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 passionate 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.
So you come out of your interview, and you breathe a sigh of relief. But you can’t feel properly relaxed just yet. The panel told you that they will let you know the outcome within a few days. Now it’s a waiting game – and although there is nothing you can do to alter the result, you are going to feel anxious for the next few days. The best thing to do is to try and occupy yourself and take your mind off things.
Then, finally, the news comes through. You’ve failed. You feel hurt and disappointed, which is completely natural, but here’s what to do next so that you can learn from your defeat.
Firstly, don’t take it personally. The fact is that museum job vacancies are very oversubscribed, and attract many high-quality candidates. You have not lost out because the panel didn’t like you, or thought someone was ‘better’ than you in terms of their innate qualities and attributes. In all likelihood, the post was offered to someone who simply had more skills and more experience than yourself. Sure it sucks, and I know how much you wanted that job – but the thing you absolutely must not do is let your defeat dent your confidence, and slip into an intractable malaise. Here are some positive things you can do instead:
Ask for Feedback
Really do. It’s the done thing – so don’t worry about seeming to be somehow presumptuous or cheeky. The feedback will also tend to be on the constructive side, so do not be scared of the criticism. In any case, it can be really useful to have an external viewer point out your weaknesses to you, which you can then work on as areas for improvement.
The feedback might also let you know what the successful candidate had which you didn’t – be it experience in particular areas of collections management, qualifications or subject specialist knowledge and expertise. Again, it’s all about identifying areas for improvement and trying to overcome your most important skills gaps.
Do not be bitter and bear grudges
I used to joke that any museum that had ever rejected me in anyway was on my ‘blacklist’. I haven’t been keeping up with that blacklist – and if I had, it would be very, very long by now. As I said above, failing at interview (or not being invited at all) can feel like a personal attack – but it really isn’t, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Don’t ever burn your bridges with organisations or with people – you never know what they might have on offer in the future.
I failed to be invited to interview when I applied to be a volunteer at the National Army Museum, which felt particularly disappointing. But I applied for another voluntary role there a few months later and got it – and what a role it was!
Similarly, my first paid role in the sector was as a Trainee Curatorial Assistant at Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive. Part of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme, the scheme took in three tranches of trainees, each tranche for 15 months, over a four-year period. I had been interviewed for tranche two and didn’t get it – and felt truly gutted – but I re-applied for tranche three and have never looked back.
Assess your interview notes
Remember how I told you to take your notes with you into interview, as well as a pen? This wasn’t just so you could recall your pre-prepared answers to expected interview questions. It was also so that you had somewhere to write down any particularly interesting or difficult questions that the panel asked you – especially those ones for which you hadn’t prepared.
A top tip here – collate all of those tricky questions into one place. Work out answers to them, using the STAR technique etc. Regularly review this centralised document, so that it’s always fresh in your mind – and add to it after each interview you attend.
Engage with the panel over social media and Linked-In
This might seem a bit of a brazen move, but I think it is absolutely fine to treat each interview as an opportunity to build your professional network. Remember that you should have prepared lots of questions for the interview panel. That will let the whole process become something more discursive and less like an examination. You will have learnt sector-related things from the panel and they from you. The next step is to re-enforce those acquaintanceships with a little follow on Twitter or a little invite on Linked-In.
Find out who got the job
While I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to ask for feedback from the panel, the sad truth is that they might not always give you quite as much detail as you might like about why they chose somebody else over you. Sometimes they might even just be lying to you. Here’s what to do:
Wait for a couple of months. Jobs with ‘immediate starts’ are very rare in the museum sector. And you’ll also have to wait for the victor to update their linked-in account. When they do (and you find it via some savvy googling), you can have a good riffle through their profile, and see what they have which you don’t. Sometimes too you can spot an inside job, where signs of personal connections between the victor and the hiring organisation or its staff might put the whiff of suspicion about nepotism in the air.
Be kind to yourself
I didn’t give you permission to sink into a prolonged period of self-pity, but it’s absolutely fine to be sad. Do something to cheer yourself up. Arrange to see a friend, head to the pub or the cinema, or treat yourself to some chocolate. You’ve been through a tough time.
Another suggestion I’ve heard from an old colleague is to maintain a ‘happy box’. Keep anything in there that might cheer you up. It could be pictures of family, friends or pets, prizes and certificates, print-outs of particularly glorious tweets, old love letters, mementoes from previous conquests, or a bag of emergency Percy Pigs. Whenever you feel those ol’ blues coming on down, just pull out the box for a bit of affirmation that you’re a good person, and reminder of every time you’ve had fun, achieved something brilliant, felt loved or got lucky.
Claim back your travel expenses
Not every place will oblige, but in my experience, something between a third and a half will oblige – but often the onus is on you to ask. Please do so – because who doesn’t like money?
In the previous posts, I discussed interview questions, how to prepare your answers to those questions, and what to expect from interview tests. In this post, I want to deal with everything else – what to take with you to interview, what to wear, how to get to the interview venue, and what to do when you arrive there.
What to take with you
Remember that it is completely fine to take notes in with you to an interview. Get these out at the start and have them in front of you for ease of reference. It might also be worthwhile to have a copy of your CV or resume to hand. Have a pen out too – it can help to give your nervous hands something to do! It is likely that you will have been asked to bring your passport and/ or birth certificate to interview too – so try not to forget either of those.
