This is an archived post from 2017. I have since moved employer and job title, but I hope this blog will remain relevant and useful.

Hello – I’m Tom Hopkins, and I work in collections management at the University of Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science. I am on my third paid job in the heritage sector, having landed my first back in 2014. I guess you could call me an emerging (or perhaps pupating?) museum professional.

Instruments on display at the Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford

Jobs in museums are scarce and usually very low paid, yet openings are very over-subscribed and competition is fierce. Not surprisingly perhaps, I get asked a lot about how I managed to break into the industry.

My first gigs in museums were a lot about happy accidents and being in the right place at the right time. But there was also a definite sort of process that I followed to get to where I am today, and I would like to set out here what I did and how it panned out for me. I hope what I write here will help any of you out there who are as keen to get on to those first rungs of the museum career ladder as was I.

This is still very much a work in progress, and I hope to be adding more over the next few weeks and months.


Profiles of the Professionals: Richard Applegate, Senior Curator at the Royal Eastbourne Museum

In this first of (what I hope will be) a series of blogs, guest writer Charlotte Pargeter profiles some of the people who really shape the heritage sector. Who are these leaders, and where did they come from? Today Charlotte meets Richard Applegate, Senior Curator at the Royal Eastbourne Museum.

Charlotte final
Charlotte Pargeter

I meet him at the reception desk. In chinos and a shirt (think M&S Blue Harbour), Richard exudes an air of comfort and easiness with a look that says contemporary cool. Yet tradition is present too, with a pencil moustache that says less hipster-chic and more 1930s establishment. Not quite an army officer, but a man of action nonetheless, as Richard spreads out, with one en-brogued foot casually resting on a paint-spattered step ladder, itself in turn leaning against a display case very much in the course of arrangement. Intelligence meets manful confidence.

“Charlotte? How lovely to meet you!” he exclaims as he proffers a hand to shake. He grips firmly, as he leans in for a hug, and speaks into my ear “why don’t you come into my office?”.

After a short walk through the galleries – here a penny farthing, there a rack of spears – he opens a door and ushers me into his office, guiding me with his hand on the small of my back. I look around in admiration at the rows of leather-bound books. A computer and a shelf of brightly-coloured ring-binders are a very few of the clues suggesting that we are in the 21st Century. Richard closes the door behind him with a click. “So,” he says (smiling), “where shall we start?”

Tell us about your route into museums, Richard?

Richard Applegate final
Richard Applegate

“Well,” he responds with a casual, classless lilt “like a lot of people, I rather fell into the museums game by accident. Back in the 80s, I graduated with BA in Ancient History from Durham University. Soon afterwards, I applied for and got my first heritage job – a collections role at a museum in Bath. That museum then funded me to undertake the MA in Museum Studies at Leicester. I then became a Curator in London, before settling on my current role as Senior Curator here at Eastbourne. Everything really was rather easy.”

Eastbourne Museum won the Arts Council Britain’s prestigious Museum of the Year Award in 2017 – you must have been very proud?

“Tremendously proud, and it was a well-won accolade. The collection should take some credit of course.  It’s extremely diverse – brought to Eastbourne from darkest Africa, the jungles of South America, or furthest Asia. Such a collection is naturally full of stories – but it really takes suitably gifted and qualified museum professionals to tease these out in a way that a normal person can understand. So ultimately, I’m indebted to my team of highly trained curators, and the academic excellence that they bring to the table.”

I’m interested that you mention diversity, Richard. Sector workforce diversity is being talked about more and more. How diverse do you feel Eastbourne Museum’s workforce is?

“I am fully aware that ‘diversity’ is now a fashionable buzzword. I am more interested in having a workforce that is effective than diverse. I can’t speak for the whole museum, but I recruit my team in a manner that is wholly meritocratic. I don’t see race. What I do see is qualifications from top universities, or hours sent selflessly volunteering at the nation’s most prestigious museums. I really value practical skills – so the combination of previous experience with academic excellence for my entry-level curatorial posts is of the upmost importance. Those are the criteria on which I recruit.

Richard, you’ve mentioned race in relation to my question about diversity, but what about the other aspects of the term?

“Look, black, brown, white – it’s all the same to me. Yes, all of my team are all white – but so what? White people are the only ones who applied. Nothing about my selection techniques has been discriminatory – far from it. I even interviewed a Pakistani last month…”

That’s a very encouraging sign that your Museum can attract such international candidates. Where in Pakistan were they from, Richard?

