Have you ever visited a museum, looked at the people who work there and thought “how have they got to work in such an amazing place”? If you didn’t have the courage to ask them how, then this is the article for you! I decided to do the groundwork, and asked my friends and colleagues about the best way to get a job in a museum. Lets see what they came up with…
Camilla Nichol, Head of Collections at Leeds Museum and Galleries
Depending on what kind of role you fancy in a museum, you’re going to have to research what kind of qualifications you need. There are loads of different jobs to be done, from manning the information desk, serving tea and cakes in the café (yum), building display cases and cataloguing objects. In a small museum, you might have to do all these jobs single-handed! In a bigger museum, there’ll be different people with different qualifications to do each role.
To man an information desk or shop, answer public queries and give out trails, you’ll generally have to have good GCSEs with Maths and English. There’ll be other qualifications you can achieve along the way, for instance; customer service and objection handling. Any experience in a job dealing with the public will be really useful!
If you’re keen on looking after the museum building and making sure it’s safe and secure, you’ll need to do health and safety training and some qualifications in building maintenance would also come in handy. You’ll probably be in charge of unlocking the building in the morning and locking up at night…and perhaps rushing to the museum in the middle of the night when one of the alarms goes off!
The meat and drink of a museum are its objects, and lots of different people not only research them, but carefully look after them too. Conservators assess the objects for any damage or signs of decay, or even attack from insects, and also monitor humidity and light levels in the museum. The most important aspect of caring for artefacts is to make sure objects are displayed or stored correctly. For this job you’ll probably need a degree or postgraduate degree (like an MSc) in Museum Conservation.
As well as conservators, there are cataloguers or collections officers. Museums often have thousands and sometimes millions of objects, so a good database that accurately describes each of the objects needs to be kept. These databases are now often linked with drawings or photographs of the objects, so it is important for collections staff to understand photography. However, some museums also have specialist object photographers. Collections staff will often have a degree in a subject the museum specialises in, like art, archaeology or biology.
Then, there are curators. Curators research the objects, write about them and organise exhibitions of groups of objects, sometimes borrowed from other museums. Curators usually have a postgraduate degree and sometimes even a PhD in a subject the museum specialises in. They’ll need to know a lot about the objects they’re working with, or at least how to find out about them. They’ll spend time talking to colleagues in other museums during their research, and the museum will expect them to write articles for scholarly journals and books to sell in the shop.
Often exhibitions are actually built by specialist companies who build cases and make bespoke plinths, shelves and lighting, but some museums still do this in-house. Qualifications and experience in carpentry, glass fitting, metalworking and other manual skills prove to be really useful. Lighting is always an issue in museums; therefore experience of setting up interior lighting can also be advantageous.
Last, but not least, there are education officers who educate school groups from both primary and secondary schools, and the occasional adult groups. These education officers can also organise resources and events for families to enjoy whilst visiting museums. They might also take some collections out to hospitals, schools or nursing homes to educate people who are unable to make the journey to museums. A teaching qualification is useful, but not essential. However, a degree in a subject relevant to the museum and experience in teaching children or adults would be expected.
Russell Dornan, Natural History Project Co-ordinator at the Horniman Museum
Reactions towards Masters Degrees in Museum Studies were rather mixed. Camilla Nichol, Head of Collections at Leeds Museum and Galleries, suggested that it was a fast track to learning about the particular issues that museums face but it wasn’t strictly necessary. You could gain this knowledge through actual experience in museums.
Rachel Cockett, Partnerships and Performance Manager at Birmingham Museums Trust, said that her MA, which included a museum studies element, didn’t help as much as volunteering in museums. Jan Freedman, Natural History Curator at Plymouth Museum, went further than this, saying that volunteering beats any qualification “as you get real hands-on experience, and on the job, real-life training”.
Museums are often crying out for volunteers. You could help update databases or conserve objects, man galleries and sometimes help run events for families and adults, or even teach visiting schools. Some museums will find it hard to take on volunteers if they’re under 18, but you can always ask. As museums are usually open on weekends, you can volunteer even when you’re studying or working in another job.
Doing a masters degree or volunteering might not be possible, though. It is understandable that you may need to earn money and are unable to volunteer when your museum needs you. In this case, look out for some Skills for the Future traineeships sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund. These are springing up around the country and offer “work-based training in a wide range of skills” which include care of buildings, landscapes, habitats, species, and museum and archive collections. But, most importantly, they’re paid. Russell Dornan landed one of these at Hereford and Ludlow Museums and is now Natural History Project Co-ordinator at the Horniman Museum. You can read his story at his blog, Wunderkammer.
Leah Warriner-Wood, Historic Objects Conservator at Woodhurst Conservation
If all else fails, you’re going to have to get networking. Leah Warriner-Wood, Historic Objects Conservator at Woodhurst Conservation, said it’s not what you know; it’s WHO you know – so get to know your potential employer. Visit your nearest or favourite museums as often as you can and you will get to know the staff, and more about its collections. Join Facebook and Twitter and start to follow your local museums to find out what they’re up to. Start interacting with them; whoever’s posting will be really pleased someone’s paying attention! If you can demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment, you might swing some experience that suits you. Do not underestimate the power of social media!
As Caroline Wallis, Heritage Officer for the Coastal Boston: Its Rivers and Waterways project, says, “Do everything you possibly can: volunteer, get a Masters, network. Get skills, knowledge and experience in another job. It’ll all help!”
Take Rosie Fuller, a freelance educator in museums. She started out volunteering for Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield. Whilst she was here, she was taken along to as networking event where she met people from the Museum of London. She asked them for an internship, which she was lucky to complete whilst she studied for an MA. This led to an education officer’s job at the Horniman Museum, and she’s never looked back. Follow her museum adventures on her blog.
In all honesty, you’re not going to make a huge amount of money working in museums! However, and most importantly, you will get incredible job satisfaction. It may be a struggle at first to get your foot in the door but hopefully you’ve now got a better idea of how to make it work for you.