It would also be sensible to take a print-out of your invite and a map of the venue and surrounding area. Do not just rely on your phone – it can both run out of juice and not be able to find any connectivity. Obviously, do bring your phone as well.
Cash is always useful – especially if you are travelling to a rural area, where taxis, buses and some pubs and cafes will be unable to accept card payments.
Remember your medication if you are on any, and there can also be a few useful medicines to have on you. Nervous diarrhoea is a real thing and can happen to any of us – with fairly dire consequences in some cases – but fortunately anti-diarrhoea capsules can work rather quickly. Less catastrophic but still very annoying could be a sneezing fit. If you are at all susceptible to hay fever, then a precautionary anti-histamine might not be a bad thing. Also tissues, and lots of them. And plasters for any new-shoes woes.
Remember an umbrella too.
What to wear
You will not be formally assessed on your attire, of course – but it can help to influence the panel in case of a dead heat. So here goes (and sorry for focusing on gentlemen’s fashion, but I’ve never dressed as a lady at interview before):
Aim for the smarter side, but a full suit may not be necessary. I tend to go for a jacket and tie. A light grey tweed jacket is my choice. My only suit is a dinner suit (or tuxedo in American), which would be far too formal. Better to scrimp on the formality than to go for a horrible suit – which will only make you look like a footballer at a wedding or a defendant at court.
Shoes should be clean and polished. If any of the panel even have a smidgeon of a military background, you will be completely and utterly screwed if your shoes are not at their best.
Save your best, comfiest and roomiest underwear for the big day. That can pay dividends. Sure, your lucky pants may have helped you to score during your younger years, but can you really maintain focus with that seam cutting into your intimate regions?
Finally, headwear. Are you a stupid hipster who wears stupid hipster hats? Don’t.
Do not be late. It reflects very badly. You should aim to report for interview at least ten minutes before the time stated on your invite. If you at all can, have a dry run to the venue from your home. Reconnaissance of possible obstacles and likely delays can be invaluable. To be forewarned is to be forearmed – it’s all just a microcosm of the route planning techniques we use in collections management. If you are travelling by train, make sure there are no rail strikes planned for the day in question. If you are travelling by car, make sure your vehicle is in good condition and that you have enough fuel. In both cases, have a plan B.
Arrive at the general vicinity of your interview as early as you can. Factor in a margin of error in case of delay – at least an hour for all but the shortest of journeys. Scout around for the exact place you need to report to, and then kill some time.
The last thing you want is to be rushing around right before your interview. This will make you feel stressed and nervous. If, like me, you are on the slightly larger size, it can also produce some fairly prodigious amounts of sweat in the summer months. Not ideal. You want to stroll – slowly and elegantly with a cool grace – up to the venue, not run.
Before you go in
What you do next is entirely up to you. You could wander round the museum or heritage site (which could be useful), or you could go for a walk or head to a café. Whatever works for you. Listening to empowering music may be your thing, or it could be sitting down with deep breathing and a herbal tea. Maybe even some power poses in front of a mirror.
There are, however, some things which you should definitely not do before going into an interview. We may all of us be at our absolute best after one-and-a-bit pints, but even the smallest amount of alcohol can be smelt on your breath, and that would make for a very bad impression indeed. Very bad.
If you are a smoker, you may feel a particular urge for a fag just before the interview. Please try to hold off though. The smell will linger for far longer than your smoker’s nose can possibly detect, and chewing a load of mints right before you go in will simply make you smell like someone who’s chewed a load of mints in order to cover up the smell of cigarettes.
When you go in
Greet the panel. Handshakes should be firm, but not crushing. Repeat the person’s name back to them as they introduce themselves – it will help you to remember it. Get your notes out and ready on the table. Ask if you can take your jacket off, and sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Do not use weird body language, and decline a hot drink if offered – what do you think this is? Maintain eye contact with the panel, smile, and answer their questions.
Good luck! In the next section, I will talk about what to do when you inevitably fail (which you will, sorry).
It is common for museum job interviews to incorporate a formal test element. On the first occasion that I was told that I would be sitting a test as part of an interview, I panicked. I was scared. I really had no idea what to expect.
As I have grown more experienced over the years, I have learnt that, on the whole, interview tests are usually nothing to worry about. Often, there are no right or wrong answers. What the panel are looking for will depend on the role in question, but as with so many other things, you can usually deduce this by carefully reading the job advert.
Thus, in this post I make no attempt to provide answers to possible test scenarios. Instead, I have asked around on Twitter for examples of tests encountered by other museum professionals – and I have chucked in a few examples from my own experience. I only hope that this flavour of the sorts of things that might come up will go some way to lessening your abject terror of the unknown. Enjoy!
I hope you find these useful – and thank you to everyone who contributed above!
In the previous post, I talked about how to second guess what sort of questions to expect to come up in a museum interview, based on the personal specification and job description for the role. In this post I will talk about how to prepare answers for those questions, using the STAR technique, practicing, and what questions you should prepare for the panel.
