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.
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?
Continuing on the theme of commuting from the previous post, we now discusses the experiences of four more respondents. Nazeea and Laura show how London – for all its train, tube and bus connections – can still be a difficult place to get around.
Name and Job Title: Nazeea Elahi, Collections Assistant at Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture.
Commute start-point: Wood Street, Walthamstow, London. Commute end-point: Colindale, London. Average total daily journey time: 2 hours 40 minutes. Method of travel: London Overground train and 2 Tubelines What do you have most about travel? At the end of the day when you’re tired and just want to get home without negotiating three trains and delays and it sometimes taking almost two hours to get home. Also I hate that I have to leave for work earlier than I need to, just to allow myself extra time in case of any train delays. So it often means I’m at work much earlier than I need to be but there have definitely been times when I have been glad that I allow myself this extra time or I would have been really late for work. On the plus side, me being in work around 35 minutes before I need to be means that I will always leave 5pm on the dot. What do you like most about travel? Catching up on my reading, the Museums Journal or going back to sleep! I’m lucky that I catch the Tube at the beginning of the line and where I change trains it’s to travel back out to another suburb, so I always get a seat. Also it’s great having a monthly travel pass for work, I can use it on weekends for seeing friends or going to museums without worrying about having to pay for my extra Tube journeys. Survival tips: If you have the energy, use the commuting time to catch up on your reading. Otherwise catch up on sleep (although I have once missed my stop due to being asleep!) Anything else you want to say? The only other thing I want to add, it’s awful having a long commute across London when you’re ill. I once left work early, I was throwing up. I felt so ill and just wanted to be at home but had to undergo a two-hour commute to get home first.
Name and Job Title: Laura Humphreys, Curatorial Project Manager, Science Museum
Commute start-point: Hayes & Harlington (London Zone 5) Commute end-point: South Ken or Hammersmith (London Zone 1) Average daily journey time: 90 – 100 mins Method of Travel: Bus, Train, Tube What do you hate most about travel? Overcrowding! What do you like most about travel? Time to listen to podcasts Survival tips: Don’t do too much – on a previous commute (Hayes – Greenwich) I spent 4hrs within London on trains, tubes, buses, and the DLR. My job was research-based, so I found reading, language tapes, working all too much – I would be mentally exhausted by the time I got in at 7pm. I just had to zone it out in the end – I wrote those 4hrs of chopping and changing trains off (one single train would have been much easier). Anything else you want to say: Going down to a commute under 2hrs a day has been life-changing – but I stuck the other, slightly life-ruining commute out because it was a good job at a national museum. If the job had been rubbish, I would never have kept doing it. I don’t regret it, but I will almost certainly never do it again.
In contrast to our London commuters, who spend a lot of time covering relatively short distances, Sarah and Nikol now discuss there very long journeys across Northern England and Scotland.
Name and Job Title: Sarah Cameron, Public Programmes Assistant, National Railway Museum (for two months in 2016)
Commute start-point: Varied, Cumbria or Newcastle mostly Commute end-point: York Average total daily journey time: Anything from 30min walk (when staying in York), 1hr train (when staying in Newcastle) or 4-5 hour train (when commuting from Cumbria). What do you hate most about travel? That my travel expenses didn’t cover my wage and I had to borrow money in order to work there. I had to plan where I was and exact travel times in advance from 21st March- 8th May. What do you like most about travel? The fact that I was travelling to a paid role in a museum which had previously been hard to find. Survival tips: Patience, fully charged phone, music and a lot of books to pass the countless hours on trains. Anything else you want to say? I love the NRM and had done a placement there during my masters so it was environment I enjoyed being in. It may seem like a silly thing to do for a temporary role but at the time I had been graduated from my masters for 7 months and couldn’t find a job. A paid role in a museum that lasted less than 2 months was the best option. You have to go through a lot to get your foot in the door in museums.
Sarah is now Schools Coordinator at Millom Museum in Cumbria, and she adds this about her current situation:
I currently commute 45 minutes in the car to my current position unless I get stuck behind a tractor then it can take a lot longer, or if it snows then the roads get blocked and I can’t get to work at all. The roads are really bad through the countryside with pot holes that can (and have for me) cause flat tires. However, being in the car is a lot nicer than stuck on a busy train. I am now working in a part-time role that is an 18months contract due to funding. So hopefully one day I will get a full-time role with a nice commute- the dreams we have as early museum professionals.