“Bradford. But before I digress onto the topic of Pakistanis with utterly undecipherable Yorkshire accents – could it just be that newcomers to this country just aren’t interested in museums, the arts or culture? There may be a reason that Renoir (and we have one of his *delightfully* plump nudes on the first floor) studied in Paris rather than Karachi.”

Richard, such a statement isn’t without an element of…look. There are other aspects of diversity. Let’s move on from race and ethnicity. For instance, the Royal Eastbourne Museum has yet to even once acknowledge LGBT History Month, even though it was established in 1994…

“May I remind you, young Lady, that I qualified as a Museum Curator well before 1994. We certainly didn’t need an ‘LGBT History Month’ back when I started out in the sector. Firstly for one thing, can say how jarring I find that rainbow flag. It certainly is unbecoming amongst Eastbourne’s grand Victorian architecture. It just jars”

“Also, at a time when I’m told that Museums should be reaching out to wider audiences, like families…is that a time we should be sexualising our interpretation? I certainly don’t think that’s appropriate – whether you’re talking about normal sex or gay sex. I just don’t feel it’s ever appropriate to discuss the sex lives or sexual orientation of people in the past. We have never done it before, why should we do it now for homosexual sex? I don’t see the need to pander to this ‘fashionable’ LGBTQNTQEHE?!”*>] (or whatever nonsense it is these days) gay agenda.”

So moving on to a different subject, how do you think the Museums profession has changed over the past 30 years?

“Well it certainly has professionalised. When I first started out, Curators were little more than hobbyists, often with no social skills. The stereotypes live on…too many cats, stained cardigans, medieval encaustic tiles in use as coasters. Some of the ones I met in the bad old days I even suspected to be autistic. Nowadays things are much better. Curators these days must have a Postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies, and that rather sorts the wheat from chaff.”

There has been a general discussion recently about credentialism in the sector. Is that a discussion you have been engaged with at all?

“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand this term ‘credentialism’. What does it mean? And no. I haven’t seen such discussions – where have they been taking place?”

Credentialism is defined as belief in or reliance on academic or other formal qualifications as the best measure of a person’s intelligence or ability to do a particular job. These discussions have mostly been taking place on social media platforms…

“What a lot of nonsense. Firstly, I do not engage with ‘social’ media…I prefer to get my news from serious outlets such as academic journals, the BBC and The Times.”

“Secondly, I do happen to think that formal qualifications *are* the best way to get an instant measure of someone’s quality of character and values. Someone with a good degree from a Doxbridge university is going to be a better sort of chap than someone with a 2.2 from Leeds. I’m sorry but that’s just a fact…”

But what about the fact that degrees are so expensive to obtain these days, that they present opportunities only to those who are privileged enough to afford them?

“More people are going to university today than ever before. The costs of fees are clearly offset by the better availability of student loans. It is by no means obvious that university education is socially exclusive. Even if student debt causes all sorts of problems further down the line, it hardly is the function of museums to solve these issues. Museums are, and should be, neutral. We exist outside of the perceived wider societal problems. Otherwise where would it stop? Museums as houses for public toilets, warmth for the homeless, or safe spaces for prostitutes and drug addicts?”

Thank you for your robust opinions on this topic, Richard. Let me move on to the issue of non-disclosure of salaries, or salary cloaking. Your institution has come under fire recently for advertising jobs without publishing a salary range. What benefits does your organisation receive from this practice, and how do you feel about the negative implications for individual candidates?

“My job is to serve the best interests of my institution. I am certainly not in a position to act as some sort of ‘social justice warrior’. Given the sheer number of applicants we get for vacancies at the Royal Eastbourne Museum, I am hardly in a position to treat the people behind them as individuals. Museums are a tough industry to break into – and people just need to man-up deal with that reality.

“When I advertise a position as ‘competitive’ it means exactly that. My use of the term ‘competitive’ is not to restrict candidate applications, but to remove any potential constraint on salary being a factor in applying for the role.  These are roles where we can be flexible on salary, subject to the candidate’s skills and experience.  I feel that if we had advertised a range, with lower and upper limits, we may, unintentionally, exclude some applicants. So actually, before these ‘Social Justice Warriors’ have a go at me, they should acknowledge that maybe I too am doing my fair bit for museum sector ‘diversity’ by not scaring-off diverse candidates by dangling salaries in front of them which they couldn’t possible comprehend.

Eastbourne Museum has come under similar fire for hosting and advertising for unpaid internships. How do you feel about that backlash?