When you have short-listed a selection of likely questions, you can start preparing your answers in earnest. In many ways, the interview process is similar to the application process. The panel will have prepared a set of questions about skills and experience which, like the criteria on a personal specification, you will have to demonstrate that you can meet. As you give your answer, the panel will take notes to help them assess how fully or not you meet their criteria. In parallel to the grading of application forms, your response to each question may also be scored from 0 (not at all met) to 3 or 4 (fully met or exceeded). To ensure success, you need to make sure that you score as highly as possible for each of the questions that you will be asked.
The STAR technique
To score highly, your answers must be full, direct, comprehensive and fully evidenced with concrete examples. Your answers must not be vague, wishy-washy or circumambulatory. One of the best ways to make sure that your answers are as full as they can possibly be is to use the much lauded ‘STAR’ technique. The Guardian has a short yet brilliant piece here on how to use STAR to shine at interviews.
Prepare a response to each of your likely-to-come-up questions using the STAR technique. Write it down. Several hundred words should be just about right. The interview, compared to the application form, will allow you to go into a lot more detail about your value as a candidate. Make sure you make the most of the opportunity to tell the panel just how great you are. In your answers, you should show yourself in the best possible light. Spin and polish, but never ever tell lies.
Now there’s a whole lot of hokum floating around the internet about using positive language, buzzwords, action words, and power words. There is some truth that avoiding an overly negative register can make an audience feel more positive about the speaker. Describing yourself, however, as a ‘dynamic and highly motivated, results-driven initiator with a confident and ambitious outlook’ is only so much hot air. It might get you ahead if you want to work in sales, recruitment or advertising – but in the heritage sector the only shit that really sticks is of wattle and daub variety.
The other important and related thing to bear in mind is the fact that the panel has to like you. You will be working closely with these people. They need to know that your personality and temperament will be a good match for their team. You need to be affable. When you give your answers, you need to be confident, but not cocky.
Take a break, have a rest. Review your answers after a few days. Start to learn them. Get your friends, family or partners to quiz you based on your prepared questions. Get them to mix up the wording of the questions so that you can prepare for all eventualities on the day. If you can, arrange a mock interview with someone you don’t know well. I did this with a friend of my family before my first heritage job interview, and it was very, very useful.
Do learn your answers, but remember that there is no need to rote learn them. Focus on the substance, and not on the precise phrasing. Your answers should, ideally, flow freely, and rote learning may make that difficult. Distil the substance into a number of key points, preferably no more than ten per answer, which you can recall with ease.
Continue to practice, but also condense the substance of your answers into notes – no more than two sides of A4 – which you can take with you into your interview. You must not read off these notes like a script, as your peepers will need to keep eye-contact with the panel. Instead, treat them as an aide-memoire, a glance at which will suffice to recall the substance of your answer in its totality. Make sure they are easy to read – use bullet points or a mind map format rather than dense prose. Even the best prepared candidates can forget to mention things when transfixed by the penetrating gaze of an interview panel – your notes are to make sure that does not happen. Yes, you are taking your notes with you into your interview. It’s completely fine to do so.
Questions for the panel
So much for preparing for the questions which the panel will ask of you – it is also crucial that you prepare a series of questions to ask the panel. While the questions you ask are unlikely to form any part of the formal interview assessment process, they can give the opportunity to show off any other skills, experience or knowledge that you might think would be relevant to the role. They can also, in a dead heat, tip things decisively your way. In fact, for at least one job I was offered, a panel member told me that it was my questions to the panel that had been the deciding factor.
There are good questions to ask, and there are not so good ones. Not so good ones are the boring stuff about holiday entitlement, salary or other benefits. Sure, they’re relevant questions – but they won’t give you much opportunity to shine. Similarly, try to avoid any questions that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
So what questions should you ask? Well, that all depends on the role and the organisation. But anything that demonstrates that you have thought critically about the position, and about the institution, and about the opportunities and challenges that might come with it, will probably impress the potential employer. Don’t ask anything that is easily answered by looking at the job advert. Do look at the organisation’s website and see if there is anything about the place and the collection which draws your curiosity. Examples of questions I’ve asked in the past at various interviews include:
How accessible is the store from the main museum site?
What challenges does the collection pose in terms of hazard management and the care of human remains?
Are archival collections treated as part of the main object collection in terms of cataloguing, or are records held on a completely different system?
What proportion of objects held by the museum are on loan to it from external bodies?
How intensive is the loans-out schedule?
What can I expect from the role in terms of support from qualified conservation staff?
What progress has been made towards achieving the Museum’s stated aim of gaining Accreditation status?
The actual questions you ask will, of course, have to be your own choice.
Finally, a note on how many questions to prepare for the panel. Three or four may seem ample, but it is worth remembering that at least some of your questions will be answered in the main body of the interview or any preceding tour. I would therefore suggest preparing at least ten insightful and engaging questions for the panel.
So after months (if not years) of waiting – and countless job applications – you’ve finally been called to your first museum job interview. Feels good right, kind of exhilarating? Are those butterflies flapping around inside your stomach? Enjoy it. But buckle up – we’ve got work to do.
You are going to be asked a series of questions by a panel of between two and four people, and there may be a test element involved too. Typically, you will be up against five to eight other candidates. The whole process is designed to determine that the best of those candidates – or at any rate the candidate who is the best match for the role and the institution – is offered the job. Nervous? That’s completely normal.