Name and Institution: Nikol Holicka, in student of Tourism, Heritage and Sustainability at University of Glasgow, Dumfries Campus (in 2016)
Commute start-point: Manchester Commute end-point: Dumfries, Scotland; Average total daily journey time: 7 hours (Once a week for four semesters, so not every day. In total I probably did 40 of those journeys in two years to complete my degree). Method of travel: Train. What do you hate about travel? Loud people in quiet coaches, people putting shoes on the opposite seats, people leaving rubbish on trains, waking up early. What do you like about commuting? Having time for yourself, ability to be a productive.
Survival tips: Ebook reader/Kindle (takes no space in your bag and can contain all your desired books), travel friendly laptop (I did a lot of work for uni on trains, so I invested in a sturdy and light laptop, leakproof tea flask, mobile apps – I love Podcast Addict and the Ocado app (you can do your weekly shop on the train, which saves money and time) Also, I would eat my breakfast and do my makeup on the trains, which saved loads of time in the morning. (The trains I was on were generally quite empty, so I did not annoy people around me doing that. I am aware that this might not be an option for people commuting to London at 7am on crowded trains) Generally, I think commute is what you make out of it. If you decide that commuting is an annoying and tiresome waste of time, then that is what you get. For me, commuting was an opportunity to do work which I would have to do anyway at home.
Since graduating, Nikol now works for the National Trust much nearer to her home, and she adds:
I am commuting to work now as well, and I always try to make the best use of the time or relax on my way home while listening to a podcast. I think many people see a commute as time they have to sacrifice to do their job. It is true to some extent, since we cannot teleport ourselves to work just yet. However, there are ways to make it enjoyable and productive.
Got your own story about commuting which you want to share? Get in touch with me @TMPHopkins1.
I now turn to a third means by which to expand one’s horizons of opportunity without moving house. Commuting is a topic very close to my heart – as I have been doing rather a lot of it in recent years.
I find commuting difficult. It takes me just over two hours to get to Oxford, and the same amount of time again to get back home to Reigate in Surrey. I wake up early (06.10), get in late (19.50) and try to be asleep by 22.30. When I was full-time, I was spending close to 22 hours a week on trains. Throw in the fact that my partner lives near Hastings (a four-hour round-trip from Reigate), then you’ll forgive me for being a little sick of the travel.
That said, it isn’t all bad. My particular brand of train is usually reliable, and I always get a seat. I get a lot of reading done. I try to learn a bit of French. I have amassed a music library of baroque classics to provide blocking noise against my fellow passengers. The stretch from Reigate to Guildford takes in some of the prettiest countryside in England, and it looks its best in the light of the rosy-fingered dawn.
Then again, commuting can adversely impact upon my work and my well-being. I love bed, but I am always at my sharpest and most efficient in the mornings. Two hours in which I could be hyper-productive at work are lost to commuting. I get tired coming back in the evenings, and I can get emotional. I have nearly cried on a number of occasions when I think about how much I miss my girlfriend. I abhor anti-social behaviour, small or large. I encounter it most days, but rarely have the courage to call it out.
I am not alone. A recent poll that I ran on Twitter revealed that 20% of the workforce spends over 10 hours commuting a week. This blog post could just be a litany of everything that I hate about travelling, but I thought it would be the more powerful if I opened up the floor for others to share their peeves and coping strategies. The result of my call for contributions is what follows. So great was the response that I have had to divide them up into two sections.
The next three respondents have in-common the impact their commutes have on their ability to attend post-work drinks. I know this feeling only too well. My last train home from Oxford is as early as 21.30, but it doesn’t get me home until far later than I want to be up if I have work the next morning.
Name and job title: Emma Coleman, Programmes Manager, Art Fund (@EmmaInMuseums)
Commute start-point: Wallington, Surrey Commute end-point: St Pancras Average total daily journey time: 3 hours Method of travel: I have a few options. Usually Southern train then tube, occasionally bus then Thameslink train. What do you hate most about travel? By the time I get into work I already feel wound up and grumpy, not a good start to my day! It also impacts on social activity – quite often find myself leaving early or bailing on post-work events with colleagues because it’s such a long journey home (they’re all C. London) What do you like most about travel? It’s a good ‘buffer’ between work and home of an evening – it’s enough time that I feel I can switch off from work and start to relax before I get home. Survival tips: I would welcome more of these! Crosswords on the way in – helps engage my brain, ready for the day. And I like to listen to birdsong through my headphones on the way home – doesn’t quite cut out commuter noise but helps me imagine I’m somewhere else!
Next, Flora and Louise both raise the very important point about discussing flexible working hours with your line manager. My quality of life improved immeasurably when I shifted my day from 08.30 – 16.30 an hour later to 09.30 – 17.30.
