This is an archived post from 2017. I have since moved employer and job title, but I hope this blog will remain relevant and useful.
Hello – I’m Tom Hopkins, and I work in collections management at the University of Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science. I am on my third paid job in the heritage sector, having landed my first back in 2014. I guess you could call me an emerging (or perhaps pupating?) museum professional.
Jobs in museums are scarce and usually very low paid, yet openings are very over-subscribed and competition is fierce. Not surprisingly perhaps, I get asked a lot about how I managed to break into the industry.
My first gigs in museums were a lot about happy accidents and being in the right place at the right time. But there was also a definite sort of process that I followed to get to where I am today, and I would like to set out here what I did and how it panned out for me. I hope what I write here will help any of you out there who are as keen to get on to those first rungs of the museum career ladder as was I.
This is still very much a work in progress, and I hope to be adding more over the next few weeks and months.
We hear a lot about how the museum sector is over-subscribed, with hundreds of applicants for each vacancy. We hear a lot about how you have to have passion to make it. We hear a lot that we only go into museums because we love it, and its flip-side, that none of us are here for the money.
Getting into museums will be a tough road, they will say. You’ll have to work hard. You’ll need passion enough for further qualifications, or to commit serious amounts of time to volunteering. You’ll do it if you’re passionate enough.
It won’t be easy, they’ll say. There will be lots of fixed-term contracts. You can relax for a few weeks, but that’s all, before worrying about where your next job will come from. Staring unemployment in the face. Moving around the country, maybe several times a year. The hours spent on looking for places to live, the viewings cancelled at the last minute, the sums to work out if you can afford to live or not. Watching the bills, growing cold and hungry, and getting into debt. But you’ll do it if you’re passionate enough.
It’s a privilege to work in museums, they’ll say. It’s an honour to work with such wondrous artefacts, to be their custodian. Isn’t it so dreamy to walk through this front door every day, to walk past these objects, to have this as your office? Ah, we must make sacrifices to get here my child. But when we do! When we do! The passion.
You’ll put in those voluntary hours if you’re passionate enough about it.
You’ll work for us for free, if you’re passionate about it, because you’ll need the experience.
You’ll damn well be grateful to have this job if you’re passionate.
You’ll won’t complain about a £16,000 salary, if you’re passionate enough about your job.
We’ll kick you when you’re down and call it an opportunity for you to get back on your feet. And you’ll thank us, because you’re passionate.
They’ll never tell you that passion won’t keep you warm and fed. They never talk about what privilege really is. They’ll never talk about needing a financial safety net or having connections. They’ll never talk about the rich parents and the private school and accent that comes with it. They’ll never tell you that your dream job is still just a job. They’ll never tell you it’s anything other than that passion that delineates those who can make careers in museums from those who fall at the gates.
Fuck Passion. As Alice Procter would say, museums will never love you back.
We can all enjoy working in museums, but let us never lose view of the fact that all labour is labour, worthy of fair compensation and employment conditions. Talk of it being a ‘vocation’ or a ‘calling’ is dangerous. Passion has become the rod with which we are all beaten, but some far harder than others.
I saw two things on the internet last week that made me think about what we can talk about in public about museums, and what can happen to us as individuals if we openly criticise aspects of the sector in which we work or volunteer.
One was a discussion on Twitter. In a response to an article in the Guardian, Naomi Daw asked for examples of extreme museum behaviour. Reflecting the article, many of the replies shared examples of extreme behaviour by museum visitors. Many were clearly inappropriate actions, unacceptable in any setting. Others were harmless and amusing. A smaller portion yet – and one which made me feel a little uncomfortable – were examples of visitor behaviour that was harmlessly non-conformist.
Separate yet related discussions emerged about the impact of aggressive visitors on FOH staff, the lack of support from management in such scenarios, and how FOH staff may emerge even more vulnerable than before as museums seek to reopen after the Covid-19 lockdown.
One sector colleague shared a particularly unpleasant episode they had experienced, and finished with a call for adequate protection for FOH staff. This prompted an account called CultureKidsIreland to respond that ‘these are not conversations to have in public’.
The second thing I saw on the internet was a presentation by Abbie Brennan as part of the first ever web screening of Museums Showoff. Brennan discussed her museum traineeship in a positive light, but talked about her difficulty in trying to find subsequent work in the sector. She reasonably questioned the motives of museums in providing so many traineeships, in the face of far fewer next-level positions. The tagline to her presentation stated: ‘Watch as she risks all hope of future employment by openly criticising the very industry she longs to work in’.