They key to success is, of course, plenty of preparation. Between your receipt of your invitation and the interview date, there is a lot that you can do to you maximise your chances of victory. In this post, I will look at some of the more common questions to come up at interview. I have divided this post into three sections – questions about skills and experience, questions about you, the role and the institution, and curve ball questions.
What questions will I be asked?
Questions about skills, competencies and experience
Ahh, this one is easy. Turn to the job advert. Remember that personal specification? If you have got an interview, then you will already have demonstrated how you met most of the criteria found on the specification via your application. The interview panel will likely ask you about those same criteria, but in more detail.
Looking at the role description can also be helpful. If there are duties outlined there which do not seem to have an equivalent criterion in the personal specification, then do plan for questions about those sorts of activities, functions or responsibilities.
Some institutions may make this even easier for you, by setting out explicitly how each criterion will be assessed. This is especially true for job vacancies in local government museums, and in some of the nationals. A typical job specification may look something like this:
Essential (E)/ Desirable (D)
How this will be assessed: Application form (A), Interview (I)
An undergraduate degree in a relevant subject
A postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies or similar subject, or commensurate experience working or volunteering in a museum
A good working knowledge of a museum database or collections management system
Experience with museum documentation procedures and knowledge of the SPECTRUM standard
Practical experience of working with museum collections
Experience of loans administration
Experience using the Mimsy XG collections management system
Experience in digitisation and digital photography
Skills and competencies
Strong written and verbal communication skills
Strong IT skills
Good team player
If something is marked as being assessed at interview (I), do prepare for questions about those sorts of things. It is never a bad idea, however, to plan for all the criteria to come up – just in case.
Again taking this hypothetical job specification as an example, here are the sorts of questions that might come up – (based on the criteria marked as being assessed at (I) – Interview).
What experience do you have with museum databases or collections management systems?
What professional standards, codes of ethics, and legislation should you consider before implementing documentation procedures?
Given that museum objects are at their most vulnerable when being handled, what practical steps would you take to ensure the safe transportation of an object from an exhibition space and into a storage area?
When deciding whether or not to loan an object to external borrower, what factors should you consider?
You need the help of a curator in order to complete a task. However, despite being at work, they have not been responding to emails and your deadline is approaching. How would you proceed?
When have you used a software application in order to overcome a challenge?
Tell us about a time that you have contributed positively within a team in order to achieve results?
A member of the public has emailed you with an enquiry about the function of an object that they have seen on display in the museum. Set out the steps you would undertake in order to provide them with an answer.
Of course, the precise phrasing of the questions will vary from interview to interview – but the important point is that by carefully perusing the job description and role profile, you can get a very good sense of the sort of things about which you might be asked.
Questions about the role, the institution and you
Okay, so this is a biggy. There is one questions that I have absolutely always been asked at every interview ever, without exception. And that is:
Why do you want the job?
(Or variations thereof). It’s a good question. And one that you simply must expect to come up, and for which you must prepare. In asking it, the interviewer is seeking a number of things. They want to know that you understand the organisation, and are sympathetic with its aims, objectives and mission. They want to know that you have thought critically about how and why the role would fit in with your own career progression and personal life. They want to know that you will be challenged, but not overwhelmed. They want to know that you will not get bored and bugger off after a few months. They want to know that you would be serious about relocating (if necessary). They want to know that you are the right person for the job.
In some respects, it is a question for which it is easy to prepare. Do your homework. Find out about the institution, its collection, and the challenges that it faces. If the collection is specialised, then come up with a coherent argument for why you want to work with material of that type. If the museum/ heritage organisation sits within a larger institution with wider aims, do show that you understand that and the implicit challenges.
How to answer such a question? This is what I said in my interview for my current post as Collections Management Assistant at the Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford. I guess I said the right thing as I was offered the post:
I have long held an interest in the history of science; in a previous role at Worcester Cathedral Library I curated an exhibition on the encyclopedic Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. I included a large section on medieval science. In my current role as Project Research Assistant at Guildford Museum, I have enjoyed learning about aspects of medieval medicine – such as uroscopy and surgery – through their physical archaeological remains. I would welcome any opportunity to develop my learning within this fascinating field.
I welcome the opportunity to gain experience within a university museum, and am particularly keen to understand how the activities and mission of the museum sit within the wider aims of the University of Oxford, including higher education and research.
I am keen on the role for the breadth of experience on offer, encompassing collections management in its widest sense. I am particular eager to further my experience of loans administration and documentation work, which I have been enjoying in my current and previous roles at Guildford and Worcester, and in my current roles as Loans Support Volunteer at the Horniman Museum and Ship Portrait Cataloguing Volunteer at the National Maritime Museum. I feel that more experience of these areas in a professional capacity would be the key to my further career progression.
Finally, I have a genuine passion for Collections Management Systems, and their capacity to facilitate core museum functions. I have developed a great competency with collections management systems and databases including Mimsy XG, Cabal and Microsoft Access. While I have not used the KE EMu system before, I feel I have enough experience with similar platforms to quickly build a familiarity with it, and I very much welcome the opportunity to do so.
You will be asked ‘why do you want the job?’, so make sure you have an answer ready!