“It’ absolutely ridiculous. One of the great things that is essential to Britishness is a sense of public duty – that you do something for nothing for people or organisations that can’t pay. May I remind you that the Royal Eastbourne Museum is a charity. There is nothing wrong about volunteering and giving back to the community. If only *your* generation understood that, rather than being so orientated around money.”

Clearly none of us are motivated by money in this sector. What gets you out of bed in the morning, Richard?

“Public service will always be an important part of my job. But what really motivates me is my sense of passion – for my Museum, and its collection. It’s a passion that would mean I would still do this job, even for bread and water.”

Some might say that such a statement can only come from a position of privilege?

“There is nothing privileged about my background. I have had to work hard to get where I am today. I came from *the bottom* and worked my way up. State grammar school. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be at Durham and not from the likes of Eton or Harrow? And the poverty! In my first job in London I was having to live off £8000 a year – and yet people complain about far less these days. I only wish millennials could be as passionate about museums as they are about their own so-called ‘wellness’.

We’ve touched on privilege, and that leads me on to my next question about museums in the post-colonial context…

“Another ridiculous buzzword. For better or worse, the British Empire happened. And it stopped happening in 1945, nearly two decades before I was even born. And only in the last few years has it come under criticism…unfair criticism. What’s bad about Cricket and Railways? But if this discussion was in Belgium, mind you…”

Thank you, Richard. Finally – what changes do you think we need to make to ensure the long-term sustainability of the museum sector?

“I think it’s a little ironic that my answer to your question is that we need to see less change. Museums have been amazing audiences for well over a hundred years. Yes, there have been some improvements down the lines. Mannequins and the like, and audio guides. But have we now gone too far? Are museums becoming worse? Here’s a few things I’d certainly like to see less

  • Dumbing down of exhibits. If you’re not intelligent and engaged with the arts, you’re hardly likely to engage with museums in any case?
  • Pandering to ethnic minorities who never visit or want to work in museums in any case.
  • Pandering to the gay agenda.
  • De-skilling our workforce by making entry-level positions more accessible.
  • Repatriating our collections to Third World countries who wouldn’t know how to adequately care for them.
  • Encouraging children into museums.
  • Allowing un-trained and un-qualified members of the community the opportunity to co-curate exhibitions (N.B. see ‘dumbing down’ above.)

Honestly, there’s so much I could say, but I think I’ll stop there. Do you have any other questions?”

Thank you so much for an…uncompromising…set of answers. Yes, that concludes our interview.

Richard stands up. He walks to his office door, and stands with his back to it, looking at me, and barring my exit.

“Charlotte,” he says, smiling, “You are a *good* girl, aren’t you?”



– Illustrations by Clara Mai –



Graduate Traineeships: A Personal Reflection and Suggestion for Change

I benefitted greatly from my place on a graduate traineeship. But did I need a degree to do it, and is right that we continue to ask for them as requirements for entry-routes into the sector?

Like so many people, my path into museums wasn’t an easy one. I didn’t really know what to do after I graduated in 2011 with an MA in Classics. Exploring various options, I started volunteering in my local museum (Guildford) and soon fell in love with it. This is the industry for me, I thought. Now just to get a job in it.

Fast-forward two and a half years, and I was still in the same place – working for money in a supermarket, while giving up what free time I had to volunteer. The frustration and desperation were real, and I felt like packing in my dream for good. But then it happened – I got my first heritage-y job, back in 2014. Receiving that offer was one of the happiest moments of my life.

I had won a place on a paid 15-month Traineeship, funded by the HLF. My placement was at Worcester Cathedral Library, but there were six other trainees based at various museums and archives across Worcestershire. The posts were graduate traineeships. Each had the essential requirement of an undergraduate degree. Each also asked for previous experience in the heritage sector as a desirable requirement.

Worcester Cathedral

The idea behind the traineeship, part of the wider HLF Skills for the Future programme, was to increase the range and quality of work-based training in the sector, meet identified skills-gaps, share good practice, and increase workforce diversity. Alongside paid practical work experience, we also studied for a Postgraduate Certificate in Heritage Management, and were exposed to significant training and professional development opportunities.

The main aspects of my day-to-day role in the Cathedral Library were conducting tours, setting up temporary exhibitions, answering enquiries, facilitating research visits, running social media and managing volunteers. As an unplanned surprise, I also assisted with a decant of the library’s holdings, initiated by urgent ceiling repair work.