Name and Job Title: Flora, Assistant Registrar, Museum of London (@FloraFyles)
Commute start-point: Northampton Commute end-point: London Average total daily journey time: 4 hours Method of travel: Walk, train, tube. What do you hate most about travel? It can be so tiring. Particularly if I’m having a busy week already, the thought of a two-hour journey home can make me want to cry. It makes it difficult to commit to socialising, either with colleagues or friends, especially midweek. I can never stay late, and even staying out for a couple of hours means not getting to bed until really late, making me even more tired. What do you like most about travel? Sometimes having physical distance between home and work can really help. I don’t have access to work emails, so can use it as a chance to switch off on my way home (although this takes practice, and there are some days when it’s two hours to stew about some annoyance) – I get a lot of reading/watching of crap TV done. – I have an excuse to get out of going out after work if I can’t be bothered. Survival tips: Establish expectations with your employer. I’m lucky that in all my jobs so far, I’ve worked flexible hours, so being late isn’t a huge deal, but make sure you know, e.g. when you need to tell your line manager that you’re going to be late (I start at 9.30, but only have to text if I’m going to be later than 10.00), and whether you’re expected to make up the hours. – Always get the train before the one that gets you there on time if you have a commitment in the morning. It’s just not worth the stress. Avoid remote access to emails like the plague.
Name and job title: Louise McAward-White, Collections Systems Specialist, British Film Institute (@lyricallouise)
Commute start-point: Stokenchurch, Buckinghamshire Commute end-point: Tottenham Court Road, London Average total daily journey time: 4.5 hours Method of Travel: 10min walk to bus stop, 20min bus to nearest town, either 15min walk or 7min bus to train station, then EITHER 20min mainline train to central line underground (South Ruislip) and 40min on the central and 5min walk to office OR 35min mainline train to Marylebone, 20min bus to top of Tottenham Court Road and 15min walk to office. What do you hate most about travel? Probably the awareness that about 25% of my take home pay is spent on travel! The other problem I have is that on at least a couple of occasions a month, the village to town bus might not turn up at all which can add another 60 to 90mins on either leg of the journey. It also puts a bit of a dampener on social life at work – going out for an after-work drink mid-week either means trying to get the last bus home (which is at 8:30pm!) or paying for a taxi home – which impacts the budget! What do you like most about travel? In the morning I often nap which is nice! I also get to relax on the way home so when I get there, work is out of my system. I like that I can read or do puzzles, which I couldn’t if I was driving. Survival tips? 1. Work out the commute BEFORE accepting a job and check the costs. In fact, if you’re not able/willing to move, check the commute before even applying!
2. Don’t feel bad if you’re not productive on the commute – a lot of online advice implies you should be using every bit of time practically, but I appreciate not having to do something all the time!
3. Get some good headphones!
4. Talk to work about adjusting your daily starting and finishing times. I work an hour earlier than most people as I’d rather get up earlier to commute than be home later – some organisations are much more flexible than others but it’s always worth asking. Anything else you want to say: When you apply for jobs, make sure to think about off-site location travel – e.g. BFI has a site at Berkhamsted where I also have to travel – you need to make sure you can get to those if they are part of the job! If you’re happy at work, commuting can be fine – but if you are unhappy, commuting can compound those feelings.
Elizabeth is our only respondent to cycle for a significant portion of her commute. As she outlines, the marriage between cycling and railwaying is not always an easy one.
Name and Job Title: Elizabeth Bruton, Curator of Technology and Engineering, Science Museum (@lizbruton)
Commute start-point: Oxford Commute end-point: London Average total daily journey time: 4 hours Method of travel: A mixture of cycling and getting the train. The journey varies depending on which train I catch – I have a rather expensive season rail ticket, subsidised by a season ticket loan from the Science Museum so I can get on any train that travels between Oxford and London. My commute also varies by time of year – I tend to have longer bicycle rides during the extended daylight hours of spring through autumn with shorter bicycle rides during the darkness of winter. What do you hate most about travel? Delayed trains; the lack of decent bicycle provision on trains; and the waiting time necessitated by using different modes of transport. I reckon I spend at least an hour or two a week waiting for trains, either because I need to be there a bit early to get my bicycle on the train or because the train has been delayed. This an extra two hours a week on top of sixteen hours a week commuting – I commute four days a week into London and work from home one day a week. The lack of decent bicycle provision on trains and the need to book bicycle spaces in advance is a particular hassle of my commute. Even worse, the Chiltern Railways service between Oxford, Oxford Parkway (my preferred station), and London Marylebone does not have reserveable bicycle spaces for five plus hours a day during peak journey times and very poor in-carriage bicycle spaces which cause stress to passengers, travellers with mobility issues, and cyclists alike! What do you like most about travel? I listen to podcasts, read fiction, and sometimes do some work. I enjoy the cycling part of my commute the most – observing the world around me and clearing my head on the journey to and from work. I also enjoy getting an hour or so’s exercise in the great outdoors and observing the changing seasons around me before I start my working day and the same in return on the way back. Survival Tips: I am quite fortunate that most of my bicycle commute, both in Oxford and in London, is on traffic-free routes, either the cycle route that runs around the ringroad in Oxford or the cycle superhighway that runs through Hyde Park. The latter is pleasantly busy with commuters and tourists on hire bikes alike and sometimes even horses from the riding school using the sandy track that runs parallel to the cycle superhighway. I am an experienced cyclist and do not find the roads of London especially stressful or difficult to cycle but I understand that not everyone feels like this and I do find the car-free space to be far more relaxing and pleasant and I look forward to the extension of the London cycle superhighway and perhaps further afield.