Similarly, you could well be asked something like:
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
The key here is to show that you really understand how the role would fit into your career development aims. If you want to be a registrar, but are applying for an education role, this could be difficult. But if you are applying for an assistant registrar role and want to be a registration manager, then do show that you have thought about how the role would fit within your aspirations.
Another question which might be asked of you and your fit for the role could be something like:
What are your key strengths?
What particular strengths do you think you will need to fulfil this role?
Again, this question is an easy one in many respects. The answers can be found in the personal specification for the role. The recruiters have literally outlined the strengths (in terms of skills, experiences, competencies and attributes) that they want the successful candidate to have. Parroting the personal specification back to the interview panel will, however, only get you so far. Use the role profile to judge why they are looking for those particular strengths, and talk about how you have applied those strengths in previous roles.
Closely related is the oft’ dreaded question:
What are your greatest weaknesses?
Yet again, an easy one. We are all human – so there is no need to be brutally honest (e.g women and wine). Equally, the oft’ flaunted response to dress up a strength as a weakness ala ‘I’m a perfectionist’ will just make you seem something of a cocky shit.
Instead, pick a genuine but not catastrophic failing, and be honest about it. Crucially, mention the steps that you have taken to address that weakness, and make clear that you are well and truly on the road to recovery.
Finally, do expect questions about the institution itself. Do your homework. Study their website, follow their social media feeds. Make sure you read their mission statements and (if going in for a collections role) their Collections Development Policy. Visit the place before your interview if you can, and take copious notes on what you liked and what you didn’t like.
In the past, I’ve had questions like:
Which of the [large heritage organisation’s] sites have you enjoyed visiting?
What specifically about the Museum and its collections would you be most excited to work with?
If you struggle to answer either of those, there could be some serious amounts of egg on your face.
Curve ball questions
We’ve all heard about them. Apocryphal tales about Oxbridge veterinary science course interviews, where you’re asked to throw a model of a cow out of a window. Or the old classic ‘if you were an animal, what animal would you be?’ Such questions can be useful for seeing how a candidate responds, on their feet, to unforeseen and unexpected scenarios. However, I have never been asked a genuine curve ball in a museum interview. I’ve asked around of my peers on Twitter, and none of them have either. Preparing for a curve ball is, then, probably not the best use of your time.
The closest I have ever got to a curve ball question is ‘how would you describe yourself?’ I responded with a gallic shrug and ‘I don’t know’, and still got the job. Seriously, don’t worry about curve balls.
If you are asked the animal question though, do give a sensible answer. Basically, steer away from the truth. We all might want to say something like:
I would be a big bear, so I could glut on [smoked] salmon, sleep for ages in a nice warm cave, and spend the rest of my time enjoying the affections of mama bear.
But it would be better to say something like:
I would be a beaver. I have nice sharp teeth and wide tail, so have all the strengths and tools required for my key roles of swimming and constructing dams. I am able to understand complex structures and procedures, such as those needed for watercourse management. Finally, I am industrious, and appreciate that overcoming big tasks up-front (like tree-felling) may make my role as beaver more productive and efficient in the long-run.
In the next section, I will talk about particular techniques for answer interview questions, and let you in on some of my top tips for interview preparation.
Think a voluntary role in the British Museum or Louvre will add more clout to your CV than one in a small, local museum? You might want to reconsider.
As I mentioned earlier, volunteering in a smaller, local museum can save you a lot of money if you live far away from a major city. There is also the fact that volunteer openings at these smaller museums might be less competitive than those at more prestigious institutions. However, the one area in which small museum volunteering can trump big museum volunteering is in the diversity of experience on offer.
Big museums usually recruit volunteers for specific projects or for specific roles confined to specific departments. That can make them great if that role is one you have identified as a key skills gap. If you have any particular interests too, it can put you in contact with globally-renowned experts in that particular field. Having a big, prestigious name on your CV can never do any harm. Big museums are also more likely to pay volunteer expenses, and your volunteer ID can get you a whole host of discounts and freebies at other museums. There are all sorts of benefits to volunteering in a big museum.
Yet if big museums lack one thing, it is the sort of ill-defined, general dogsbody position that makes up perhaps the majority of voluntary roles in the smallest of our museums. What such a position might lack in structure and formal learning objectives, it can more than make up for in its capacity to give you experience of absolutely everything.
This reflects the differences in staffing levels and working cultures that exists between smaller and larger museums. The type of work carried out by a single collections officer in a smaller museum could, in a larger museum, be divided between documentation, curatorial, registration and conservation staff. The staff in smaller museums are forced by their circumstances to be generalists, with a wide range of skills and expertise. Conversely, staff in larger museums are generally more specialised within a much narrower field.
My voluntary role at the National Army Museum was fantastic. It gave me first-hand experience of collections work, with a good amount of documentation, as we sorted, packed, inventoried and located material prior to a major decant. But it was just that, all of the time, with very little variation. Similarly, a role I had at the National Maritime Museum as a ship portrait cataloguing volunteer was extremely interesting, and allowed me to work with one of the World’s best collections of its type. But it was still just cataloguing.