It was pretty much everything that could be expected of a curatorial or collections assistant role, and was excellent first-hand experience. The training opportunities were ample too, with courses on fundraising, the National Curriculum, project management, and specific areas of conservation. We also held swap-shops across each of the placements, as well as away days.   Beyond that, the study element was also interesting, although I’m not convinced how useful the theoretical side of it has been.

The best thing about it all was the support network though. My supervisor – the Cathedral Librarian – was fantastic. So were the rest of the Cathedral community, the traineeship coordinator and the other placements’ supervisors. But the company of the other traineeships themselves was what made the opportunity priceless.

Worcester Cathedral in the 13th Centuy

At the end of those 15 months, it still wasn’t a case of walking into a job. I returned to Guildford as a paid Research Assistant on a 12-month contract. A mixture of subsequent collections and documentation roles followed. But it wasn’t until I took my current position, in January 2019, as a Curator of Aircraft in a national museum, that I felt truly emerged, with my first permanent job and introduction to line-management.

It is the feeling of being settled and secure that makes now a good time to reflect on my past and where I’ve come from. I have learnt a lot over the last five years. One of the things I’ve learnt is that my background – white, and comfortably middle class – is very privileged. This doesn’t mean that I have not had to work hard. But it does mean that I have had it a lot easier than some. And I have always had something of a financial safety-net by means of my family.

This safety net meant that I could go to university without worrying about student debt. It meant I could live at home rent-free while saving up for my MA. And it meant that I could commit to significant amounts of voluntary work before I got my first paid job in the sector.

If a degree was an essential requirement for the graduate traineeship at Worcester, it’s only fair to ask how much use I made in the role of my university credentials. The answer is very little. That was as true then for my traineeship as it is now for role as a Curator in a national museum. Some things I learnt at university have been useful – an improved sense of critical and analytical thought, and source citation conventions – but these are things which don’t have to be necessary taught in academia exclusively.

My experience of working in the sector to date is that what really determines how effective an individual is are the ‘softer’ skills. These are things like communication, teamwork, negotiation, diplomacy, leadership, problem solving and organisation. Training courses might exist for each of these, but most of us pick and up and develop these skills in the course of our daily lives or in any work place.

If these ‘softer’ skills can be learnt from experience, I have no answer as to where innate values come from. Values are what distinguish an effective and efficient museum professional from ones who are inspirationally fantastic. Integrity, fairness, open-mindedness, ability to engage, affability, humour, story-telling and belief in the arts as a force for good in society – these are the values that the best people in the sector live and breathe every day.

If skills and values are what best determine a candidate’s performance in the workplace, why not recruit along these lines? This question can be asked again for recruitment into traineeships. This is especially true when a traineeship’s stated aims are to increase sector workforce diversity give a leg-up to those struggling to break into a notoriously impenetrable sector.

A small dog sits outside the west doors of Worcester Cathedral.

I urge any of you in recruitment positions to carefully consider what attributes are *actually* necessary for a person to successfully fulfil a role, instead of slapping on a degree requirement as a lazy short-hand. Candidates should be free to evidence how they meet these attributes from any source, not merely the traditional routes of university education and prior voluntary experience in the sector.

To be clear, none of this should be about disqualifying graduates from traineeships, ignoring the sacrifices that so many people make to go to university, or undermining the value of higher education. Instead, it’s about trying to diversify entry routes into the sector and opening doors rather than closing them.

I greatly benefitted from my traineeship. But there may have been candidates who could have benefitted from it more, and performed better in the course of their duties, than I did. It’s not fair that my previous experience and two expensive degrees – the products of my privilege – allowed me to profit at their expense.

It’s high time we opened the gates to the sector and called time on traineeships designed exclusively for graduates.


Twitter: The only place more progressive than the 1950s?

A flippant Tweet for mine recently took off in a way that I hadn’t expected. The reaction to it has given me the impetus to explore ideas around what Twitter means to both me and the museum sector.

Tweet: Hot take - talking to a museum professional who’s not on Twitter is the same as talking to a museum professional from the 1950s.

The world is changing extraordinarily quickly with improvements in global communications, and social media is playing a big part of that. Despite a worrying resurgence of the far-right across the developed world, we are also seeing a growing awareness (amongst liberal audiences at least) of the inequality that continues to blight society. Be it through the Women’s Marches, a growing understanding of the nature of gender or the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, perspectives have been changing. As a white, middle-class male, I only began to realise in the last few years my own immense privilege. Not from self-discovery, but from the diverse views coming into my social media feeds from outside and from voices with which I would not have otherwise engaged.