In the second part of this post, we will discuss the difficulty of moving around London itself, as well as showcasing two super-long (but fortunately only temporary!) commuted undertaken by two respondents in the North of England.
In this second instalment of a three-part post, an anonymous contributor discusses the financial issues surrounding housing and sustaining a career in museums.
The week commencing 6th March 2018 has been marked in my calendar for some months. It is during this week that I will pay the final instalment on a credit card debt.
This debt has existed in one form or another since late 2012. At its peak the debt was a low five figure sum. At least 50% of the debt was directly associated with maintaining a museum career. The remaining <50% was indirectly associated with the museum career – that is, the debt was due to expenditure that did not directly support the museum career but due to occurrences that would not have happened without that career.
The thoughts that follow are based on my personal experience. I have no idea how typical my situation is since I am not aware of any studies on indebtedness by people working in the museum sector. However, from conversations with other museum workers, I do not think my experience is unique.
To provide context, I have been working in museums for over 20 years. I have had a mixture of temporary/project based jobs, freelance work as well as permanent jobs. The permanent jobs have ended though redundancy, leaving to advance my career or personal circumstances. Additionally (and I think this is key) I have never lived and worked in a major metropolitan area and my partner also works in museums.
Clearly I am not an emerging professional, but I am dealing with something that emerging may well come up against as their career progresses.
My experience is that the three requirements for relatively straightforward progression in a museum career – being able to apply for the right job at the right time in the right place – coincide very infrequently. This is especially true in a two museum worker household. The lack of career progression within a single institution is an issue, as is the frequency of fixed term contracts. When the only option for the ‘right time’ is “Now!” then compromises have to be made in the other two requirements. Often the compromise is in the ‘right location’ requirement.
It might be possible that the new work location will be within a commuting distance of a current home. I have never been in a situation where the new job is closer to my home than the preceding job. I have regularly shouldered additional costs of buying and running a car or regularly paid out for train expenses.
New jobs are often not within a commuting distance. Moving home, often over very long distances, has been a major feature of my museum career as well as many of my colleagues and friends who work in the sector. This is the cause of most of the debt I referred to above.
I have a record of the costs associated with the last home move associated with a change of jobs. The total costs were in excess of £5000. The major costs were the payments to a removal company plus the first month’s rent + deposit for the house we were moving into. We were unable to find a property available to move into where there was no overlap in tenancies. For a short period our rent costs were doubled.
We did have income during this period including salary plus the return of the deposit from the house we were leaving. However I knew from the outset that I needed to have the full amount available to enable stress free cash flow.
It is true that some employers do pay moving costs when relocating for a job but these are usually on presentation of receipts after the move has taken place. Availability of money (or credit) during the move is therefore essential.
Admittedly this was a very expensive move due to the locations of the two jobs, but moving is still an expensive business whatever the distance. I brief trawl of web sites throws up the following figures: the average removal costs for a two bedroom house is c£600; the average rent for a two bedroom house outside London is £753 with a deposit of 1 months rent (at least); letting agents fees are (currently) around £200; the costs associated with house hunting (travel + hotels + food) can easily top £200. This brings a total of over £2500. Some of these outgoings might be reimbursed but the money does need to be available during the move.
All this assumes that there is only one months overlap between properties. It is possible that an overlap costs could be avoided if the tenancy dates happen to work well. This has never happened to me. Also I am aware of several colleagues whose overlap is considerably longer. This has been due to factors such as the time taken to sell a house or having to maintain two households before partners and children are able to undertake a move. The costs associated with running two households, plus the costs of travel for ‘visits’ can add many thousands of pounds to the total expense. The emotional cost also needs to be added to this
This has all been based on the assumption that homes are rented. I doubt whether the costs are less for those who buy. Expenses such as stamp duty, mortgage and lawyers fees may even make the costs higher.
There is a further option that I am aware that people working in museums (including myself) have taken. This is buying a house initially to live in but then renting it out when a job necessitates a move. In my case the rent income from the house that is owned contributes to the rent paid to the house I have moved into for work reasons.
