This is an archived post from 2017. I have since moved employer and job title, but I hope this blog will remain relevant and useful.
Hello – I’m Tom Hopkins, and I work in collections management at the University of Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science. I am on my third paid job in the heritage sector, having landed my first back in 2014. I guess you could call me an emerging (or perhaps pupating?) museum professional.
Jobs in museums are scarce and usually very low paid, yet openings are very over-subscribed and competition is fierce. Not surprisingly perhaps, I get asked a lot about how I managed to break into the industry.
My first gigs in museums were a lot about happy accidents and being in the right place at the right time. But there was also a definite sort of process that I followed to get to where I am today, and I would like to set out here what I did and how it panned out for me. I hope what I write here will help any of you out there who are as keen to get on to those first rungs of the museum career ladder as was I.
This is still very much a work in progress, and I hope to be adding more over the next few weeks and months.
It got even better when the noisy Willy moved out.
The quiet – and the peace – did not last long. In November a new tenant moved in to Willy’s old room. It did not take long for that tenant to be issued with a nickname.
The Creeper had arrived.
We were told about The Creeper’s (although he had yet to be assigned that name) pending arrival in October, via a note from the Landlord on the whiteboard. It didn’t say much. The Creeper was a retired head chef in his 60s, who had recently returned to the UK after some time spent in Thailand. Given that his real name sounded very white, we snickered.
But we also checked ourselves. Older white guys can go to Thailand for all sorts of legitimate reasons, right? What if he was just a hippy? That’d be fine.
And then he turned up, looking quite a bit like the creepy old man in Home Alone. With added thick-rimmed, fish-bowl glasses and a horrible beige coat. But unlike the creepy old man in that film, The Creeper never turned out to be a misunderstood old gent with a heart of gold.
Now, I am not a morning person, and certainly don’t care for company over breakfast. But only a few days into The Creeper’s stay was I in the kitchen, standing over the sink and waiting for the kettle to boil. He came in with a cheery ‘morning!’, as he fumbled about behind me. The kettle clicked. Before I had a chance to pour, he swooped in, and he took the hot water. My hot water. Without even asking me. That was his first black mark.
Nonetheless, I felt compelled to make small-talk.
“So, been over in Thailand have you?”
“Oh yes. Retired out there. And even manage to bag myself a wife!” he said, with a chuckle, almost conceited, that seemed to say “I’m a big white stud!”.
“But I had to come back!”, he explained, “The value of the Pound fell against the Baht, so I had to come back!”
By now I had discerned that he was prone to rambling, in his high-pitched, nasal voice. He was one of those people who can’t stand a silence, so they fill it with drivel.
“I lost so much weight when I was out there!”, he said, indicating his braces, “I gave up drinking beer!”
To turn again to his appearance, he was indeed thin remarkably thin. Long and lanky, he really did need those braces. You could see bones sticking out from beneath his clothes like the hide upon a famished ox. His deadful visage was hideous to behold. It was punctuated by black, peg-like teeth that looked the remains of an Iron Age post structure uncovered from a haunted fen. And his pallor was profound, the almost dazzling whiteness tempered only by the channels of a few dark, cold veins. His fingers, less like claws, were more like the tendrils of some lichenous life-form that grows upon headstones in gloomy, forgotten and ivy-strewn graveyards.
It is, of course, quite wrong to judge someone based on their appearance. But my anger at the kettle incident was compounded by a growing sense of dislike. He was so awkward in manner, and had no respect for personal space – constantly leaning around or over me to get something that he wanted. And while he gabled in conversation, he was also very difficult to talk to – only ever talking about himself, but always in vague and evasive terms.
His habit of joining me in the kitchen at breakfast time did not relent. I was forced to change my routine. Beyond my antipathy to company in the AM, he just somehow made me feel so uncomfortable. I got up earlier and earlier to eat in the morning, but could never relax. When would he come through that door? My shoulders were wound tight like springs.
Sometimes he would get up even earlier than me, to get his cuisine going in the slow cooker. I hid in my room, sometimes going to work without any breakfast just so I could avoid him. Sometimes thirst and hunger would make that impossible, and I would have to go downstairs and, out of politeness, engage in unenjoyable conversation.
Now here’s a thing for a retired head chef. All – and I do mean all – of his food looked like sick and smelt like shit. And always batches of the same few meals. Shepherds’ pie, bolognaise, coronation chicken and chilli con carne.
But he clearly had a good opinion of his culinary skills. One evening, Mr B came in with a takeaway curry.
“Oh”, The Creeper said, “I never get curry from an Indian. I can make it better myself!”. My olfactory senses begged to differ.
Out of curiosity, one day I asked him where he had worked as a head chef.
“Oh, I worked at the same place for over twenty years!”
“Oh, where abouts?” I replied.
“In a prison.”
Stay tuned folks, and find out what happens next in another exciting episode of My Weird House-Share.
I started my current job in January 2019, which meant moving up to Shropshire from Surrey. I’ve written previously about my woes with house-hunting. This post returns to the woes of house-sharing.
I knew from the time I saw the advert it was an odd house. A retired RAF engineer was seeking quiet, professional, single male tenants for his four-bedder. I turned up for the viewing. The landlord talked – a lot. He ran through some his rules and preferences.
No women – gender mixing makes for an unhappy home (he said). He preferred RAF chaps – they’re dependable. It’s a quiet house. Lights-out at 10.00pm. Literally lights-out – for at that time a series of low-powered, blue emergency LEDs would come on automatically. He gave me the spiel about insulation, the nice neighbourhood and the competitive price. He also pointed out the device that emitted positive ions. And no overnight female visitors. Well I was stuck, so I put my qualms aside and signed up for a short-term let.
Of the other housemates, I got on best with Mr B. He was an ex-RAF corporal who now worked at the nearby base (next to my Museum) as a contractor. Pretty easy going – plus he only worked three days out of seven. When not working he would return to his wife and main home up North. His room was next to mine, and he was very quiet.