The Museum sector has responded to these sorts of changes in various ways. Trends (pioneered decades earlier) in the democratisation of interpretation are fast becoming the mainstream. Community participation is now less an experiment than an expectation. Didactic and paternalistic approaches are now routinely laughed out of exhibitions.

Image shows unnaturally huge dog standing over a tank.
Engaging with new technology

Front of house staff, for so long undervalued, are now widely and rightly seen as the champions of visitor engagement and the most valuable source for exhibition evaluation. Curators are no longer seen as the ‘only’ members of museum staff, and the sector’s petty attempts at ownership of the term have rightfully been called into question, even if some of the more elaborate uses of it have been appropriately ridiculed.

Wellness and mental being are topics that are being talked about more and more openly. Burnout and stress are no longer badges of shame, but acknowledged as factors than can effect all of us. Suicide is no longer a taboo – we can grieve it publicly, and shout about the sources of help available.

Our most prestigious museums are now enlivened by LGBTQ tours, and organisations such as the National Trust (long associated with a sense of green-wellied, middle-Englander conservatism) are celebrating the LGBTQ heritage and stories enshrined within their properties.

Finally, recruitment and its equitability are beginning to be discussed more and more openly. No longer is it considered acceptable to make as essential requirements expensive post-graduate requirements that are impossible to achieve by so many who would be absolute assets to the sector. Unpaid internships are increasingly being called out as exclusive preserves, while inclusivity in recruitment is being championed more and more.

To claim that any of these developments began in and because of the social media age would be an utter disservice to the giants on whose shoulders we stand. But their prevalence has certainly been accelerated and entrenched by the rapid exchange of ideas and thinking that social media platforms can facilitate.

Is talking to a museum professional not on Twitter the same as talking to a museum professional from the 1950s? Of course not. But it is remarkable how prevalent the qualities of classism, snobbery, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, un-empathy and gatekeeping are amongst those who favour the siloed-Hobbit Holes of personal comfort over the vast, terrifying awesomeness of wide horizons.

Engage with new ideas, listen to new voices, and put your feet in other people’s shoes. But let’s not grow complacent either and assume that the regressive conservative voice in our sector is dead. Only last week did the alarming comment below appear on the Museum’s Association website, in reaction to the story about the People’s History Museum removing a transphobic sticker from an exhibition space.

Quote: Looks like the MA is about to disappear up its own fundament with its obsession with "diversity", "equality", etc etc. The MA was set up as a professional body to support museum professionals in work with collections of all kinds but seems to have morphed into a political agency promoting elite liberal issues that are of no interest, if not positively offensive, to many museum workers who are sick of seeing their professional body abused as a vehicle for promoting LGBT propaganda. Since when was this - or indeed any other form of political agitation - the function of a museum? Similarly (referring to your article on museums collecting anti-Trump memorabilia), although I am no fan of Trump, I do find it extraordinary that museums should see it as their duty to encourage protest against the elected leader of a friendly nation. The British cultural world's turn to politics and its one-sided views on social matters and the arts have brought my 30-year career caring for collections and sharing them with a grateful public to an end and I am now looking for alternative employment where I don't feel constantly threatened by Political Correctness.

Social media is both a receiver and a transmitter, and we all have a duty to challenge bad practice, exclusory attitudes and hate-driven agendas – whilst also toasting the many, many good things out there.


The Woes of House Hunting and Shared Accommodation

We have discussed the issue of relocating on this blog before, but I would like to go into more detail in this post about the act of house hunting itself. I’m changing jobs and relocating soon, so it’s on my mind. What follows are some of my own experiences of looking for places to live and sharing accommodation.

I first left home when I went to uni. I was in halls in first year. Sure, they looked nice from the outside. But inside they were grim. Boiling hot in summer, freezing cold in winter, and constantly noisy.

My uni halls. Photo credit IIya Kuzhekin.

I moved out to a house for second and third year with three mates. We always knew Jeff was conservative, but sometimes you have to live with someone to really realise what a racist and misogynistic cockwomble they are. Jeff wanted a girlfriend, but it turns out girls don’t like being lectured on how inferior they are. He thought it was because he was too skinny. He started hitting the gym hard, and initiated a super-high protein diet. The house smelt constantly of roast lamb.

James was a nice guy, but fell under Jeff’s thrall. They were gym buddies. And lamb buddies. James got his guns but Jeff remained stick thin. And when James got a girlfriend, and Jeff didn’t, Jeff sank into a low mood. He had spent all his money on meat, and spiralled into a Skyrim and pornography addiction.