My voluntary role at (the much smaller) Guildford Museum had started out as being tied to a specific project, but that changed very quickly. Over the two and a half years I spent there, I got up to the following activities:
2. Data cleaning and quality control
3. Database development
4. Collections audits
5. Exhibition installation, including the use of power tools and lots and lots of paint
6. Helping with exhibition research
7. Object packing and transportation
8. Assisting with environmental monitoring and integrated pest management
9. Sifting through dust recovered from 17th century floorboards
10. Condition reporting
11. General carrying of heavy things
12. Chasing a squirrel out of the Museum
13. Filing and general administrative support
14. Sitting on acquisition and disposals committees
15. Indexing and cataloguing archaeological archives
16. Coming across my first unexpected human skull
17. Auditing Mayoral regalia
As a general dogsbody in a smaller museum, I got to do an awful lot – and from what I have heard from other emerging museum professionals, my experience in this was far from unique. Of course, I still felt that I had to turn to the nationals in London to hone some very particular skills. But if I had limited my volunteering experience to London alone, there was a real danger I would be siloed – trapped in a specialist bubble and unable to get an overview of the bigger picture.
When looking around for voluntary roles to boost your CV, do think local. It could do you the world of good.
People are motivated to volunteer in museums for all sorts of reasons. Some do it to add vital skills and experiences on to their CVs. Some do it because it allows them to work closely with collections they love. Some do it because they have a bit of free time which they would like to use constructively.
Whatever an individual volunteer’s motivation, all volunteer programmes need to have the same essential ingredients to be successful. Firstly, the relationship between the volunteer and the hosting organisation must be mutually beneficial. If the balance of power is skewed into making one party a ‘taker’ and the other a ‘giver’, then you can have some big problems. Secondly, the relationship should be supportive. The hosting organisation needs to invest the time and resources into adequately inducting, training and supervising its volunteers. Without this, you run the risk of wasting volunteers’ time and fostering bad relationships. Finally, the volunteering experience should be enjoyable – because fun things are always good.
In a previous post, I talked about using volunteering to fill vital skills gaps from the perspective of an emerging museum professional. If that is why you are volunteering, then it will be particular important that the experiences in which you invest your valuable time (and money) are good ones rather than bad ones.
My time volunteering at Guildford Museum is an example of a good experience. When I started, I was made to feel welcome, I was given full training, and had access to help throughout as I developed in the role. I was giving the Museum valuable help in a data entry project, and later (still as a volunteer) was given responsibilities for data cleaning and quality control. In return for this hard work, my supervisors supported my professional development through offering to look over job applications, running CV workshops, inviting me to external training opportunities and providing references. On top of all that, I enjoyed my time there. It offered me plenty of learning opportunities, bought me face-to-face with some great objects, and there were regular socials with other volunteers and staff members. The arrangement was mutually beneficial, my supervisors were supportive, and it was fun.
I have been subjected to one bad volunteering experience. It was an unpaid art digitisation ‘internship’ for a local government heritage service a few boroughs away from my home. The role essentially involved photographing artworks, with a bit of mounting, framing and photoshop thrown in. The supervisor was lovely, but hardly ever there. What training I did have was delivered mostly by other volunteers, or from me working things out for myself. The worst bit of all was the company of one of my fellow interns.
Working in a hot, windowless and cramped room with someone who won’t ever shut up is never easy. It wasn’t just his general garrulousness which ground me down, it was the fact that he just seemed incapable of being able to tell that I had no interest whatsoever in what he was saying. I would be sat, head in hands, staring at my desk, grinding my teeth, and silently praying to Jesus, Anubis and Thor from him to just stop. Yet still he went on, over the sound of BBC Radio 4 that played out in the distance like the plaintiff cries of a shepherd’s pipes. Sometimes the radio would give him inspiration. One day I had two hours on his opinion about House of Lords reform. Another day it was a three-hour retelling of the story of the Battle of Britain, with all the intricate details you never want to know.
Most of the time he was just a crushing bore, but there were times when he made me feel uncomfortable. A feature on the radio about Hong Kong prompted him to put his fingers to the outer corners of his eyes, stretch, and do his best impression of a Chinese person. On another occasion, he told me how he had once got affection for free from a sex worker through the sheer force of his charming personality. Of course, he didn’t actually use the term ‘sex worker’ – he used the term ‘whore’.
Needless to say, the arrangement was more parasitic than mutually beneficial. My supervisor, while not not supportive, was never there. And I hated every second of it. As soon as I felt I had gained as many skills and as much experience as I was going to get, I quit. It was cowardly for me not to tell my supervisor that part of my reason for leaving was having to work with the world’s worst man, but frankly I just wanted to run and hide.
Assess your current volunteer roles
If you are volunteering to emerge as museum professional, please do assess your experience within the critical framework of mutualism, supportiveness and enjoyability. If your role falls short on either of the three, you need to talk to your supervisor. If nothing changes, then quit. Your time is precious and is not to be squandered.
No doubt about it, volunteering is one of the best ways to get that first paid job in the museum sector. It is very important to remember, however, that volunteering is never, ever free. Ever.
Firstly, there are the costs to the hosting organisation. Recruitment, induction, training and continuing supervision will require serious investment in time by museum staff. Then there are the costs incurred by you, the volunteer, which can be a very big deal.
Most museum voluntary roles, like most paid jobs, occur within ‘office hours’, that magical window between 9.00 and 17.00 hrs on Mondays to Fridays. The logical conclusion is that by volunteering within that window, you are giving up time which otherwise could be spent in (non-heritage) paid employment.