Willy’s bedroom and ensuite bathroom were also next to my room. Another ex-serviceman who was now a contractor, Willy was a Scotsman in his 60s with a big ginger moustache. His accent was thick, but also had a rhotic and vibrato-esque quality that made him sound like a Caledonian pirate. He was loud of voice and noisy in action – a dragger of chairs. He also had a chronic, hacking cough and suffered from some kind of digestive complaint. Let me just say again that his bathroom adjoined my bedroom.
Frequent ejaculations of his included:
(Of a morning): “Arghhh darn, where are my fucking keys?”
“Arghhh fuck darn my insides”.
Willy spent more time in the house than Mr B, but he did occasionally go out of an evening. You could tell when this was going to be, as the air would smell of his distinctive aftershave. He would listen loudly to music and sing along excitedly. Then he would emerge from his room, resplendent in a pressed shirt and shiny shoes.
“Arghhh, off to see Showaddywaddy in Telford, fuck aye.”
“Arghhh, Shakin’ Stevens tonight, fuck aye!”
Martin was the third housemate, who lived below me – in his 30s, and also ex-RAF. He liked the TV – like a lot. And liked it on loudly. Weekends were the worst, with constant football noise drifting up through my floorboards. It was like being in an old folks’ home. He also enjoyed his passive aggressive notes. It was unreasonable to take his things out of the washing machine – wherein they had lied for four days – and leave them in a heap on the side. He also snored, and rarely did his washing-up. He wouldn’t just leave it on the side – but would ensure it was left soaking, and supparating, in the communal bowl.
The house was very regimented. Each drawer was labelled. Towels were colour-coordinated. Devices such as the extractor fan and tumble dryer were pasted with instructions. The landlord visited regularly and left nagging comments on the communal white board. He had provided the shoe rack for use as a shoe rack, so please could tenants not leave their shoes anywhere else. The upstairs bathroom floor had been left a little wet. And somebody had left a light on somewhere – electricity isn’t free, you know?
But I got used to it over time. The curfew wasn’t set in stone, and the blue lights could be overridden. I even managed to sneak a girl back. Yes it was a bit weird (and only late in the day did I notice that the freezer in the garage had been chained and padlocked-shut by the landlord), but I grew to tolerate it. It was well-insulated, the neighbourhood was nice, and it was not super expensive. It got even better when the noisy Willy moved out.
The quiet – and the peace – did not last long. In November a new tenant moved in to Willy’s old room. It did not take long for that tenant to be issued with a nickname.
The Creeper had arrived.
In the next exciting instalment of My Weird House-Share, get to know The Creeper better. Was he really that bad, or just a misunderstood scientific genius?
In this first of (what I hope will be) a series of blogs, guest writer Charlotte Pargeter profiles some of the people who really shape the heritage sector. Who are these leaders, and where did they come from? Today Charlotte meets Richard Applegate, Senior Curator at the Royal Eastbourne Museum.
I meet him at the reception desk. In chinos and a shirt (think M&S Blue Harbour), Richard exudes an air of comfort and easiness with a look that says contemporary cool. Yet tradition is present too, with a pencil moustache that says less hipster-chic and more 1930s establishment. Not quite an army officer, but a man of action nonetheless, as Richard spreads out, with one en-brogued foot casually resting on a paint-spattered step ladder, itself in turn leaning against a display case very much in the course of arrangement. Intelligence meets manful confidence.
“Charlotte? How lovely to meet you!” he exclaims as he proffers a hand to shake. He grips firmly, as he leans in for a hug, and speaks into my ear “why don’t you come into my office?”.
After a short walk through the galleries – here a penny farthing, there a rack of spears – he opens a door and ushers me into his office, guiding me with his hand on the small of my back. I look around in admiration at the rows of leather-bound books. A computer and a shelf of brightly-coloured ring-binders are a very few of the clues suggesting that we are in the 21st Century. Richard closes the door behind him with a click. “So,” he says (smiling), “where shall we start?”
Tell us about your route into museums, Richard?
“Well,” he responds with a casual, classless lilt “like a lot of people, I rather fell into the museums game by accident. Back in the 80s, I graduated with BA in Ancient History from Durham University. Soon afterwards, I applied for and got my first heritage job – a collections role at a museum in Bath. That museum then funded me to undertake the MA in Museum Studies at Leicester. I then became a Curator in London, before settling on my current role as Senior Curator here at Eastbourne. Everything really was rather easy.”
Eastbourne Museum won the Arts Council Britain’s prestigious Museum of the Year Award in 2017 – you must have been very proud?
“Tremendously proud, and it was a well-won accolade. The collection should take some credit of course. It’s extremely diverse – brought to Eastbourne from darkest Africa, the jungles of South America, or furthest Asia. Such a collection is naturally full of stories – but it really takes suitably gifted and qualified museum professionals to tease these out in a way that a normal person can understand. So ultimately, I’m indebted to my team of highly trained curators, and the academic excellence that they bring to the table.”
I’m interested that you mention diversity, Richard. Sector workforce diversity is being talked about more and more. How diverse do you feel Eastbourne Museum’s workforce is?
“I am fully aware that ‘diversity’ is now a fashionable buzzword. I am more interested in having a workforce that is effective than diverse. I can’t speak for the whole museum, but I recruit my team in a manner that is wholly meritocratic. I don’t see race. What I do see is qualifications from top universities, or hours sent selflessly volunteering at the nation’s most prestigious museums. I really value practical skills – so the combination of previous experience with academic excellence for my entry-level curatorial posts is of the upmost importance. Those are the criteria on which I recruit.
Richard, you’ve mentioned race in relation to my question about diversity, but what about the other aspects of the term?
“Look, black, brown, white – it’s all the same to me. Yes, all of my team are all white – but so what? White people are the only ones who applied. Nothing about my selection techniques has been discriminatory – far from it. I even interviewed a Pakistani last month…”
That’s a very encouraging sign that your Museum can attract such international candidates. Where in Pakistan were they from, Richard?
“Bradford. But before I digress onto the topic of Pakistanis with utterly undecipherable Yorkshire accents – could it just be that newcomers to this country just aren’t interested in museums, the arts or culture? There may be a reason that Renoir (and we have one of his *delightfully* plump nudes on the first floor) studied in Paris rather than Karachi.”
