Museums, found in 2016 that curatorial roles made up 16% of roles surveyed. This was proportionally equal to education and engagement, with operations/front of house and preservation/conservation both tied at 11%.
The definition of ‘curator’ varies. Many assume that specialist curatorial roles exist in the majority of museums whereas in fact this is relatively rare outside of the nationals. Today, a curator can be someone who has built subject specialist expertise through experience or education, and manages intellectual access to collections – sometimes including exhibitions but not always. They may also manage physical access and collections care, deliver community projects or learning activities, and carry out substantial business activities such as fundraising and stakeholder management. The Art Fund produced a report in 2016 about 21st Century curators, emphasising that the role of a curator is broad and changing all the time. With increasing frequency, traditionally ‘back of house’ roles are being combined with front of house ones, and staff need to have a range of experience. Perhaps now, more than ever, digital skills have come to the fore.
The Museums Association Salary Guidelines of 2017 categorise museum roles into 7 job areas:
Museum attendants/front of house
Museum technicians and buildings management
Fundraising and marketing
Learning, programming and outreach
Curators and collections management
Alongside these, many more typical business roles also exist within museums including shop management, security, administration and HR.
Despite this variety, there remains a certain amount of bias towards curatorial work in museums as being core museum activity, despite the fact that curatorial work would be impossible and irrelevant without all other roles. Perhaps in part because of this bias, during the coronavirus crisis in 2020 we have seen large museums in America and the UK such as the American Museum of Natural History and the National Trust make large numbers of staff redundant in response to insurmountable funding deficits. There is a worrying trend for impact to be felt in learning and front of house teams more often, with some organisations choosing instead to protect the roles of curatorial or management staff. Closer to home, as reported in the Museums Association on 2nd July 2020, Tate is consulting specifically on Tate Enterprises staff – those teams which deliver the café and shop service.
The museum and cultural sector more broadly is also reliant on freelancers for a number of key activities, not just more traditionally external specialist work like conservation or fundraising. The Culture Matters report concluded that, ‘Museum employees would increasingly need to be supported by a healthy freelance market, with a wide range of skills to augment those that are kept in-house’. The Museum Freelance Network is a volunteer-run group set up to support and champion freelancers and consultants working with museums, galleries, archives, libraries and heritage sites.
Do I need a specialist museum or heritage degree?
The short answer is ‘perhaps’.
The relationship between Museum Studies master’s degrees and employment in the museums sector is complex. By the early 2000s, the requirement for such qualifications marked as essential on for many museum roles had become ubiquitous. The Character Matters report found in 2016 that 69% of sampled job descriptions required an undergraduate degree, and 10% a postgraduate degree. Just 30% stated that they would consider equivalent experience.
As the cost of university education continues to grow in the United Kingdom, and as museums become increasingly aware about the problems caused by a lack of sector workforce diversity, the trend has been for Museum Studies qualifications to become a less prominent feature of selection criteria. Yet still there are cases of job adverts which make it quite clear if a candidate doesn’t have a Museum Studies MA, they will not be considered for the role.
No one can doubt the value of studying museums and heritage within an academic context. Museums are complex entities with long and interesting histories, warranting dedicated study and enquiry. For those who wish to consider a heritage qualification, postgraduate or otherwise, this guide (updated annually) is worth reading.
But, postgraduate programmes are increasingly expensive, and not everyone can afford them. Not everyone will have the life circumstance to permit study, even on a part-time programme. Roles are so oversubscribed that a museum studies MA will not guarantee you a museum career. Practical on-the-job experience, gained through a whole range of places and situations within and outside the sector, can be just as valuable as knowledge gained during formal programmes of study.
The paradox of ‘entry level’ roles in a saturated sector
In his 2007 ‘tomorrow’s people’ report, Maurice Davies highlighted the fact that there are almost no real entry level roles. Many roles which would previously have been considered as such in 2007 required experience gained through work, which you can’t easily gain without that first role, leaving new professionals somewhat stuck and the sector over-reliant on volunteering as an expected entry route.
In 2020, little has changed. Even roles which have been written with careful thought for new entrants and which do not require vast experience, inadvertently or deliberately, can be so over-subscribed that applicants often compete against those who do have this experience regardless, and it is an unfair fight. The Art Fund concluded that raising the bar for new entrants via requisite qualifications may even occur as one way to ‘reduce some of the demand and decrease the likely number of applicants to manageable levels’.
