Introduction

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.

Astrolabes
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 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.

 

Making the most of transferable skills

If you are a recent graduate, looking at job specifications can be daunting. While you may be lacking in direct experience of working in the museum sector, it is likely that you have been developing many of the required skills, competencies and attributes throughout your adult life. Many of the most highly valued skills are transferable – they can be developed in one role and in one industry, yet are able to be deployed in almost any scenario.

Fishermen
You could first learn about seafaring as a fisherperson…

Some of the skills most commonly sought by employers include communication, team-working ability, honesty and integrity, and time management. When I was first applying for museum jobs, I was able to find evidence that I could do all three from settings that had nothing to do with museums whatsoever. For me, university and my part-time job at Morrisons had proved to be environments where such skills could reach fruition. Let me show you how I would demonstrate (whether on application forms or at interview) to potential employers that I had some of the above skills, from examples limited to just those two non-museum environments.

Communication Skills

I really did hate working at Morrisons, but it was a great place to develop some mean communication skills. The below example might contain some embellishments, but it is indicative of the sort of processes that all (competent) retail workers go through every working day.

I was working on the returns desk when a visibly upset woman approached me with mostly-cooked chicken carcass. It had been sold to her as being without its giblets. However, after cutting into it after it had been cooking, the woman discovered that the chicken still had all of its insides. Not only was this unsightly, it also caused a foul smell to permeate the rest of the meat, and her kitchen at large. Her and her family’s meal had been ruined.

I apologised profusely, and employed active listening and an empathetic stance throughout to let her know that my concern was genuine. Offering her a refund, I also asked her if she would like to speak to a manager and for me to lodge a formal request for a customer complaint investigation.

By demonstrating sympathy and the fact that the company was taking her complaint seriously, her upset diminished significantly as I processed the refund. She remained shopping at Morrisons, and over the next months I was able to develop a strong rapport with the customer.

When I apply for jobs now, I may well use more recent and more museum-based examples to demonstrate my strong communication skills. The above example, however, remained my work horse for a good few years.

Time Management Skills

My experience of holding down a part-time job while studying is far from unique, and I don’t know many people who made it through university without having to work to support themselves financially. Balancing study with work wasn’t always the easiest thing to do, but I just about managed it. I still use some of the time management techniques that I leant along the way. See below what I did:

Over the Christmas break during my Master’s Degree, I was required to complete a number of assignments totalling 20,000 words. I had been working part-time at Morrisons during term time, and was due to work full-time for three weeks during the holiday period.

I knew about the essays in advance so planned ahead to make sure I had enough time, and started work on them as soon as I could. However, while monitoring my progress I noticed that I was starting to fall behind.

As I could not feasibly put in any more hours on the assignments than I had been already, I decided to prioritise my university work over my paid employment. With sufficient notice, I asked my line manager at Morrisons if I could work only two weeks full-time, and revert to my regular part-time schedule for the final week after Christmas as this would be a relatively quiet time for the shop.

My line manager agreed to my request as I had given her plenty of notice. As a result, I had enough time to finish all of my assignments, and achieved the highest grade of distinction level for three out of four of them.

Fighting ships
…then you could apply those seafaring skills to a combat situation…

I could go on with more examples for more skills, but I think you get the picture.

Of course, the above examples are specific to me – but each and every one of you will have developed transferable skills over the courses of your lives which will be appropriate to museum work.

Do you work as a visitor services assistant? Then the chances are you will have to deal with unreasonably upset or angry members of the public. You will have demonstrated strong verbal communication skills, but also a diplomatic approach and an ability to manage stakeholder expectations – essential qualities for all sorts of other museum roles. You will also see first hand how objects are exhibited for a public audience, and what works and what doesn’t. That will be really important if you want to work in interpretation, exhibitions or as a curator. Were you involved in running a university society? You probably know more than you think about administration and project management. Are you a parent? Then you probably have a strong understanding of children’s educative needs, multitasking and budget management. Have you ever been a carer? Then you may have valuable insights into the needs of less able museum visitors.

telegraph
…while your next job after that could be to lay a transatlantic submarine telegraph cable.