Richard, such a statement isn’t without an element of…look. There are other aspects of diversity. Let’s move on from race and ethnicity. For instance, the Royal Eastbourne Museum has yet to even once acknowledge LGBT History Month, even though it was established in 1994…
“May I remind you, young Lady, that I qualified as a Museum Curator well before 1994. We certainly didn’t need an ‘LGBT History Month’ back when I started out in the sector. Firstly for one thing, can say how jarring I find that rainbow flag. It certainly is unbecoming amongst Eastbourne’s grand Victorian architecture. It just jars”
“Also, at a time when I’m told that Museums should be reaching out to wider audiences, like families…is that a time we should be sexualising our interpretation? I certainly don’t think that’s appropriate – whether you’re talking about normal sex or gay sex. I just don’t feel it’s ever appropriate to discuss the sex lives or sexual orientation of people in the past. We have never done it before, why should we do it now for homosexual sex? I don’t see the need to pander to this ‘fashionable’ LGBTQNTQEHE?!”*>] (or whatever nonsense it is these days) gay agenda.”
So moving on to a different subject, how do you think the Museums profession has changed over the past 30 years?
“Well it certainly has professionalised. When I first started out, Curators were little more than hobbyists, often with no social skills. The stereotypes live on…too many cats, stained cardigans, medieval encaustic tiles in use as coasters. Some of the ones I met in the bad old days I even suspected to be autistic. Nowadays things are much better. Curators these days must have a Postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies, and that rather sorts the wheat from chaff.”
There has been a general discussion recently about credentialism in the sector. Is that a discussion you have been engaged with at all?
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand this term ‘credentialism’. What does it mean? And no. I haven’t seen such discussions – where have they been taking place?”
Credentialism is defined as belief in or reliance on academic or other formal qualifications as the best measure of a person’s intelligence or ability to do a particular job. These discussions have mostly been taking place on social media platforms…
“What a lot of nonsense. Firstly, I do not engage with ‘social’ media…I prefer to get my news from serious outlets such as academic journals, the BBC and The Times.”
“Secondly, I do happen to think that formal qualifications *are* the best way to get an instant measure of someone’s quality of character and values. Someone with a good degree from a Doxbridge university is going to be a better sort of chap than someone with a 2.2 from Leeds. I’m sorry but that’s just a fact…”
But what about the fact that degrees are so expensive to obtain these days, that they present opportunities only to those who are privileged enough to afford them?
“More people are going to university today than ever before. The costs of fees are clearly offset by the better availability of student loans. It is by no means obvious that university education is socially exclusive. Even if student debt causes all sorts of problems further down the line, it hardly is the function of museums to solve these issues. Museums are, and should be, neutral. We exist outside of the perceived wider societal problems. Otherwise where would it stop? Museums as houses for public toilets, warmth for the homeless, or safe spaces for prostitutes and drug addicts?”
Thank you for your robust opinions on this topic, Richard. Let me move on to the issue of non-disclosure of salaries, or salary cloaking. Your institution has come under fire recently for advertising jobs without publishing a salary range. What benefits does your organisation receive from this practice, and how do you feel about the negative implications for individual candidates?
“My job is to serve the best interests of my institution. I am certainly not in a position to act as some sort of ‘social justice warrior’. Given the sheer number of applicants we get for vacancies at the Royal Eastbourne Museum, I am hardly in a position to treat the people behind them as individuals. Museums are a tough industry to break into – and people just need to man-up deal with that reality.
“When I advertise a position as ‘competitive’ it means exactly that. My use of the term ‘competitive’ is not to restrict candidate applications, but to remove any potential constraint on salary being a factor in applying for the role. These are roles where we can be flexible on salary, subject to the candidate’s skills and experience. I feel that if we had advertised a range, with lower and upper limits, we may, unintentionally, exclude some applicants. So actually, before these ‘Social Justice Warriors’ have a go at me, they should acknowledge that maybe I too am doing my fair bit for museum sector ‘diversity’ by not scaring-off diverse candidates by dangling salaries in front of them which they couldn’t possible comprehend.
Eastbourne Museum has come under similar fire for hosting and advertising for unpaid internships. How do you feel about that backlash?
“It’ absolutely ridiculous. One of the great things that is essential to Britishness is a sense of public duty – that you do something for nothing for people or organisations that can’t pay. May I remind you that the Royal Eastbourne Museum is a charity. There is nothing wrong about volunteering and giving back to the community. If only *your* generation understood that, rather than being so orientated around money.”
Clearly none of us are motivated by money in this sector. What gets you out of bed in the morning, Richard?
“Public service will always be an important part of my job. But what really motivates me is my sense of passion – for my Museum, and its collection. It’s a passion that would mean I would still do this job, even for bread and water.”
Some might say that such a statement can only come from a position of privilege?
“There is nothing privileged about my background. I have had to work hard to get where I am today. I came from *the bottom* and worked my way up. State grammar school. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be at Durham and not from the likes of Eton or Harrow? And the poverty! In my first job in London I was having to live off £8000 a year – and yet people complain about far less these days. I only wish millennials could be as passionate about museums as they are about their own so-called ‘wellness’.
We’ve touched on privilege, and that leads me on to my next question about museums in the post-colonial context…
“Another ridiculous buzzword. For better or worse, the British Empire happened. And it stopped happening in 1945, nearly two decades before I was even born. And only in the last few years has it come under criticism…unfair criticism. What’s bad about Cricket and Railways? But if this discussion was in Belgium, mind you…”
Thank you, Richard. Finally – what changes do you think we need to make to ensure the long-term sustainability of the museum sector?
“I think it’s a little ironic that my answer to your question is that we need to see less change. Museums have been amazing audiences for well over a hundred years. Yes, there have been some improvements down the lines. Mannequins and the like, and audio guides. But have we now gone too far? Are museums becoming worse? Here’s a few things I’d certainly like to see less
Dumbing down of exhibits. If you’re not intelligent and engaged with the arts, you’re hardly likely to engage with museums in any case?