Me as a student.

I first properly moved out of home when I started my HLF Skills for the Future traineeship at Worcester Cathedral Library. Worcester is a sizeable and a relatively cheap city, so there was plenty on offer. I picked one house, arranged a viewing, liked it, and moved in. It was a nice and spacious period property a ten-minute walk from the Cathedral. The live-out landlady, although strict, was scrupulously fair and professional, and took a real interest in her house being a happy one. But the best bit were the housemates. George, Andrea and Seb were a great bunch – and I remain very good friends with them to this day.

I knew I had got very lucky with my house from seeing the experiences of some of my fellow Worcester-based trainees who, like me, were new to the area. One had rented a room through a lettings agent, evidently more interested in filling vacancies than vetting tenants for suitability. She ended up sharing with a male student who didn’t really ‘get’ house sharing. He was dirty, rarely washing his clothes, and sleept under a duvet and on a mattress with no sheets. He contributed nothing to the communal purchases, and leached off everyone else. Washing-up liquid and liquitabs became commodities to be hoarded. So did toilet role. Each tenant had their own private stash, kept in their rooms. But not he. No wonder the tea-towels and flannels kept on disappearing. It was like Mad Max, but with more shit.

When he finally moved out, he was replaced by a couple who were in an unhappy relationship. Violent arguments would flare up nearly every evening, with plenty of loud screaming in Hungarian. After one of them became pregnant, the small house was soon filled with baby stuff –  a pram, a cot and toys were crammed into the communal spaces. Fortunately for my colleague, our traineeship came to a close before the baby joined the mix.

When I left Worcester to work at Guildford Museum, I moved back home for a year. When I got my next job in Oxford, I began my second phase of house hunting. Would I be as lucky again?

Oxford is very expensive, and property is in short supply. It’s almost impossible to find anything reasonably close to the centre for under £600 per month (bills included), and when such properties are advertised, competition can be fierce.

Cue the viewings. The first, a nice place in Jericho, and I’m being interviewed by this very clever professor-cum-landlord. I am one of 17 applicants, he tells me, as he asks me questions about my cleanliness, sociability and nocturnal habits. A sense of humour is important in this house, he tells me, although he hasn’t smiled once in between scribbling some notes down to my answers. I half expect a clause forbidding onanism.

The second has a younger, friendlier crowd. I am one of 15 applicants, they tell me. No interview notes this time, it’s just a friendly, informal chat to see how we get on. Shit. I need to shine. I can’t shine. I’m tired and nervous. Say something funny. I can’t. Make conversation. How do you do? What do you do? What do you think of HS2? One’s a lawyer – what on earth are you supposed to say to that? Done any nice litigation lately? Jesus Christ what a car crash. Go home.

Viewing No 3, on a separate day, is for a property with no other tenants. No stressful interview stage, but I do have to go through an agent and face their considerable fees. But my job starts in literally days, I need to find somewhere to live. The agent cancels on me last minute, after I have already bought my train ticket from Guildford to Oxford.

One last throw of the dice. I walk the long, lonely walk to East Oxford. It’s cold and dark. I am relieved that the house is warm. It’s also quite nice. The tenant who shows me round says she wants someone quiet and tidy. Well that’s me, to an extent. I bite the hook, I’m so desperate for somewhere to stay. So we talk about the rent. Payment is to be made to her directly rather than to the landlord because he, err, prefers it that way. The landlord doesn’t live in Oxford, but he’s really nice, she assures me. She insists that I pay a deposit as soon as possible (to her) to secure the room. I ask for a copy of the contract, which she doesn’t have. She says she’ll send one through later. In a few days I get an email from her. Attached are photographs of a hard copy of a contract. She again asks me for payment. I don’t really feel guilty for ghosting her.

Scam, much?

So that’s how my four-hour daily commute from Surrey to Oxford began, over two years ago. But now I’ve got a new job on the horizon, in a much cheaper area. House hunting time again.

I find two nice looking places listed in a nearby town. They’re quite close to each other. One has been listed by Gary, the other by Wayne. I message both, explaining my circumstances and outlining what I’m looking for. I get two messages back a few days later, both from Wayne, asking to call him to arrange a viewing. On the phone he sounds vague and evasive. He has a room available, but not in either of the properties listed. I ask him for more details and photographs, but receive none. I still go ahead with the viewing.