Setting aside the moral issues surrounding the current buy-to-let market, I am essentially running a small business with the associated responsibilities. This not only involves the time actually running the business legally and effectively but also involves a good degree of cultural capital as I have had to work with accountants, lawyers and other professionals. This is undertaken in order to maintain a museum career.
Naturally people who do not work in museums do also have to move home for their jobs. However I feel that there are several factors associated with museum work that makes the situation quite specific to museum workers:
lack of promotion opportunities within individual institutions
the geographically dispersed nature of museums when compared to other industries
the frequency of having to move home in order to maintain or progress a career.
the specific skills of museum workers and the specific requirements of the job vacancies that do occur necessitating a mobile workforce
the prevalence of fixed term/project based jobs
low wages in museums creating a need to change jobs to get promotions in order to get a good standard of living
low wages in museum leading to a need to borrow money to move
It would be interesting to know how many of these apparent issues can be evidentially supported.
Despite all this I do consider myself lucky. My debts only arose during my museum career rather than before it. I took my undergraduate degree before the introduction of tuition and maintenance loans. During my pre-job volunteer period I was able to claim housing and unemployment benefit as the Job Centre determined that volunteering was relevant training. Had I been carrying debts before I entered the profession then financing my career would have been considerably more difficult. Furthermore I am (somehow) credit worthy enough to be able to borrow money to fund these expenses and then use a complicated web of balance transfers to get a very low rate of interest (not something I would advise anybody to do as these ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ arrangements can quickly cause trouble if they are not carefully managed). These are all benefits that I have as a mature worker that an emerging professional may not have.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, these comments are based on personal experience and anecdote, but I do feel that there is a common issue here. A brief on-line survey may be useful to determine the prevalence of debt amongst museum workers. If this indicates that there is an issue then a more rigorous study and a comparison with other professional may be useful. Low salaries may be only one of the financial problems museum workers face.
In this first instalment of a three-part post, Liam Wiseman discusses his experience of moving home three times in in two years for different jobs across South West England.
Have you ever had that situation when you’ve seen the perfect museum or heritage job advertised, only for it to be 50-100 miles away from where you are, or where you want to be? What did you do? Did you go for the job, and in the process completely change your lifestyle, leaving behind friends, family and relationships? Or did you embrace the change wholeheartedly?
With jobs in the heritage and museums sectors coming up few and far between, it is increasingly likely that you will have to move a fair distance to land a job, especially early on in your career. And with the type of short term contracts that are particularly prevalent at the moment, the chances are that you may have to move to one location for six months to a year, and then move on again to pastures new.
I’ve had paid roles within the museums and heritage sector since the start of 2016; and within that time, I’ve had to move three times for different jobs and to advance my career. Add in moving to Bath before that to pursue my Heritage Management MA, and you’ll understand that this has been a challenging couple of years as I stumbled my way into the heritage sector. Whilst none of those moves have been what I would call massive (from Bath to Exeter to Chippenham to Bristol), they are all in completely different counties across the South West, one of the biggest regions of the UK.
The reason for my first move was that I was having no luck finding any entry level jobs in Bath. It was your typical story of even museum duty manager positions needing 3 years of management experience and inside-out knowledge of a variety of obscure computer systems as they would have no time to train you in them. So I started looking at jobs across the South West to enhance my chances of breaking into the sector, and I managed to land myself a job at Exeter Cathedral as a Development Assistant. If I’m honest, working in a Cathedral was not my first choice of heritage job (I’m not a religious person, and religious history is not particularly interesting to me); but it did give me a wealth of experience, and more importantly, I was able to play with Lego as part of the job (it was a fundraising campaign they had going on at the time).
I made the move to Exeter partway through completing my MA, so I would still have to travel back to Bath occasionally (which made for some horrendous early starts) but luckily most of the taught parts of the course were heaped together at the first few months of the course, so I was able to just write my essays and upload them without having to be there physically as much. However, like most entry level jobs, the pay was pretty poor and after a few months of data entry tedium (and completing my MA) I felt like I could be doing better and take a step up. So I once again began searching for other jobs, and in September 2016 was successful in getting one at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.
I was now World Heritage Partnership Officer for Stonehenge and Avebury, a title that sounds brilliant on paper but once again meant mostly data entry, admin and organising meetings for more important people than me, only this time without any Lego to add a creative element to the proceedings. This meant I had to move to Chippenham, a tiny Wiltshire town that was as soulless and vapid as the economy there. For a young guy like me, this was the equivalent of going back to my hometown and settling down there, it just felt so depressing. Part of me wanted to move back to Bath or over to Bristol and commute there, but the salary was not nearly enough to make that worthwhile. But I did actually enjoy some parts of the job immensely; and going out to different parts of the World Heritage Site, meeting colleagues from different heritage bodies and helping to solve situations like disputes with local farmers and monitoring cow damage to archaeological sites was something that I never thought I would end up doing. It’s just a shame Chippenham was so dull, though it was this factor that really pushed me to make my next career jump into my current position.