If you ever think you don’t have the skills you see as criteria on a job specification, then think of your wider life experience outside of museums. Unless you are being asked for a very specialised skill, the chances are you will have them in abundance.

Where to look for museum jobs

Apologies in advance for being specific to the United Kingdom in what follows.

This post could end up being really short, because there are only three places that I have ever found it profitable to look for jobs. These are, in order of my personal preference:

The University of Leicester Museum Studies Jobs Desk http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/JobsDesk

The National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC) jobs page
https://www.nationalmuseums.org.uk/jobs/

And the privately-run www.museumjobs.com

There are of course other places one can look. I have heard from colleagues older than myself that in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Museums Association jobs listings were the place to go. Guardian Jobs has long been established as one of the largest general jobs listing websites in the country. Some of you even trawl through the recruitment pages of individual museums and heritage organisations.

I too used to look everywhere. It was an approach which I ultimately found to be inefficient, and a waste of time. Let me explain why.

It is free for a recruiter to advertise on Leicester. The NMDC site follows a similar line, although advertising is open only to NMDC institutional members (limited to nationals and only the larger regional and university museums in the UK).

At the time of writing, Museum Jobs (.com) charge £149 + VAT (a 20% tax) per advert, the Museums Association charge between £495 and £595, and Guardian Jobs between £750 and £1900. Everyone knows that museums are more than a little strapped for cash – it follows that websites which are free to use will attract the most job adverts.

Guardian Jobs is not a specialised museums recruitment site, although it does have a dedicated ‘arts and heritage’ page. The problem is that some recruiters will dress up jobs with nothing to do with arts and heritage precisely as such, so that they can reach a wider audience. Similarly, ‘featured’ adverts from other industries might slip into the arts and heritage section. See below for an example I found today. Another common feature of Guardian Jobs is to see expensive university courses being advertised – frustrating when you already have a degree and are just trying to find a job!

Guardian Jobs capture

Museum Jobs (.com) can be equally naughty. I have seen adverts there for Guest Experience Ambassadors at The View from the Shard. The View from the Shard is a viewing gallery in a London skyscraper known as the Shard. The Shard is a somewhat charmless building largely owned by the Qatari State, noted for playing merry hell with the winds around London Bridge Station. One thing the Shard definitely is not is a museum.

Another howlers includes adverts for roles working at the Emirates Aviation Experience, operated by Sodexo. The Emirates Aviation Experience is a tourist attraction in East London, heavily sponsored by the Dubai Government-owned Emirates airline. Sodexo, a multinational facilities and services management company, has in the past been accused of misdeeds as diverse as unfair labour practices, passing horse meat off as beef, and subjecting inmates in a prison it operates to conditions amounting to torture. Nice.

IMG_0923
When is a museum job not as a museum job? When it’s this dog.

That said, Museum Jobs is still relatively cheap to advertise on, and the fact that it doesn’t have the same limitations as the NMDC site does mean that you get some interesting jobs appearing on it.

As for trawling through the recruitment pages of individual museums, I have an idea as to why this didn’t work for me. Yes, museum roles are over-subscribed. But equally, any recruiter will want to get the best candidate possible. Museums still need to actively advertise their vacancies. If a museum has chosen not to do so, and has just put an inconspicuous advert on their own website, it could just be because they already know who they want for that post.

I said this post could end up being really short. It hasn’t. Sorry if I have been a bit…ranty.

UPDATE 13/08/2017

Not everyone agrees with me about the View from the Shard and the Emirates Aviation Experience being inappropriate organisations to advertise on museum jobs listings. Ashleigh Hibbins had this to say:

Ashleigh tweet

While Lauren Rhodes added this:

Lauren tweet

I agree that working at both places can help you develop a strong skills set that can be transferred in the world of museum work. But then so can many other roles in many other sectors. More on transferable skills to follow soon!

How to fill your skills gaps and gain relevant experience. Part Two: Looking for additional voluntary roles

Asking for more experience from your current volunteer supervisor can sometimes pay real dividends. However, there are times when you have to look outside your current organisation to get experience in all of the things you have identified as skills gaps.