His mate Tezzer turns up, all shifty like. Wearing a beanie hat, he looks like Joe Pesci’s character from Home Alone – but with a thick Black Country accent. He shows me around. Exposed plasterboard and chipboard flooring everywhere in the communal areas. The carpets in the bedrooms are stained, and there’s a thick layer of dust everywhere. Mould grows black on the window sills and in the dark corners of the room. The sinks and taps are encrusted with limescale and the toilets are discoloured. Is there any more work to be done on the property, I ask? Oh no, he says, but they’ll give it a good clean. No thanks.

This house am nice, but ar day know who owns it

I made a second viewing that day, and it was much nicer. I should be set for the New Year now, just a bit of paperwork to do. House hunting is never easy, and there are a lot of scammers about – so be careful.

Fancy sharing some of your accommodation or house hunting horror stories? If I get enough then I’d love to follow this up with a part two!



Museums and Relationships

Museum careers and steady relationships don’t always make for the best partners. In this first of a series of posts, I will discuss my experiences of finding dating and maintaining relationships challenging – and the aspects of my museum career which have made this particularly so.

Short-term Contracts

We work in an industry dominated by short-term contracts. It is not rare to find jobs advertised for terms as short as six months, and some fee paid positions last for as little as four weeks.

This means that a lot of us – particularly those in the early stages of their careers – are chopping and changing jobs with an alarming regularity. This also means that many of us are having to move home with a similar regularity.

I got my first job in the sector because I was willing to move from Surrey to Worcester for a 15-month traineeship. Previously on this blog, Liam Wiseman has discussed his experience of moving three times in two years in order to chase jobs. Countless others will have similar stories to tell. The tally of pros and cons familiar. On the one hand, changing jobs and home is a great way to develop new skills, build a professional network, experience new areas, and make new friends. On the other, moving can be costly, logistically demanding, and it makes it harder to keep up with the friends you already have.

Moving regularly can also make dating difficult. Some may thrive in an atmosphere of a new town and new people with whom to form short-term relationships – and there is nothing wrong with that. However, those who are looking for longer-term relationships and who prefer a slower pace of courtship can have a really hard time. How easy is it to form an intimacy with someone when you know that in a few months’ time you may have to relocate to another part of the country (as yet unknown)? It is not impossible, but that sort of uncertainty can cast something of a gloomy shadow. The gloom may make one withdraw from the dating scene, give up and resign themselves (unhappily) to being single.

Homosexual couple dating
Look into my eyes and tell me you love me


It is no secret that salaries across the sector are depressed, with some collections-based roles at national museums in London starting as little as £ 18k pa. Some front of house roles offer even less.

Dating is far from cheap. When trying to make a good first impression, many will be unwilling to seem overly parsimonious. Despite the fact that many millennials are increasingly turning away from conspicuous consumerism, there remains significant societal pressures that link affluence with attractiveness. In short, you can’t scrimp on a first (or second or third) date, and that can really hurt the wallet.

With many of us working or living in rural or remote locations, the chances are that potential matches will be found in the nearest large town or city. The travel to and from a metropolitan area will be yet another expense.

Image result for stock image bad first date
Please can you lend me £1.40 for the bus?

So a typical first date might set you back the following amounts:

Travel £10
Dinner out £20
Drinks £20
Cinema Ticket £12
Total £62

Throw in a hair-cut, splash of scent, mints and optimistic condoms, and you could be looking at anything from £70 – £100 or more. That’s a heavy outlay for anyone’s budget. It also comes with the risk that you may not even like the person. We all have our horror stories about terrible, terrible first dates.

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What do you mean, museums are boring?

So much for dating, but the money issue has repercussions for longer-term relationships too. Trying to rent on a museum salary is hard enough. Renting as a couple is easier, as a lot of costs can be shared. But what about the longer-term, looking towards home-ownership? If you are both museum professionals, you can forget it. If you are a museum professional, and your partner works in another, more lucrative industry – then welcome to an existence of feeling like a burden. Or even a parasite. It’s not nice, it’s not conducive to feeling good about yourself, and it’s not good for a healthy relationship.

That brings me on to my next point. I have no issue whatsoever about a female partner earning more than I do. I have little interest in dating women who are anything less than committed feminists. But damn – those societal pressures! Have I failed as man if I can’t be the provider? I don’t think so – consciously at least. But what about my and my richer partner’s subconscious? And that’s to say nothing about the disapproval of my clan’s elder patriarchs, who may already disapprove of my career choice and lack of interest in football.

Image result for stock image bad first date
Let me just check on the game.