Then you have to physically get to your hosting institution. Travel within the United Kingdom is not cheap. Duties on petrol are far higher than in the United States. Rail fares are amongst the highest in Europe, and train services are routinely crippled by disputes between unions and company bosses. Bus services in rural areas are increasingly irregular or non-existent.
The fact is that volunteering costs a lot of money. But there a few ways in which you can try to minimise your exposure to these costs as a volunteer.
When looking around for voluntary roles, you might be drawn by the ‘big name’ museums in your nearest city, especially if that should be somewhere like London or Edinburgh. But there can be some real benefits to looking at smaller museums closer to home.
Firstly, they’re nearer, which will cut down on your travel expenses. Secondly, because they are less well-known, volunteer openings will probably occur more frequently and be less competitive. Finally, they are likely to offer you a much richer and more diverse experience than in a larger museum – but more on that later.
My first voluntary role was in Guildford, 15 miles west of my home town of Reigate. An off-peak return train ticket cost around £8, whereas an off-peak London travelcard (20 miles north) cost around £16. By staying local, I was able to make some big savings on my travel.
Look for roles that pay expenses
When I felt that I needed to get a bit more voluntary experience beyond Guildford Museum, I turned to London. At £16 a pop for an off-peak travelcard (a return ticket to London, plus unlimited tube and bus travel for one day), it would be pricey. Some voluntary roles asked for 9am starts, which would mean a peak-time ticket. At around £28, I simply could not afford it.
Not all museums are able to offer to pay volunteers’ expenses. Neither the V&A not the British Museum do so. However, plenty of the London nationals do offer some kind of remuneration, as do some local authority and independent museums. When I volunteered at the National Army Museum, they paid for the whole shebang, and laid on a pretty decent free lunch. The Horniman Museum paid £12 towards my travel to London, and the National Maritime Museum £10 – both were vital subsidies without which I simply would have been priced out of volunteering.
Negotiate your start time
As mentioned above, there can be a big disparity in the price of train tickets depending on the time of day at which you travel. Divided into peak-time and off-peak, early morning departures are typically twice the price of their mid-morning cousins.
Travelling into London from Surrey, the first cheap train can get me to London Bridge or London Victoria stations for about 10 am. Negotiating a start time for a volunteer role to factor in peak and off-peak trains is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. Do it. Both the Horniman and the Maritime Museum initially wanted me to start for 10 am, and both let me start at 10.30am instead – saving me about £12 per journey.
Finding any job can be difficult at the moment. After I finished at University, I was extremely lucky that I could keep my part-time job at supermarket chain Morrisons and go back to live with my parents. My job at Morrisons was only in the evenings and at weekends, which meant I had a whole lot of office hours freed-up for volunteering. At one point in 2013/4, my weekly schedule ran something like this.
Monday: 9.30 – 15.30 volunteering at the National Army Museum
Tuesday: 10.30 – 15.30 volunteering at Guildford Museum, 17.00 – 22.00 working at Morrisons
Thursday: 17.00 – 22.00 working at Morrisons
Friday: 10.30 – 17.00 volunteering at the National Maritime Museum
Saturday: 7.30 – 14.30 working at Morrisons
Of course, many of you will have to work the nine to five just to pay your rent and keep food on the table. Beyond remote volunteering, your options are limited – and that’s one of the most rotten and unfair things about the museum sector. But working in a supermarket, restaurant or bar – while maybe not having the best labour conditions – can afford you the freedom to grasp the best volunteering opportunities out there.
If you are a recent graduate, looking at job specifications can be daunting. While you may be lacking in direct experience of working in the museum sector, it is likely that you have been developing many of the required skills, competencies and attributes throughout your adult life. Many of the most highly valued skills are transferable – they can be developed in one role and in one industry, yet are able to be deployed in almost any scenario.
Some of the skills most commonly sought by employers include communication, team-working ability, honesty and integrity, and time management. When I was first applying for museum jobs, I was able to find evidence that I could do all three from settings that had nothing to do with museums whatsoever. For me, university and my part-time job at Morrisons had proved to be environments where such skills could reach fruition. Let me show you how I would demonstrate (whether on application forms or at interview) to potential employers that I had some of the above skills, from examples limited to just those two non-museum environments.
I really did hate working at Morrisons, but it was a great place to develop some mean communication skills. The below example might contain some embellishments, but it is indicative of the sort of processes that all (competent) retail workers go through every working day.
I was working on the returns desk when a visibly upset woman approached me with mostly-cooked chicken carcass. It had been sold to her as being without its giblets. However, after cutting into it after it had been cooking, the woman discovered that the chicken still had all of its insides. Not only was this unsightly, it also caused a foul smell to permeate the rest of the meat, and her kitchen at large. Her and her family’s meal had been ruined.
I apologised profusely, and employed active listening and an empathetic stance throughout to let her know that my concern was genuine. Offering her a refund, I also asked her if she would like to speak to a manager and for me to lodge a formal request for a customer complaint investigation.
By demonstrating sympathy and the fact that the company was taking her complaint seriously, her upset diminished significantly as I processed the refund. She remained shopping at Morrisons, and over the next months I was able to develop a strong rapport with the customer.