In part to address inequities in the sector mentioned elsewhere, and in part in response to the problems around career entry routes, numerous heritage traineeship schemes have proliferated in recent decades. The Character Matters report noted that many of these schemes still required a first degree as a course requisite, but that this was changing. Programmes like the Culture& New Museum School with its objective to open up who makes and enjoys heritage are doing important work to open up heritage entry routes.
Who gets to work in museums?
The 2017 Museums Association salary guidelines and Culture Matters report both demonstrate that museum salaries are often lower than comparable roles in other sectors – a small majority in 2016 earned less than the UK average wage in 2015 of £27,600. This is particularly pronounced in more junior roles with assistant or officer in the title.
As the MA salary guidelines point out, ‘This raises serious questions about entry to the museum sector. Museums need to attract and retain a more diverse workforce, but low pay and the widespread expectation that candidates will have postgraduate qualifications will prevent change.’
Reliance on unpaid labour, generally low pay and frequent short-term contracts increase precarity in early career professionals in particular, ultimately requiring museum staff to have access to substantial personal and financial resources
It is not surprising then that the 2018 Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities report found that ‘…a key characteristic of the British cultural and creative workforce is the absence of those of working class social origins…’ The same report also noted that the museums, galleries and libraries workforce was predominantly female (64.8%). Yet, DCMS reported in 2016 that only 15 out of 45 members of the National Museums Directors Council were women. Likewise, Character Matters demonstrated that despite the greater number of women than men in the workforce, women were more likely to earn less than the UK average and men were more likely to be in positions of management and organisational strategy.
More worryingly, the Panic! report found that ethnic minorities make up only 2.7% of staff in museum, galleries and libraries, and stated that, ‘people working within culture, making culture, are not currently representative of the nation’s demographics…’. This is a significant failing if we as a sector seriously intend to live up to our aim to be for all people. We need a workforce that is as diverse as the nation itself, so that museums can speak to, for and from everyone.
Activist groups such as Museum Detox, Space Invaders and Museum as Muck work tirelessly to support individuals struggling against structural inequities within museums. Sector leaders need to listen to these groups and make direct changes to recruitment and staff CPD as a minimum. The Fair Museum Jobs manifesto outlines a set of commitments to this end and could be one of many small steps in the right direction.
What does all this mean for me?
We aren’t trying to put you off, but it is important to be realistic and to understand the sector – particularly before deciding whether to apply for a postgraduate qualification. Here are some tips to help yourself (and, others):
- Read what others have written on the subject, such as this excellent blog by Danielle Thom, Curator of Making at the Museum of London, or this summary from the Museums Association.
- Know where to find museum jobs. Leicester University’s Museum Jobs Desk is one of the key places where many museums post new roles, and this Twitter thread has pertinent advice also (perhaps with the exception of the LinkedIn tip as none of us have found that a particularly good source of relevant roles!).
- Know how to write a good job application. This blog post by Mark Carnall is an excellent starting point for writing successful applications.
- Read job adverts and compare person specification requirements in order to identify weaker areas in your experience, knowledge or skills and use this to plan CPD. The MA salary guidelines and Character Matters report referenced above are other good ways to gain an idea of role requirements.
- Develop your ability to provide evidence of equivalent experience from activities within and outside the sector. Tom Hopkins has set out some key strategies to evidencing management experience when previous roles have not explicitly included this. Tom’s blog contains substantial advice for anyone emerging into the sector in particular.
- Find your network. Many groups exist to support specific areas of the sector, such as Museum Detox, Museum as Muck, Front of House Museums, Space Invaders, Disability Collaborative Network, emerging museum professionals groups (generally on Facebook and some more active than others), GEM, subject specialist networks including the Society for Museum Archaeology, NATSCA or the Social History Curators Group, and many, many others.
- Identify the area(s) of museum work that most appeal to you as an aspiration, but keep other roles in mind. Sideways moves are possible, and it is often wise to build a broad set of skills.
- If you are able to afford to volunteer, or have freedom to choose between paid roles, opt for a mixture of large and small organisations. Working in smaller museums will provide greater variety of experience.
- Ask for recruitment experience: attend training, shadow recruiters, sit on interview panels.
- Lastly and most importantly, commit to help. If or when you arrive in the sector, commit to actively seeking ways to change its inherently exclusionary nature. Support others around you to excel and succeed in their ambitions. Identify your privileges. Make changes.