They key with using voluntary work to build a successful museum career portfolio is to find good quality and relevant experience. The big national museums in central London and South Kensington may have very prestigious names, but there is little point in volunteering there as a visitor services assistant if you want to work in collections or curatorial (unless you really enjoy it). Equally, if you really want to work in collections and can’t stand children, you would gain little from volunteering in an education department. Any role with an absentee (unless it’s a remote volunteering scheme) or uninterested supervisor should raise alarm bells. I hope to write more about the good and the bad of museum volunteering in a future post.

Volunteer role adverts take a similar form to job adverts. There will be the volunteer role description and again a personal specification. They may be dressed-down in slightly less professional language, but they amount to more-or-less the same thing.

Carefully looking through the role description is the key thing here. Does it present you with opportunities to redress those all-important gaps in your skills and experience? If it doesn’t, will it perhaps be best to keep looking further for something that does? Probably yes.

Let’s revisit that hypothetical personal specification again (the final time, I promise).

Qualifications Essential (E)/ Desirable (D)
An undergraduate degree in a relevant subject E
A postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies or similar subject, or commensurate experience working or volunteering in a museum D
Experience
A good working knowledge of a museum database or collections management system E
Experience with museum documentation procedures and knowledge of the SPECTRUM standard E
Practical experience of working with museum collections E
Experience of loans administration D
Experience using the Mimsy XG collections management system D
Experience in digitisation and digital photography D
Skills and competencies
Strong written and verbal communication skills E
Strong IT skills E
Good team player E
Research skills D

As we saw in the previous post, asking around at Guildford Museum for more experience had more or less covered the demand for experience with museum documentation procedures and knowledge of the SPECTRUM standard, but I would have to look elsewhere for some of the other criteria.

GuildfordCastleView2
View from the Keep of Guildford Castle

Experience in digitisation and digital photography was something that seemed to crop-up quite a lot. In March 2012 I saw an (unpaid) internship opportunity advertised with a local government heritage service a few boroughs away from me, and I jumped at the chance. I applied, was invited to join the scheme, and soon had that particular criterion nailed.

At Guildford, I was getting some Practical experience of working with museum collections, but not as much as I would have ideally liked. So, in March 2013, I applied to be a Collections Care Volunteer at the National Army Museum. The role involved packing and auditing objects prior to a decant before the museum’s major redevelopment. It was serious, hands-on collections care experience. I started out working with badges and medals, but soon moved on to a whole host of other material – archives, photographs, oil paintings and prints. Another criterion nailed.

I had no experience of loans administration or with the Mimsy XG collections management system. When in November 2013 I saw a voluntary role advertised in the Registrars Department of the National Maritime Museum, which would give me both, it was yet another opportunity to be embraced. (I have used Mimsy XG as an example of a collections management system. The actual one specified will naturally depend on whatever is being used by the recruiting institution.)

By the end of the year, my set of skills and experiences versus a typical personal specification looked something like this:

Qualifications Essential (E)/ Desirable (D) Tom’s Level of Experience in March 2012 Tom’s Level of Experience in December 2013
An undergraduate degree in a relevant subject E Yes (ish) Yes (ish)
A postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies or similar subject, or commensurate experience working or volunteering in a museum D No Maybe
Experience
A good working knowledge of a museum database or collections management system E Yes – some Yes
Experience with museum documentation procedures and knowledge of the SPECTRUM standard E No Yes
Practical experience of working with museum collections E No Yes
Experience of loans administration D No Yes
Experience using the Mimsy XG collections management system D No Yes
Experience in digitisation and digital photography D No Yes
Skills and competencies
Strong written and verbal communication skills E Yes Yes
Strong IT skills E Yes Yes
Good team player E Yes Yes
Research skills D Yes Yes

It is perhaps no co-incidence then that this was also the time that I started to be called to job interviews with more and more frequency. I attended three job interviews in 2014, and was offered the third of these posts – a Heritage Lottery Funded Skills for the Future Traineeship at Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive. I had landed my first paid job in the heritage sector!

I am conscious that in trying to keep these posts brief, I am making my road look an easy one. It was anything but. It had taken two and half years, and at one stage I was having to balance three voluntary roles with paid employment at Morrisons. In the next few sections, I want to talk about how to cope – financially, emotionally and psychologically – with some of the many stresses faced by emerging museum professionals.