Starting a family

Yeah….no. I struggle to see how this is achievable on a museum salary. I ran a poll on Twitter recently about the compatibility of starting a family with holding down a Museum career. While my questions were rightly criticised for being overly loaded, leading and negative, it does nevertheless suggest that starting a family is something with which many museum professionals have struggled.

Poll: Impact of career on plans to start a family. 40% no impact, 39% delayed plans, 6% made impossible, 15% career influenced choice not to have children

Long Hours and Tiredness

We all work very hard in this sector. Sure, we don’t have a monopoly on graft, but it can still adversely affect our dating lives. I wake up at 6am each working morning. My ability to shine, to have a spark, to be funny, and any sense of libido are all but gone by 3pm. To date me after work is to date a zombie with zero conversational skills and no ability to flirt.

Image result for stock image mixed race date
That was great sex.

I am lucky in that the collections-based work I do is mostly 9-5, Monday to Friday. My colleagues in front of house roles are not so fortunate. Commitments to working weekends, a well as evening events, means that they are losing out on prime dating time. They also have jobs which are even more trying, exhausting and damn-right challenging than my own.


Say you do meet someone on while working a short-term contract, and when you inevitably have to move miles away, you still keep it going. That’s far from and easy option.

Phone contracts with unlimited hours and skype can make things easier, but there is still no substitute for spending quality time with your partner. If you are to keep things going, then seeing them regularly will obviously incur a great deal of cost and time.

Perhaps most pernicious of all, however, is the sheer sense of longing provoked by distance relationships. Missing your partner can really, really hurt.

Image result for stock image lesbian relationship
I wish we could do this more often.

Let’s get personal

Earlier this summer, I broke up with my girlfriend of two and half years. The reasons why were manifold, but some of the most pressing were the fact that I couldn’t make any firm commitments around her future plans. I have no idea where I will be working in 12 months’ time. While she was desperate to save enough money to become a home-owner, I could only save a quarter on my salary as she could as a successful independent yarn dyer. And travelling to her place was a round trip of four hours. If there was a rail replacement bus, as there invariably was, it could be five or six – and that on top of my working commute which averages 18-20 hours per week.

I am not blaming the failure of my relationship solely on my museum career, but it was a major contributing factor. I am now 31, single, and living at home. I feel that the road ahead of me will be a tough one.

So, where are all the jobs?

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:

2016 Paid jobs in England per district area (borough council or unitary authority)

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):

Scotland plotted
2016 Paid jobs in Scotland by Council Area

And for Wales (with Cardiff performing comparatively well):

Wales plotted
2016 Paid jobs in Wales by principal area

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.

London Jobs
2016 Paid jobs by London Borough

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.


Mercenary Volunteering: Part Two. Will I Annoy my Supervisor(s)?

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.

Be mercenary.

Mercenary Volunteering: Part One. Taking Control of your Career Development

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?

‘Leader of Mercenaries’ by da Vinci, 1480. In the British Museum.

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.

Liam tweet
Liam Wiseman responds.

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?

To read more about volunteering for career development, see my previous posts on Looking at Job Adverts to Identify your skills gaps, and How to Fill Those Skills Gaps Parts One and Two.

Jobs and Geography: Making a Move to Get Ahead. Part three: Commuting (II)

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.

Nazeea kindly provided this photograph. She didn’t say where this photograph was taken, but it looks like the Norwood area of South London.

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.

None of our respondents reported travelling to work via horse. (Image credit – Nazeea Elahi)

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.

A rather classy train! (Image credit – Sarah Cameron)

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.

Early morning in Carlisle. (Image credit – Nikol Holicka)

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.

Jobs and Geography: Making a Move to Get Ahead. Part three: Commuting (I)

In the last two posts, we heard about how being willing to move can help progress one’s career. Not being tied to a single geographical area can make many more jobs available to you. We also heard how moving can be both disruptive and expensive.

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.

Spot the anti-social behaviour.

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!

None of our respondents reported travelling to work by narrow-boat, but Emma did once walk past this one. (Photo credit – Emma Coleman)

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.

Dog on the tube! (Photo credit – Flora Fyles)


Name and job title: Louise McAward-White, Collections Systems Specialist, British Film Institute (@lyricallouise)

Commuting Louise1

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.

Commuting Louise 2
Dawn breaks over Ruislip. (Photo credit – Louise McAward-White)

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.

Storage space for bicycles on trains is often very inadequate. (Photo credit – Elizabeth Bruton)

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.