Pandering to ethnic minorities who never visit or want to work in museums in any case.
Pandering to the gay agenda.
De-skilling our workforce by making entry-level positions more accessible.
Repatriating our collections to Third World countries who wouldn’t know how to adequately care for them.
Encouraging children into museums.
Allowing un-trained and un-qualified members of the community the opportunity to co-curate exhibitions (N.B. see ‘dumbing down’ above.)
Honestly, there’s so much I could say, but I think I’ll stop there. Do you have any other questions?”
Thank you so much for an…uncompromising…set of answers. Yes, that concludes our interview.
Richard stands up. He walks to his office door, and stands with his back to it, looking at me, and barring my exit.
“Charlotte,” he says, smiling, “You are a *good* girl, aren’t you?”
I benefitted greatly from my place on a graduate traineeship. But did I need a degree to do it, and is right that we continue to ask for them as requirements for entry-routes into the sector?
Like so many people, my path into museums wasn’t an easy one. I didn’t really know what to do after I graduated in 2011 with an MA in Classics. Exploring various options, I started volunteering in my local museum (Guildford) and soon fell in love with it. This is the industry for me, I thought. Now just to get a job in it.
Fast-forward two and a half years, and I was still in the same place – working for money in a supermarket, while giving up what free time I had to volunteer. The frustration and desperation were real, and I felt like packing in my dream for good. But then it happened – I got my first heritage-y job, back in 2014. Receiving that offer was one of the happiest moments of my life.
I had won a place on a paid 15-month Traineeship, funded by the HLF. My placement was at Worcester Cathedral Library, but there were six other trainees based at various museums and archives across Worcestershire. The posts were graduate traineeships. Each had the essential requirement of an undergraduate degree. Each also asked for previous experience in the heritage sector as a desirable requirement.
The idea behind the traineeship, part of the wider HLF Skills for the Future programme, was to increase the range and quality of work-based training in the sector, meet identified skills-gaps, share good practice, and increase workforce diversity. Alongside paid practical work experience, we also studied for a Postgraduate Certificate in Heritage Management, and were exposed to significant training and professional development opportunities.
The main aspects of my day-to-day role in the Cathedral Library were conducting tours, setting up temporary exhibitions, answering enquiries, facilitating research visits, running social media and managing volunteers. As an unplanned surprise, I also assisted with a decant of the library’s holdings, initiated by urgent ceiling repair work.
It was pretty much everything that could be expected of a curatorial or collections assistant role, and was excellent first-hand experience. The training opportunities were ample too, with courses on fundraising, the National Curriculum, project management, and specific areas of conservation. We also held swap-shops across each of the placements, as well as away days. Beyond that, the study element was also interesting, although I’m not convinced how useful the theoretical side of it has been.
The best thing about it all was the support network though. My supervisor – the Cathedral Librarian – was fantastic. So were the rest of the Cathedral community, the traineeship coordinator and the other placements’ supervisors. But the company of the other traineeships themselves was what made the opportunity priceless.
At the end of those 15 months, it still wasn’t a case of walking into a job. I returned to Guildford as a paid Research Assistant on a 12-month contract. A mixture of subsequent collections and documentation roles followed. But it wasn’t until I took my current position, in January 2019, as a Curator of Aircraft in a national museum, that I felt truly emerged, with my first permanent job and introduction to line-management.
It is the feeling of being settled and secure that makes now a good time to reflect on my past and where I’ve come from. I have learnt a lot over the last five years. One of the things I’ve learnt is that my background – white, and comfortably middle class – is very privileged. This doesn’t mean that I have not had to work hard. But it does mean that I have had it a lot easier than some. And I have always had something of a financial safety-net by means of my family.
This safety net meant that I could go to university without worrying about student debt. It meant I could live at home rent-free while saving up for my MA. And it meant that I could commit to significant amounts of voluntary work before I got my first paid job in the sector.
If a degree was an essential requirement for the graduate traineeship at Worcester, it’s only fair to ask how much use I made in the role of my university credentials. The answer is very little. That was as true then for my traineeship as it is now for role as a Curator in a national museum. Some things I learnt at university have been useful – an improved sense of critical and analytical thought, and source citation conventions – but these are things which don’t have to be necessary taught in academia exclusively.
My experience of working in the sector to date is that what really determines how effective an individual is are the ‘softer’ skills. These are things like communication, teamwork, negotiation, diplomacy, leadership, problem solving and organisation. Training courses might exist for each of these, but most of us pick and up and develop these skills in the course of our daily lives or in any work place.
If these ‘softer’ skills can be learnt from experience, I have no answer as to where innate values come from. Values are what distinguish an effective and efficient museum professional from ones who are inspirationally fantastic. Integrity, fairness, open-mindedness, ability to engage, affability, humour, story-telling and belief in the arts as a force for good in society – these are the values that the best people in the sector live and breathe every day.
If skills and values are what best determine a candidate’s performance in the workplace, why not recruit along these lines? This question can be asked again for recruitment into traineeships. This is especially true when a traineeship’s stated aims are to increase sector workforce diversity give a leg-up to those struggling to break into a notoriously impenetrable sector.
I urge any of you in recruitment positions to carefully consider what attributes are *actually* necessary for a person to successfully fulfil a role, instead of slapping on a degree requirement as a lazy short-hand. Candidates should be free to evidence how they meet these attributes from any source, not merely the traditional routes of university education and prior voluntary experience in the sector.
To be clear, none of this should be about disqualifying graduates from traineeships, ignoring the sacrifices that so many people make to go to university, or undermining the value of higher education. Instead, it’s about trying to diversify entry routes into the sector and opening doors rather than closing them.
I greatly benefitted from my traineeship. But there may have been candidates who could have benefitted from it more, and performed better in the course of their duties, than I did. It’s not fair that my previous experience and two expensive degrees – the products of my privilege – allowed me to profit at their expense.
It’s high time we opened the gates to the sector and called time on traineeships designed exclusively for graduates.
A flippant Tweet for mine recently took off in a way that I hadn’t expected. The reaction to it has given me the impetus to explore ideas around what Twitter means to both me and the museum sector.