I had considered living in Bristol for a while, as I had some friends living there and I would go there quite frequently at weekends as there was always something interesting going on. And it was at the time when I was the most frustrated with living in Chippenham that my current job was being advertised: Heritage Engagement Manager at Bristol Old Vic. I immediately knew this was something I really wanted to do. I love theatre and theatrical history, and a chance to work on a project exploring the history of the longest continuously used theatre in the UK was one I was not going to pass up. So I moved once again in September of last year to find myself in Bristol, a city that is leaps and bounds the best place I have lived so far.
I made that all sound very easy, but it really wasn’t. What I didn’t mention was the tons of failed applications and interviews before I got these different jobs, and the logistics of packing up your life every few months. However, I can honestly say that I don’t think I would have advanced as far in my career and my roles without taking those risks and moving repeatedly. I am now in a job that I love, in a city that I adore and feel like I have come such a long way in these past two years. I don’t think that would have happened if I had stayed in those same jobs, as from my experience there appears to be very little job progression in the sector from entry level to management positions. But moving for work hasn’t always been an easy process, so I have tried to summarise the pros and cons below (as much for myself as for anyone reading this).
Moving allows you to experience new places and learn about new environments.
I have made so many friends in each of the places I have lived in, an unexpected bonus!
I have been able to work in some really unique and interesting places.
The jobs I have had have allowed me to do things I never thought I would be able to, and taught me some great skills.
Moving is expensive and time consuming (rent, deposits, house viewings etc)
Doesn’t always pay off if you don’t end up liking where you live.
The cost of going for interviews (organisations rarely seem pay for travel expenses).
Trying to match up the dates of moving into a new place and starting the job is a logistical nightmare.
The last couple of years have been tough trying to establish myself as a heritage professional, but they have also been really enjoyable. I have been able to see new sights, meet new people and experience new events (the solstice at Avebury being one of the highlights). It has also made me consider some questions, like:
With more young people moving to find work, is the job more important than the location?
How do you know when you’ve found somewhere you really like?
When should you settle in one place? And should you have to settle at all?
And if you’re not moving for a job you really want, should you really be moving?
I’d be really interested to hear from people with similar experiences, and how you went about breaking into the sector. Being one of the Committee Members for the South West Emerging Museum Professionals group has let me have some great discussions with others in their early years of museum and heritage work, and no two stories have ever been the same. I know there are plenty of people within the sector that have not had to move, but I have met an awful lot of people who have had to move even greater distances than me to get the jobs they want. Ideally, I think this should not have to be the way to progress within our job sectors, but it seems from my experience that if you want to land that job, you have to cast your net wide.
Liam Wiseman is the Heritage Engagement Manager at Bristol Old Vic. He is also one of two South West Reps for the Museums Association and one of the Committee Members for the South West Emerging Museum Professionals group. Find him @liamthewiseman or @SW_EMP
Beyond major metropolitan centres, museum jobs can be few and geographically far between. Sometimes, however, being prepared to up and move to chase a job, can really help you to land that first museum role, or climb that museum career ladder a little bit higher.
Moving home and moving jobs can be fun and exciting. It can also be stressful and expensive. In this three-part blog, my guest contributors and I would like to explore the impact of geography on the situation, wellbeing and wallets of museum professionals.
In part one, Liam Wiseman discusses his experiences with moving three times in two years for different jobs across South West England. In part two, an anonymous contributor goes into more detail about the financial implications involved in moving home, and the issue of debt. In the third part, I will discuss my experiences of moving jobs without moving home, and the challenges involved with commuting.
So getting another part-time job which was compatible with my original one was a long, hard slog. But the hard work didn’t stop there. There are all sorts of pants things about having two-jobs. There are also some good things. Here’s a quick round up:
Networking isn’t just about meeting scary new people at conferences or events. We all network automatically in the course of our working lives, interacting and forming professional relationships with colleagues. The more places you work, the more people you’ll have in your network.
Working in multiple places has the potential to open you up to all sorts of experiences and skill-building opportunities. My job at Oxford is great for experience working with a scientific collection. I’ve been able to learn loads about hazard management, chemical and radiation safety, risk assessments, health and safety legislation and human tissue licensing.