How to fill your skills gaps and gain relevant experience. Part One: Maximising your current voluntary role

Once you have identified your major skills gaps, you can start to look for ways to fill them. There are three ways to go about this. Firstly, you could ask your current supervisor(s) if they can give you any additional roles or responsibilities. Secondly, you can look around for other voluntary roles that might give you additional experience. Thirdly, you can explore options for further education or formal training. For me, I found the first two the most profitable.

Let’s look back at the hypothetical personal specification in the previous post.

Qualifications Essential (E)/ Desirable (D)
An undergraduate degree in a relevant subject E
A postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies or similar subject, or commensurate experience working or volunteering in a museum D
Experience
A good working knowledge of a museum database or collections management system E
Experience with museum documentation procedures and knowledge of the SPECTRUM standard E
Practical experience of working with museum collections E
Experience of loans administration D
Experience using the Mimsy XG collections management system D
Experience in digitisation and digital photography D
Skills and competencies
Strong written and verbal communication skills E
Strong IT skills E
Good team player E
Research skills D

 

I hadn’t heard of SPECTRUM before, but it kept on cropping up on job adverts. I also had no idea what museum documentation procedures meant beyond my limited experience in cataloguing and catalogue data entry. Quite simply, I asked my first supervisor at Guildford what it was all about.

He gave me a sketch of the SPECTRUM standard and the Accreditation process. He also ran through other areas of museum documentation, and I got a quick introduction to things like entry and exit forms, movement slips and transfer of title paperwork. He explained some of the procedures around object activities, such as acquisition and disposal committees, loans and destructive analysis. He highlighted the need for all these processes and requirements to be integrated into a documentation procedural manual and collections development policy. It was a comprehensive and thorough overview, and my knowledge had increased significantly. But what about practical experience?

Well, I asked. There weren’t always opportunities. Volunteers are usually ‘hired’ to fulfil a specific role, and the institution won’t necessarily have the resources to give you a practical crash course (and live-fire experience) of everything you need to know to start a career in museums. That said, many supervisors will be more than happy enough to give you as much professional advice as they can. Additionally, if you can make yourself useful and prove your general competency, you may find yourself being given additional roles without even having to ask.

Bluebells
Visual representation of the SPECTRUM standard

I spent a long time volunteering at Guildford, under a number of different supervisors, over two and a half years, before I got my first paid job in the sector. Cataloguing remained the core of what I did, but soon I found myself assisting with tasks as varied as collections audits, location and movement control, and event sat on a few collections development committees. My practical experience of museum documentation procedures was growing all the time.

However, I did feel that I had reached a definite plateau in terms of the practical experience that was on offer at Guildford. In the next post, we’ll look at branching out to new voluntary roles to iron-out those last few remaining skills gaps.

Looking at Job Adverts to Identify your Skills Gaps

Once you have narrowed down the specific area in which you want to work, the next step is to start looking at job adverts for those sort of roles.

Job adverts come in two parts. The Job Description outlines the duties and responsibilities entailed in the role, and gives a snap shot of what the successful applicant will actually be doing on a day-to-day basis. The Personal Specification makes clear the skills, experience, qualifications and attributes a candidate will need in order to be short-listed.

In a job application, you must explicitly state how you meet the points set-out in the Personal Specification. I won’t write too much here about how to write good applications – this has already been covered in brilliant blog posts by Mark Carnall of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Rupert Shepherd of the National Gallery. They key thing is to address each of the criteria, point-by-point, and in the order that they appear on the Personal Specification.

The chances are that, if fresh out of university, you won’t meet all of the criteria. Do not despair. You are being given a golden opportunity to identify the skills gaps that you will need to redress in order to get ahead. Go through the specification, and see which of the criteria you do and do not meet. Do this for the specifications of several roles you think you might be interested in. If you consistently fall down on the same few criteria, then these are your key weaknesses and addressing them should be your priority.