The world is changing extraordinarily quickly with improvements in global communications, and social media is playing a big part of that. Despite a worrying resurgence of the far-right across the developed world, we are also seeing a growing awareness (amongst liberal audiences at least) of the inequality that continues to blight society. Be it through the Women’s Marches, a growing understanding of the nature of gender or the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, perspectives have been changing. As a white, middle-class male, I only began to realise in the last few years my own immense privilege. Not from self-discovery, but from the diverse views coming into my social media feeds from outside and from voices with which I would not have otherwise engaged.
The Museum sector has responded to these sorts of changes in various ways. Trends (pioneered decades earlier) in the democratisation of interpretation are fast becoming the mainstream. Community participation is now less an experiment than an expectation. Didactic and paternalistic approaches are now routinely laughed out of exhibitions.
Front of house staff, for so long undervalued, are now widely and rightly seen as the champions of visitor engagement and the most valuable source for exhibition evaluation. Curators are no longer seen as the ‘only’ members of museum staff, and the sector’s petty attempts at ownership of the term have rightfully been called into question, even if some of the more elaborate uses of it have been appropriately ridiculed.
Wellness and mental being are topics that are being talked about more and more openly. Burnout and stress are no longer badges of shame, but acknowledged as factors than can effect all of us. Suicide is no longer a taboo – we can grieve it publicly, and shout about the sources of help available.
Our most prestigious museums are now enlivened by LGBTQ tours, and organisations such as the National Trust (long associated with a sense of green-wellied, middle-Englander conservatism) are celebrating the LGBTQ heritage and stories enshrined within their properties.
Finally, recruitment and its equitability are beginning to be discussed more and more openly. No longer is it considered acceptable to make as essential requirements expensive post-graduate requirements that are impossible to achieve by so many who would be absolute assets to the sector. Unpaid internships are increasingly being called out as exclusive preserves, while inclusivity in recruitment is being championed more and more.
To claim that any of these developments began in and because of the social media age would be an utter disservice to the giants on whose shoulders we stand. But their prevalence has certainly been accelerated and entrenched by the rapid exchange of ideas and thinking that social media platforms can facilitate.
Is talking to a museum professional not on Twitter the same as talking to a museum professional from the 1950s? Of course not. But it is remarkable how prevalent the qualities of classism, snobbery, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, un-empathy and gatekeeping are amongst those who favour the siloed-Hobbit Holes of personal comfort over the vast, terrifying awesomeness of wide horizons.
Engage with new ideas, listen to new voices, and put your feet in other people’s shoes. But let’s not grow complacent either and assume that the regressive conservative voice in our sector is dead. Only last week did the alarming comment below appear on the Museum’s Association website, in reaction to the story about the People’s History Museum removing a transphobic sticker from an exhibition space.
Social media is both a receiver and a transmitter, and we all have a duty to challenge bad practice, exclusory attitudes and hate-driven agendas – whilst also toasting the many, many good things out there.
We have discussed the issue of relocating on this blog before, but I would like to go into more detail in this post about the act of house hunting itself. I’m changing jobs and relocating soon, so it’s on my mind. What follows are some of my own experiences of looking for places to live and sharing accommodation.
I first left home when I went to uni. I was in halls in first year. Sure, they looked nice from the outside. But inside they were grim. Boiling hot in summer, freezing cold in winter, and constantly noisy.
I moved out to a house for second and third year with three mates. We always knew Jeff was conservative, but sometimes you have to live with someone to really realise what a racist and misogynistic cockwomble they are. Jeff wanted a girlfriend, but it turns out girls don’t like being lectured on how inferior they are. He thought it was because he was too skinny. He started hitting the gym hard, and initiated a super-high protein diet. The house smelt constantly of roast lamb.
James was a nice guy, but fell under Jeff’s thrall. They were gym buddies. And lamb buddies. James got his guns but Jeff remained stick thin. And when James got a girlfriend, and Jeff didn’t, Jeff sank into a low mood. He had spent all his money on meat, and spiralled into a Skyrim and pornography addiction.
I first properly moved out of home when I started my HLF Skills for the Future traineeship at Worcester Cathedral Library. Worcester is a sizeable and a relatively cheap city, so there was plenty on offer. I picked one house, arranged a viewing, liked it, and moved in. It was a nice and spacious period property a ten-minute walk from the Cathedral. The live-out landlady, although strict, was scrupulously fair and professional, and took a real interest in her house being a happy one. But the best bit were the housemates. George, Andrea and Seb were a great bunch – and I remain very good friends with them to this day.
I knew I had got very lucky with my house from seeing the experiences of some of my fellow Worcester-based trainees who, like me, were new to the area. One had rented a room through a lettings agent, evidently more interested in filling vacancies than vetting tenants for suitability. She ended up sharing with a male student who didn’t really ‘get’ house sharing. He was dirty, rarely washing his clothes, and sleept under a duvet and on a mattress with no sheets. He contributed nothing to the communal purchases, and leached off everyone else. Washing-up liquid and liquitabs became commodities to be hoarded. So did toilet role. Each tenant had their own private stash, kept in their rooms. But not he. No wonder the tea-towels and flannels kept on disappearing. It was like Mad Max, but with more shit.
When he finally moved out, he was replaced by a couple who were in an unhappy relationship. Violent arguments would flare up nearly every evening, with plenty of loud screaming in Hungarian. After one of them became pregnant, the small house was soon filled with baby stuff – a pram, a cot and toys were crammed into the communal spaces. Fortunately for my colleague, our traineeship came to a close before the baby joined the mix.
When I left Worcester to work at Guildford Museum, I moved back home for a year. When I got my next job in Oxford, I began my second phase of house hunting. Would I be as lucky again?
Oxford is very expensive, and property is in short supply. It’s almost impossible to find anything reasonably close to the centre for under £600 per month (bills included), and when such properties are advertised, competition can be fierce.