When I apply for jobs now, I may well use more recent and more museum-based examples to demonstrate my strong communication skills. The above example, however, remained my work horse for a good few years.
Time Management Skills
My experience of holding down a part-time job while studying is far from unique, and I don’t know many people who made it through university without having to work to support themselves financially. Balancing study with work wasn’t always the easiest thing to do, but I just about managed it. I still use some of the time management techniques that I leant along the way. See below what I did:
Over the Christmas break during my Master’s Degree, I was required to complete a number of assignments totalling 20,000 words. I had been working part-time at Morrisons during term time, and was due to work full-time for three weeks during the holiday period.
I knew about the essays in advance so planned ahead to make sure I had enough time, and started work on them as soon as I could. However, while monitoring my progress I noticed that I was starting to fall behind.
As I could not feasibly put in any more hours on the assignments than I had been already, I decided to prioritise my university work over my paid employment. With sufficient notice, I asked my line manager at Morrisons if I could work only two weeks full-time, and revert to my regular part-time schedule for the final week after Christmas as this would be a relatively quiet time for the shop.
My line manager agreed to my request as I had given her plenty of notice. As a result, I had enough time to finish all of my assignments, and achieved the highest grade of distinction level for three out of four of them.
I could go on with more examples for more skills, but I think you get the picture.
Of course, the above examples are specific to me – but each and every one of you will have developed transferable skills over the courses of your lives which will be appropriate to museum work.
Do you work as a visitor services assistant? Then the chances are you will have to deal with unreasonably upset or angry members of the public. You will have demonstrated strong verbal communication skills, but also a diplomatic approach and an ability to manage stakeholder expectations – essential qualities for all sorts of other museum roles. You will also see first hand how objects are exhibited for a public audience, and what works and what doesn’t. That will be really important if you want to work in interpretation, exhibitions or as a curator. Were you involved in running a university society? You probably know more than you think about administration and project management. Are you a parent? Then you probably have a strong understanding of children’s educative needs, multitasking and budget management. Have you ever been a carer? Then you may have valuable insights into the needs of less able museum visitors.
If you ever think you don’t have the skills you see as criteria on a job specification, then think of your wider life experience outside of museums. Unless you are being asked for a very specialised skill, the chances are you will have them in abundance.
There are of course other places one can look. I have heard from colleagues older than myself that in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Museums Association jobs listings were the place to go. Guardian Jobs has long been established as one of the largest general jobs listing websites in the country. Some of you even trawl through the recruitment pages of individual museums and heritage organisations.
I too used to look everywhere. It was an approach which I ultimately found to be inefficient, and a waste of time. Let me explain why.
It is free for a recruiter to advertise on Leicester. The NMDC site follows a similar line, although advertising is open only to NMDC institutional members (limited to nationals and only the larger regional and university museums in the UK).
At the time of writing, Museum Jobs (.com) charge £149 + VAT (a 20% tax) per advert, the Museums Association charge between £495 and £595, and Guardian Jobs between £750 and £1900. Everyone knows that museums are more than a little strapped for cash – it follows that websites which are free to use will attract the most job adverts.
Guardian Jobs is not a specialised museums recruitment site, although it does have a dedicated ‘arts and heritage’ page. The problem is that some recruiters will dress up jobs with nothing to do with arts and heritage precisely as such, so that they can reach a wider audience. Similarly, ‘featured’ adverts from other industries might slip into the arts and heritage section. See below for an example I found today. Another common feature of Guardian Jobs is to see expensive university courses being advertised – frustrating when you already have a degree and are just trying to find a job!
Museum Jobs (.com) can be equally naughty. I have seen adverts there for Guest Experience Ambassadors at The View from the Shard. The View from the Shard is a viewing gallery in a London skyscraper known as the Shard. The Shard is a somewhat charmless building largely owned by the Qatari State, noted for playing merry hell with the winds around London Bridge Station. One thing the Shard definitely is not is a museum.
Another howlers includes adverts for roles working at the Emirates Aviation Experience, operated by Sodexo. The Emirates Aviation Experience is a tourist attraction in East London, heavily sponsored by the Dubai Government-owned Emirates airline. Sodexo, a multinational facilities and services management company, has in the past been accused of misdeeds as diverse as unfair labour practices, passing horse meat off as beef, and subjecting inmates in a prison it operates to conditions amounting to torture. Nice.
That said, Museum Jobs is still relatively cheap to advertise on, and the fact that it doesn’t have the same limitations as the NMDC site does mean that you get some interesting jobs appearing on it.
As for trawling through the recruitment pages of individual museums, I have an idea as to why this didn’t work for me. Yes, museum roles are over-subscribed. But equally, any recruiter will want to get the best candidate possible. Museums still need to actively advertise their vacancies. If a museum has chosen not to do so, and has just put an inconspicuous advert on their own website, it could just be because they already know who they want for that post.
I said this post could end up being really short. It hasn’t. Sorry if I have been a bit…ranty.
Not everyone agrees with me about the View from the Shard and the Emirates Aviation Experience being inappropriate organisations to advertise on museum jobs listings. Ashleigh Hibbins had this to say:
I agree that working at both places can help you develop a strong skills set that can be transferred in the world of museum work. But then so can many other roles in many other sectors. More on transferable skills to follow soon!