Working in a school museum, I’m now exposed to a significant social history and fine art collection. Moreover, for the first time in my working life I am having to deliver teaching and education sessions. I used to be terrified of children and young adults. Now I think they’re great, and find their enthusiasm and ever-unpredictable questioning to be a great source of optimism for the future of humanity.
Crossing collections and skills-sharing
There is a surprising amount of cross-over between the collections at the Museum of the History of Science and my school museum. The school had (and still has) an infirmary, which means a medical collection, which means hazards a plenty. When I found an open source of mercury at one work place, I knew exactly what to do from my previous experience at the other place.
The school wants to apply for Accreditation? No problem – I bring with me from Oxford my experience of going through the scheme last year. The school gives me more specialist GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) training? I can then readily share what I learnt from that at the school with my colleagues in Oxford.
…is always nice and keeps one on one’s toes!
Where the hell am I?
My weekly schedule is as follows:
Tuesday: West Sussex
Thursday: West Sussex
Friday (ever other): Oxford
Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, it can take me up to five minutes to work our just where I’m supposed to be going on that particular day. It hasn’t happened yet, but one day I am sure I am going to go the wrong place by mistake.
(My schedule is nowhere near as hectic as Josie Wall’s has been – read more about her experiences balancing a PhD, volunteering and work here.)
Schedule? What schedule?
Did I say I had a schedule? LOLZ! Both work places sometimes ask me to swap days to help out with things. I’m usually happy to help but having some sort of routine does help my sanity a little bit.
Double the Trouble
It used to be that I would just lay awake at night and worry about that unresponsive registrar, this courier trip, that bit of mercury, this bit of asbestos, those mysterious skulls, oh God please say that I ticked ‘do not publish on internet’ in the CMS and OH LORD DID I TURN THE HEATER OFF?
Now that I have two jobs, I worry about whether my volunteers are happy, whether my boss’ non-museum boss is happy with progress of documentation work, whether or not I’ve taken the fob home with me by accident, is there a ghost – I’m pretty sure there’s a ghost? as well as that unresponsive registrar, this courier trip, that bit of mercury, this bit of asbestos, those mysterious skulls, oh God please say that I ticked ‘do not publish on internet’ in the CMS and OH LORD DID I TURN THE HEATER OFF?
Never mind turning the heater off – any tips on how to turn my neurotic and paranoid brain off?
Picking up emails at home
I’ve never been obliged to do this, but I think it’s something most of us do at some point. It might not be great for the work/ life balance – but sometimes I know that answering an email on a Saturday afternoon can save me a whole lot of bother on a Monday morning.
Now, of course, I have twice the number of email accounts to check in my free time, and about twice as many emails to read and to which to reply.
Two inboxes = two outlook calendars
Anyone know of way I can sync them? Anyone PLEASE?!?
Meeting new people
I never find meeting new people the easiest thing. Especially that bit about ‘what do you do?’. Invariably, I have to explain what collections management is (no, I’m not a curator), that I won’t talk about valuations, and that I work both for a university and well as for a museum (no not the Ashmolean), no I don’t work for the Science Museum in London, and no, we don’t have any dinosaurs. Now I also have to explain that in addition I work for a school museum (yes they exist), yes it’s a boarding school, not it’s not that ‘posh’, yes it’s the place with those old-fashioned uniforms, and yes I’ll tell you that it is a bit like Hogwarts if that’s what you want to hear.
Two sets of work Christmas parties
Can I maybe stop eating now, please?
Two lanyards and ID/ access cards to keep track of
I never seem to have the right one on me…
Two sets of IT passwords
One of which I’m required to change once every 12 weeks, the other once every four weeks. Trying to synchronise password changes across work places (bad practice for information security I know) is inherently impossible.
I was thrilled when I was offered my current job at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. But I always knew it was something of a ticking time-bomb. Due to the way the post was funded, it would be full-time for the first eight months, and then revert to half-time (0.5 FTE, or Full Time Equivalent) for another eight months. I couldn’t afford to live on half wages. But it will be fine, I thought, I’ll just get a second part-time museum job when the time comes.
It was all fine in the end – I managed to get a second part-time job. But it wasn’t the easiest position to get into, and it continues to present a particular set of challenges. In this two-part post I will discuss my journey.
When I was looking for full-time jobs, I could be fairly free an easy about the geographic area in which these could be. I live in Surrey, but was applying for stuff all over the place: Cambridge, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh. I took a job in and moved to Worcester. I nearly moved to Oxford too, but for various reasons (i.e. money) I decided to stay living in my family home and commute to work.