Cue the viewings. The first, a nice place in Jericho, and I’m being interviewed by this very clever professor-cum-landlord. I am one of 17 applicants, he tells me, as he asks me questions about my cleanliness, sociability and nocturnal habits. A sense of humour is important in this house, he tells me, although he hasn’t smiled once in between scribbling some notes down to my answers. I half expect a clause forbidding onanism.
The second has a younger, friendlier crowd. I am one of 15 applicants, they tell me. No interview notes this time, it’s just a friendly, informal chat to see how we get on. Shit. I need to shine. I can’t shine. I’m tired and nervous. Say something funny. I can’t. Make conversation. How do you do? What do you do? What do you think of HS2? One’s a lawyer – what on earth are you supposed to say to that? Done any nice litigation lately? Jesus Christ what a car crash. Go home.
Viewing No 3, on a separate day, is for a property with no other tenants. No stressful interview stage, but I do have to go through an agent and face their considerable fees. But my job starts in literally days, I need to find somewhere to live. The agent cancels on me last minute, after I have already bought my train ticket from Guildford to Oxford.
One last throw of the dice. I walk the long, lonely walk to East Oxford. It’s cold and dark. I am relieved that the house is warm. It’s also quite nice. The tenant who shows me round says she wants someone quiet and tidy. Well that’s me, to an extent. I bite the hook, I’m so desperate for somewhere to stay. So we talk about the rent. Payment is to be made to her directly rather than to the landlord because he, err, prefers it that way. The landlord doesn’t live in Oxford, but he’s really nice, she assures me. She insists that I pay a deposit as soon as possible (to her) to secure the room. I ask for a copy of the contract, which she doesn’t have. She says she’ll send one through later. In a few days I get an email from her. Attached are photographs of a hard copy of a contract. She again asks me for payment. I don’t really feel guilty for ghosting her.
So that’s how my four-hour daily commute from Surrey to Oxford began, over two years ago. But now I’ve got a new job on the horizon, in a much cheaper area. House hunting time again.
I find two nice looking places listed in a nearby town. They’re quite close to each other. One has been listed by Gary, the other by Wayne. I message both, explaining my circumstances and outlining what I’m looking for. I get two messages back a few days later, both from Wayne, asking to call him to arrange a viewing. On the phone he sounds vague and evasive. He has a room available, but not in either of the properties listed. I ask him for more details and photographs, but receive none. I still go ahead with the viewing.
His mate Tezzer turns up, all shifty like. Wearing a beanie hat, he looks like Joe Pesci’s character from Home Alone – but with a thick Black Country accent. He shows me around. Exposed plasterboard and chipboard flooring everywhere in the communal areas. The carpets in the bedrooms are stained, and there’s a thick layer of dust everywhere. Mould grows black on the window sills and in the dark corners of the room. The sinks and taps are encrusted with limescale and the toilets are discoloured. Is there any more work to be done on the property, I ask? Oh no, he says, but they’ll give it a good clean. No thanks.
I made a second viewing that day, and it was much nicer. I should be set for the New Year now, just a bit of paperwork to do. House hunting is never easy, and there are a lot of scammers about – so be careful.
Fancy sharing some of your accommodation or house hunting horror stories? If I get enough then I’d love to follow this up with a part two!
Museum careers and steady relationships don’t always make for the best partners. In this first of a series of posts, I will discuss my experiences of finding dating and maintaining relationships challenging – and the aspects of my museum career which have made this particularly so.
We work in an industry dominated by short-term contracts. It is not rare to find jobs advertised for terms as short as six months, and some fee paid positions last for as little as four weeks.
This means that a lot of us – particularly those in the early stages of their careers – are chopping and changing jobs with an alarming regularity. This also means that many of us are having to move home with a similar regularity.
I got my first job in the sector because I was willing to move from Surrey to Worcester for a 15-month traineeship. Previously on this blog, Liam Wiseman has discussed his experience of moving three times in two years in order to chase jobs. Countless others will have similar stories to tell. The tally of pros and cons familiar. On the one hand, changing jobs and home is a great way to develop new skills, build a professional network, experience new areas, and make new friends. On the other, moving can be costly, logistically demanding, and it makes it harder to keep up with the friends you already have.
Moving regularly can also make dating difficult. Some may thrive in an atmosphere of a new town and new people with whom to form short-term relationships – and there is nothing wrong with that. However, those who are looking for longer-term relationships and who prefer a slower pace of courtship can have a really hard time. How easy is it to form an intimacy with someone when you know that in a few months’ time you may have to relocate to another part of the country (as yet unknown)? It is not impossible, but that sort of uncertainty can cast something of a gloomy shadow. The gloom may make one withdraw from the dating scene, give up and resign themselves (unhappily) to being single.
It is no secret that salaries across the sector are depressed, with some collections-based roles at national museums in London starting as little as £ 18k pa. Some front of house roles offer even less.
Dating is far from cheap. When trying to make a good first impression, many will be unwilling to seem overly parsimonious. Despite the fact that many millennials are increasingly turning away from conspicuous consumerism, there remains significant societal pressures that link affluence with attractiveness. In short, you can’t scrimp on a first (or second or third) date, and that can really hurt the wallet.
With many of us working or living in rural or remote locations, the chances are that potential matches will be found in the nearest large town or city. The travel to and from a metropolitan area will be yet another expense.
So a typical first date might set you back the following amounts:
Throw in a hair-cut, splash of scent, mints and optimistic condoms, and you could be looking at anything from £70 – £100 or more. That’s a heavy outlay for anyone’s budget. It also comes with the risk that you may not even like the person. We all have our horror stories about terrible, terrible first dates.
So much for dating, but the money issue has repercussions for longer-term relationships too. Trying to rent on a museum salary is hard enough. Renting as a couple is easier, as a lot of costs can be shared. But what about the longer-term, looking towards home-ownership? If you are both museum professionals, you can forget it. If you are a museum professional, and your partner works in another, more lucrative industry – then welcome to an existence of feeling like a burden. Or even a parasite. It’s not nice, it’s not conducive to feeling good about yourself, and it’s not good for a healthy relationship.