Both things – that criticism of the sector was not for public discussion, and that it could have an impact on our career prospects if we do speak out – struck a chord with me and my own personal experience.
Last year, I wrote anonymously about an experience I had had in previous job. I had tweeted critically about the wages at another museum, and that got me into trouble with my employer. I was told both to be quiet, and that my failure to do so could damage my future career prospects.
That event, and its damaging effect on my mental health, were one of the reasons that led me to co-found Fair Museum Jobs. As part of that project, we have tweeted at and written to numerous organisations who we felt were recruiting unfairly.
One museum director took exception to our operating method when we tweeted publicly at his organisation before writing to him privately. He described it as disappointing that ‘we chose to send the issue set out within the email to the public arena of social media before we were given an opportunity to respond to your email.’ We were being attacked for criticising in public a job advert that had been published in public. We were told to be quiet, and conduct our business behind closed doors.
I cannot accept that critical discussions about the museum sector are not for the public domain. The silencing of dissenting voices is a coercive tool as old as time. Management have used it to stop workers uniting and unionising. Dictatorships have used it to isolate opposition. It sets up an environment in favour of the status quo and entrenched, traditional power structures, in which exploiters and abusers can flourish. And it is underpinned by fear of what will happen if you do speak out – a fear which is rife in a sector so marked by precarity of employment.
This blog started out back in 2017 as a vehicle for careers advice, and I don’t want to lose sight of that mission. If you are an emerging professional (or indeed an individual at any level), should you speak critically about problems and injustices that you see around you?
I would argue very strongly that yes, you should – and that doing so can have an impact on your future career that is far more positive than negative. I think it shows that you can look at the sector analytically and see the problems to be solved. I think it shows courage and initiative. I think it shows a real understanding of museums as active agents of social change and progress. I think being vocal on social media is a great way to grow a network and build friendships with supportive sector colleagues. And I think that the minority of museum professionals who do not understand that are not anyone you want to have as a boss.
That said, my own outspokenness has got me in trouble in the past. I don’t want anyone else to have that experience, so here are my top tips on how to be a firebrand on social media and get away with it relatively unscathed:
Always check your employer’s social media policies, and try to stick to them.
Try to be as open as possible with your line manager about this sort of stuff. It can save you from a lot of worry.
Always be open to reconciliation after disagreements, and view everything as a learning opportunity.
Avoid social media when emotionally distressed, or under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
If anyone tries to stop you from speaking, make sure you talk about it nice and loud
It’s fine to be scared, lack confidence, hold back or feel anxious. Always, always put your own wellbeing first.
The more of us who speak out, the better. Transparency is a good thing, and it can also be our greatest shield.
If you feel unable to speak out for whatever reason, you can always approach Fair Museum Jobs confidentially on Twitter or at email@example.com.
For Museums to Change Lives, we have to be able to actively and openly work on change across the board, at all levels.
A recurring question in career development is how to get your first line management or leadership experience. For many people, a lack of experience in this area can seem a real barrier to progression.
I don’t have any firm answers to this question, but I was in the same boat before I started my current job in January 2019. What follows is an outline of how I made my first step into a management position.
In October 2018, I had been working as a Collections Management Assistant at the History of Science Museum (HSM) for a little over two years. It was my third paid job in the heritage sector. Taking earlier voluntary roles into account, I had about six years of experience under my belt. But I had I never line-managed anyone.
That month, what would become my now current job as a Curator in a national museum was advertised. I was very keen to apply for it and met most of, but not all, the criteria on the personal specification. One of the criteria I felt I fell short on was:
‘Experience of managing, motivating, mentoring and developing professional curatorial staff.’
This related to a line on the job description:
‘Manage, motivate and develop the Assistant Curator.’
I remember struggling to evidence this in my supporting statement, but this is what I put down in the end:
‘In my role at HSM, I work closely with a team of project staff more junior than myself. I ensure that I always make myself available for advice, as well as maintaining an approach that promotes motivation and morale, drawing closely on the experience I developed whilst acting as a checkout supervisor at Morrisons.