Now though, with a good part-time job in Oxford which I didn’t want to give up, I was anchored. Whatever second job I found, it had to be compatible with Oxford, which meant it had to be within striking distance of Surrey. While that did include London (where there are lots of in-sector jobs), it meant that most of the rest of the country was closed off to me. Essentially, the pool of jobs available to me had shrunk in proportion to my sudden lack of travel-abillity.
As I said, I could not afford to live on half-time wages. An extra day of work a week (0.2FTE) wouldn’t have made an awful lot of difference. In strictly monetary terms, an extra two-and-a-half days (0.5 FTE) would have been perfect. In practicality though, it would mean spending one day doing a half-shift at one place, and another half-shift at the other. Unless my second, hypothetical, 0.5 FTE role was in Oxford city centre, it simply would not work. The only real option left to me was to find a job that was 0.4 FTE – two days a week – and no more or no less. This was another filter to shrink the pool of potentially available jobs.
So I was looking for a 0.4 FTE role in the South East, in a notoriously competitive and over-subscribed industry. Not exactly easy. You can imagine my delight, then, when I saw a job that fitted the bill. The right number of hours, and less than thirty miles away. Further, it was in my professional area (collections), and paid comparatively well. Great, I thought. Let’s pull out all the stops and make sure that I get this friggin’ job – I needed it.
I started nailing the preparation – preparing my answers to potential questions, rehearsing in front of the mirror, and doing a lot of research on the place. In the course of this research, I discovered that this ostensibly independent museum was in fact largely funded by the Church of Scientology. That put something of a downer on my spirits, because I didn’t really want to work for a weird cult.
I prepared to withdraw my application. I had a not insubstantial row with my partner over it – she said I needed the money (which I did), I argued for the precedence of my moral objections (I can be pig-headed). In the end, I went to the interview. I had prepared a humdinger of a bastard of a devil of a question for the panel, all about financial donors and editorial control, etc., so that I might go out in a blaze of glory. Naturally, I chickened out of asking this question. I behaved myself like the very worst sort of chicken-hearted knave.
In the end, I wasn’t offered the position anyway. It saved me from making a difficult decision. I still don’t know what I would have done had I been offered it – but I’m 60/40 in favour of having refused it. That’s by the by. The facts on the ground were that I still needed a 0.4 FTE position in the South East.
Would I lie to you baby?
Months passed before another suitable vacancy appeared, but eventually one did. Good money again, and working for a prestigious institution whose mission I could really get behind. I applied, I got an interview. I attended and it seemed to go pretty well – the panel were nice, and I felt that I could answer most of their questions. Most of them.
There were some really difficult ones. Their post was permanent, so what was I intending to do when my position at Oxford came to an end? I was already travelling a lot between Surrey and Oxford, could I manage the travel from Surrey to them in London on top of that? And you know we’ll require you to go to Southampton and Cheshire from time to time too? And perhaps Essex. And Yorkshire. You okay with that, hun? What were my longer-term plans? I WANT A BOYFRIEND NOT JUST A SHAG, they seemed to be saying.
By this stage, Oxford had been making noises to me about a contract extension (still at 0.5 FTE), but I had nothing firm from them yet. When the panel asked me outright when my contract ran out, I think that’s when they went off me a bit. They knew what I was after, which was a bit of filler, and that just didn’t match with their post. I could only commit to five months, for a permanent post that had objectives stretching years into the future. I wasn’t offered the position. While I was annoyed to be back at square one, I think that the panel made the right decision in not selecting me.
Goodbye Ruby (Collections Committee) Tuesday
Another few weeks it took for another suitable job advert to appear. Just down the road too this time! I applied and then I was called to interview. No difficult questions about longer-term plans on this occasion, and by this time my extension at Oxford was a lot more concrete. I was offered the job – hooray! ACCEPT ACCEPT ACCEPT! I was now going to be Documentation Assistant at an independent charitable boarding school in West Sussex. Founded in the 1550s, they had a long and interesting history and I was dead keen to get started. Sadly, I can’t say exactly where it is because of social media policies and the fact that I do sometimes discuss inappropriately saucy things in this blog, like kissing or jazz.
Then there was the issue of how to divvy up my days between Oxford and Sussex – and it very quickly proved bothersome. The school were fairly insistent on Tuesdays and Thursdays – but Tuesday was (monthly) Collections Committee day at Oxford. I asked my Oxford line manager to ask our Director if we could move the Committee meetings (which also meant getting the agreement of our Assistant Keeper and Conservator) and I asked the school (future line manager, HR, and Trustees) if they could be a little bit less insistent on Tuesdays. The negotiations continued for weeks, with me stuck in the middle as the go-between. It got sorted eventually, but it was a lot of bother and stress that I could have done without.
I now have two jobs, and was a little more financially secure. Life still isn’t exactly easy though, as I will expand upon in the second half of this post.