That brings me on to my next point. I have no issue whatsoever about a female partner earning more than I do. I have little interest in dating women who are anything less than committed feminists. But damn – those societal pressures! Have I failed as man if I can’t be the provider? I don’t think so – consciously at least. But what about my and my richer partner’s subconscious? And that’s to say nothing about the disapproval of my clan’s elder patriarchs, who may already disapprove of my career choice and lack of interest in football.
Starting a family
Yeah….no. I struggle to see how this is achievable on a museum salary. I ran a poll on Twitter recently about the compatibility of starting a family with holding down a Museum career. While my questions were rightly criticised for being overly loaded, leading and negative, it does nevertheless suggest that starting a family is something with which many museum professionals have struggled.
Long Hours and Tiredness
We all work very hard in this sector. Sure, we don’t have a monopoly on graft, but it can still adversely affect our dating lives. I wake up at 6am each working morning. My ability to shine, to have a spark, to be funny, and any sense of libido are all but gone by 3pm. To date me after work is to date a zombie with zero conversational skills and no ability to flirt.
I am lucky in that the collections-based work I do is mostly 9-5, Monday to Friday. My colleagues in front of house roles are not so fortunate. Commitments to working weekends, a well as evening events, means that they are losing out on prime dating time. They also have jobs which are even more trying, exhausting and damn-right challenging than my own.
Say you do meet someone on while working a short-term contract, and when you inevitably have to move miles away, you still keep it going. That’s far from and easy option.
Phone contracts with unlimited hours and skype can make things easier, but there is still no substitute for spending quality time with your partner. If you are to keep things going, then seeing them regularly will obviously incur a great deal of cost and time.
Perhaps most pernicious of all, however, is the sheer sense of longing provoked by distance relationships. Missing your partner can really, really hurt.
Let’s get personal
Earlier this summer, I broke up with my girlfriend of two and half years. The reasons why were manifold, but some of the most pressing were the fact that I couldn’t make any firm commitments around her future plans. I have no idea where I will be working in 12 months’ time. While she was desperate to save enough money to become a home-owner, I could only save a quarter on my salary as she could as a successful independent yarn dyer. And travelling to her place was a round trip of four hours. If there was a rail replacement bus, as there invariably was, it could be five or six – and that on top of my working commute which averages 18-20 hours per week.
I am not blaming the failure of my relationship solely on my museum career, but it was a major contributing factor. I am now 31, single, and living at home. I feel that the road ahead of me will be a tough one.
We’ve been talking a lot about geography and museum jobs on this blog, and the impact that place has on housing, finances and daily commutes. This discussion has been in the light of key assumptions about jobs and museums. The first assumption is that jobs tend to be centred in metropolitan areas. The second assumption is that of these metropolitan centres, London stood out as the place brimming with jobs.
As I wasn’t aware of any attempts to systematically plot the geographic spread of heritage employment opportunities, I decided to do so myself. I asked Jim Roberts, administrator of the University of Leicester’s Museum Studies JobsDesk, to provide me with all the job adverts from that source for the whole of 2016. After Jim delivered, I set about organising each listing into local government districts. Cutting out all of the voluntary roles, here is what the distribution of paid roles as advertised on the Leicester JobsDesk looks like for England:
Little surprise here that London appears to be so dominant. Yet, importantly, the distribution is more or less even across the rest of the country. No single region appears as an obvious ‘black hole’. Perhaps encouragingly, there are more jobs in England that are not in London than which are in London. The same even spread is also true for Scotland (albeit with a strong weighting within Edinburgh):
And for Wales (with Cardiff performing comparatively well):
What is much more telling is the disparity in the numbers of jobs available between the constituent nations of the United Kingdom. England performs more strongly than any other nation:
But let’s compare the above with the difference in the four nations’ populations below:
Expressed as a ratio of paid jobs to millions of people, the weighting in England’s favour is still apparent, but the contrast is considerably less stark:
Why? Is the heritage industry just disproportionately bigger in England? Or does Leicester JobsDesk simply draw more adverts from England and English organisations? Sadly, I don’t have the resources to thoroughly investigate the levels of funding available to museums across the UK. But one answer may be that it is London which drives up the figures for the rest of England
So all the jobs are in London, right?
On the face of it, sure. While it’s true that there are more jobs in England that are not in London than are in it, it’s looking at the ratios of jobs per millions of people that is the more revealing thing.
But London is a big and extremely diver place. It would be wrong to just say that ‘all the jobs are in London’. A number of boroughs have many, many more jobs within them than some of the others. Some boroughs have none at all. And one borough stands head and shoulders above the rest – Kensington and Chelsea. This becomes very apparent when we map out the spread of paid jobs within greater London.
It is to ratios again we turn in order to bring the disparity between London boroughs, England. and the rest of the UK to light. And what a stark light it is:
So, do I need to move to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea?
The sheer dominance of one London borough when it comes to the ratio of jobs per population may say a lot about our sector – the fact that the Big Nationals (Kensington and Chelsea has four of them) receive much more funding than regional, local authority museums.
But it is important not to get too hung-up on ratios. In absolute terms, the ‘provinces’ still have more jobs than London.
To conclude, I will offer a piece of advice which I in turn once received:
Being able or willing to move – anywhere and everywhere – in pursuit of a job will open-up many more opportunities to you as an Emerging Museum Professional than if you stay in the same place…
…unless you live in Kensington and Chelsea. But then no one in the heritage sector could afford the rental prices.
In William Tregaskes’ latest blog he spoke about moving on from a voluntary role which had stopped giving him skills as being a ‘tough decision’ and he spoke of sense of breaking ‘loyalty’ with the host institution. If you are thinking of taking a more mercenary approach with the voluntary work you take on, should you be worried about upsetting a supervisor or organisation from which you break away? Drawing on my experience of volunteer management, I think that answer should be a resounding ‘no’ – you should not be worried.
People volunteer for all sorts of reasons, and it feels wrong to reduce the rich mix of individuals that choose to freely give-up their time into mere categories, but one of the larger cohorts are those seeking the skills and experience to either start or further build upon a career in museums.
Importantly, it is from that very same cohort that the majority of paid museums professionals working today first sprung. That means that these professionals know the score. They understand the passion, but also the hunger and the sacrifices. They were once like you, and they can see themselves in you. They really and truly want to see you do well.