IMG_0602
Your skills set should be full of sharp things, much like this display of swords at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

 

Let’s have a look at what a typical specification for a collections-type role might look like:

Qualifications Essential (E)/ Desirable (D)
An undergraduate degree in a relevant subject E
A postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies or similar subject, or commensurate experience working or volunteering in a museum D
Experience  
A good working knowledge of a museum database or collections management system E
Experience with museum documentation procedures and knowledge of the SPECTRUM standard E
Practical experience of working with museum collections E
Experience of loans administration D
Experience using the Mimsy XG collections management system D
Experience in digitisation and digital photography D
Skills and competencies  
Strong written and verbal communication skills E
Strong IT skills E
Good team player E
Research skills D

Each criterion is marked as either an essential or a desirable requirement. However, museum jobs are often so competitive that you will need to demonstrate how you meet each and every one to get to the interview stage.

I was faced with specifications like this when I first started applying for museum jobs. They were daunting. After finishing my MA in Classics in 2011, I started off in the heritage sector in January 2012 as a volunteer on a project at Guildford Museum to transfer paper catalogue cards onto an electronic database. Putting it in a personal context, after my first two months volunteering at Guildford, my skills set might have looked something like this against the above specification:

Qualifications Essential (E)/ Desirable (D) Tom’s Level of Experience in March 2012
An undergraduate degree in a relevant subject E Yes (ish)
A postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies or similar subject, or commensurate experience working or volunteering in a museum D No
Experience    
A good working knowledge of a museum database or collections management system E Yes – some
Experience with museum documentation procedures and knowledge of the SPECTRUM standard E No
Practical experience of working with museum collections E No
Experience of loans administration D No
Experience using the Mimsy XG collections management system D No
Experience in digitisation and digital photography D No
Skills and competencies    
Strong written and verbal communication skills E Yes
Strong IT skills E Yes
Good team player E Yes
Research skills D Yes

Looking back at this retrospectively, I’m not at all surprised that I didn’t get called to any interviews for the first ten or fifteen jobs for which I applied. The gaps in my skills experience were just too big. If I was to succeed, I would have to find ways to fill them – and that’s exactly what I did.

Note, however, that I could answer ‘yes’ to the last four criteria. These were all skills I had been able to gain from university or from working in retail. I will talk more about making the most of transferable skills a bit later.

In the next section, we will look at ways to go about filling skills gaps.

Starting out in the Museum Sector: Identify the specific area in which you want to work

When you take your first steps into the world of museums, the variety of job titles you come across can be dazzling. There are curators, collections and documentation officers, registrars, exhibition designers, technicians, conservators, educators, accessibility facilitators, social media managers and public engagement officers – to name but a few. Confusingly, none of these job titles have fixed definitions – and they can and do mean different things in different museums.

Critters
Like an ecosystem, museums are full of diverse creatures struggling to survive. Diorama in the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Fortunately, you don’t have to decide on your dream job title just yet. All of these jobs can be grouped into a smaller number of broad categories. Registrars, collections officers and documentation officers all perform broadly similar roles and have in common a close connection to museum objects and object information on a day-to-day working basis. Educators, on the other hand, perform their own specialised and specific function. The Museums Association has provided a useful set of typical role profiles here.

Having a general sense of the direction you want to go in is really useful. As soon as you establish it, you can start to be more focused when it comes to looking for jobs and voluntary roles.

While I never knew from the off that I wanted to be a ‘Collections Management Assistant’, I did know after I had been volunteering for a few months that I really wanted to work in collections or documentation.

If you’re still not sure where you see your own particular path going, then try to get as much of a broad overview of the different sorts of jobs in which you might be interested. Apply for voluntary roles in new and uncharted territory, or ask existing supervisors if they can provide you with more varied experience. Talk to people in other areas of museum work about their daily working lives. Ask around for advice. You’ll find people willing to help.

Museum professionals are a friendly bunch, on the whole. We’ve all worked really hard to get where we are, and we remember how difficult it was when we were starting out. All of us received help along the way, and a lot of us feel a strong duty to pass that mantle of received wisdom down onto the next generation. Just remember to say thank you whenever anyone helps you. That’s really important.

As soon as you feel settled on one particular area, then focus your job hunting efforts onto it. In the next section, we will talk about how to look at job adverts, and how to use them to identify any skills gaps which you may have.