Because you are so driven, you are also one of their key assets. It’s not just the hard work and the quality of your output, it’s also the fact that you ‘get’ museums, cultural heritage and history, art and science. It makes you a joy to work with because that love and excitement rubs-off on those of us who may be a little bit more jaded and reminds us of the fire that we used to have.
I spoke of love, but there is also hate. We despise the fact that you have to surrender your valuable time and that we can’t give you a fair wage for all your efforts. We are uncomfortable knowing that you are with us in the day time, but that you when you leave at 5pm, it will not be to a warm house, but to a late shift in a pub or a bar into the small hours. We hate the fact that we’ve had to contrive a remote volunteering initiative because Saturday is your only free day, when none of the back-of-house staff are in. We feel guilty that you send us in amazing work, but we so rarely get to see you. We scream at the havoc the broken system is playing with the diversity of the sector’s workforce.
Whether guilt is the driver, or just the happiness we feel in seeing you thrive, we all want to help you to get to where you want to be. We love to help with CVs and covering letters, as well as sharing tips for interviews and career development. But also – crucially – we understand why you might want to leave us. Of course, we’re dead sorry to see you go. Yet if it helps you grow, and if it helps you to get the skills you need, then we will always support your moving on to new lands. Be mercenary. We get it. We’ve been there.
I don’t speak for all volunteer managers, but I am confident that I speak for all good volunteer managers. The fact is, we would not have got where we are today without the support we received from our own supervisors back in the days when we ourselves were volunteers. Only a complete shit would not want to hand that nurturing mantle down to the next generation.
It is then from my own old supervisors that I take this ethos. The credit is not mine, for they moulded me in their own image. They edified me, and then forgave me when I made the jump.
Sometimes you just have to be a little bit cut-throat to get ahead. In the following post, William Tregaskes discusses his experience of being a ‘mercenary volunteer’ – a term which many of us first heard at the Museums Association’s Moving on Up Conference at Cardiff in February 2018.
I have been a mercenary volunteer. The reality of the sector has meant that I wanted to develop faster than I could through conventional volunteering and I wanted to develop skills which just did not fit in my current role at the time. I wanted more control of my volunteering and my personal development. What I found myself doing was being a mercenary volunteer – but what does this term mean?
Mercenary volunteering is something I have come to personal terms with over the last year. It is also a term which was used by Ed Lawless at the Moving on Up Conference in February. He mentioned the term “mercenary volunteer”. This notion surfaced again at a later panel, and prompted the statement from Shaz Hussain and Charlotte Morgan that no one should have to volunteer as a prerequisite to finding paid work. Based on the amount of discussion about this topic it is becoming an issue for many – and one I will tackle in a future blog.
In the current climate, however, volunteering has become a prerequisite for finding employment in the sector. This is problematic, volunteering requires you to give yourself for free, it can prevent people from less wealthy backgrounds from entering the sector, decreasing diversity. Today it is virtually impossible to gain a museum career without volunteering. So how can we take back some control?
For me, the answer was to become a mercenary volunteer – volunteering for my personal development only, targeting the skills I wanted to improve, taking agency of my volunteering, and ultimately volunteering for my own gains. I saw my time as currency, something to get the highest price for. My time is valuable to me – it is not going for free!
If I was going to volunteer I would be selective with my volunteering – exchanging it for specific skills I wanted to develop and to exchange it for progress in my personal development. I was not going to volunteer and get nothing out of it. I cannot afford to do that. I was freely giving up my personal time, in reality I could had been working for money. I was just getting by. So if I was going to volunteer, I simply would not and could not afford to do it solely for the good of the museum. I wanted to make progression in my career. This was my situation.
I had been volunteering as a student, and I had gained a lot of experience. I was beginning to discover why I loved museums. I was working FoH in a museums role and applying for jobs across the sector, but I was getting little feedback from my applications (this is a huge problem in this sector and needs discussing). When I did received feedback (often from those stretched furthest without no or little HR departments) I would pour over it.
Through this feedback, I built a personal development plan. I knew they were skills I would not get from my current role, as it is so often they were skills you can almost only get from the working that exact role previously or something similar. The only way I could get the experience and skills at the time would be through volunteering. I saw it as a transaction; time for skills, volunteering would allow me to reach these skills, my choice to volunteer to acquire skills just as people go through an apprenticeship or study at university to acquire skills.
So how to be a mercenary volunteer? I looked around, looked to see what volunteer opportunities were available to me. I choose to not just stay with one museum. I worked for a number of organisations, and created job titles for each role, so that they could go on Linkedin. This was not just in the ‘volunteering’ section, but in the main section where they belong.
For me it ended up with two roles – a more regular role at one museum and museum consultancy at another. Both were small local museums, with small numbers of staff who proportionally need volunteers more. This greater need for volunteers makes your time more valuable, leading to potentially greater control in what you do, and greater parity as a result of your increased value. There are also many good volunteer schemes where personal development has been enshrined in their structure. These have been created to attract volunteers such as us, those who are after personal development. Shop around, find the museum which best fits your needs! It is your time you are giving. Make sure you are getting what you wanted. Ticking the skills off your list. Once you have the skills you want, move on, take on new roles, discuss with your volunteer co-ordinator your personal development, discuss new role titles, do new things.
Ultimately, if you are not getting what you want from volunteering, you should consider your next steps. If you are not growing and developing, consider whether you should move on to your next volunteer position. I couldn’t just float waiting for development and for something to come along. I wanted to continue to develop. Consider moving on if necessary. It can be a tough decision – you may form a sense of loyalty with that museum – but sometimes you have look at what is best for you, and if the skills you want are not forthcoming you have to question why you are volunteering.
There may be another advantage to moving on. Volunteering with multiple museums gives you time to network a chance to connect to museum professionals, gain more advice, a chance to talk and form friendships with museum professionals who quite possibly will remain in your life for a long time.
In the next post, we will consider the impact of mercenary volunteering on host organisations. Will volunteer supervisors be supportive?