I have drawn on this same source to deliver effective volunteer management, including being mindful of the need to motivate and maintain engagement in situations that have pressing targets.
I am committed to my own professional development as well as that of others. I regularly deliver professional development sessions to my volunteers, both for those who wish to develop careers within the sector and outside it. In my free time, I run a blog aimed at emerging museum professionals that offers advice on career development and skills building. I also offer mentoring to emerging museum professionals, and find this extremely rewarding.’
I submitted my application. I heard nothing for weeks, and grew despondent. I felt that I had overstretched myself, maybe even embarrassed myself, by applying for a role that I wasn’t ready for yet. But then the invite to interview came.
Looking over my interview notes, I had prepared to talk in more detail about what I had written. Specifically, I made sure I was ready to talk about:
My experience of volunteer management, with reference to specific examples of times that I had achieved success and held teams together – but also making friends.
What little I knew of leadership and management theory – things like Douglas McGregor’s ‘Theory X and Theory Y’ and transactional analysis.
Role models in which I took inspiration and wanted to emulate myself. In particular I had written ‘be more Catriona [Wilson]’. (Which still very much stands!)
Anyway, that was enough to get me the job. I don’t know if the thoughts set out above were considered good answers, but they were good enough for other things that I knew were definite strengths of mine – collections management experience, research experience and specialist knowledge of historical aircraft – to shine through.
Another thing going for me is that I really do have all the confidence of being a mediocre white man. I am good at up-selling myself. Looking back at what I wrote on my supporting statement, there is a lot of spin there. ‘More junior colleagues’ refers to ones who started later than me, but were on the same grade. I was never officially a supervisor at Morrisons, although the chaotic circumstances of the shop floor made me act as one on countless shifts – and I demand credit for that. But does being a confident white man also make me less subject to scrutiny than others when it comes to applying for management situations? Either way (although the answer is yes) it’s important that you can justify your spin, and never let it spill over into dishonesty.
If my confidence helped me to justify my ‘experience of managing, motivating, mentoring and developing professional curatorial staff,’ the other thing was the wording of the criterion itself. At first I may have taken it to mean ‘previous experience of line management’. But that’s not what it says at all. It is phrased in a way that invites responses from a range of directions, and opens doors to a number of different routes. It let me answer it adequately in a way that a narrower alternative might not have done. I could talk about blogging, mentoring, volunteer management, theory, and role models – and still pass.
Museums have a bad track record of specifying who gets to work in them and who doesn’t. Credentialism (Essential: MA in Museum Studies) is the classic example. But it spills over into other areas of selection criteria. By considering the skills that we *actually* want, and by using vocabulary and phrasing that is inclusive and open, museums can remove many of the barriers that professionals face in advancing to management positions. This is just one suggestion. This post can only be about my own privileged experience, because that’s all I feel qualified to talk about. But clearly these barriers are something we need to discuss urgently.
Anyway, I love my current job, and have since been given additional line management responsibilities. My main battle now is escaping the paranoia that I’m a terrible boss.
This is a personal reflection on my own journey into museums. I don’t know how helpful it will be, but I was thinking about how dreadful it must be to be looking for work at the moment. I hope that this post shows that many people do know how hard it is, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I graduated in 2009 with a BA, then an MA in 2011 when I was 24. Both were in Classics. Not knowing what I wanted to do for my career at first, I drifted into heritage and started volunteering for several different museums, whilst working part-time for Morrisons.
The 2008 recession was still biting hard. Jobs were scarce in all fields, and when they did appear they attracted hundreds – sometimes even thousands – of applicants. I was just one of those. And for my first year of volunteering, I was getting nowhere.
I hated my job at Morrisons. In some way the company had been good to me – providing steady employment from the time of my A levels onwards. But there was also the boredom, and the horrible customers, and the bullying managers.
I applied for 12 jobs before I got my first interview, a year after starting volunteering. I was up to 31 applications before my first successful job interview, two and half years after first volunteering.
Hindsight sometimes tricks me into thinking this was easy. It was anything but. The waiting, and the uncertainty was awful. So was the constant stream of rejections after hours spent on applications. Despair really did set in. Time seemed to stand still. My week was centred on Thursdays, when the Leicester Jobs Desk updated. Those weeks when there were no updates were particularly difficult.
Would I ever get out? I constantly compared myself to the more successful of my friends, who unlike me had left home and settled with partners and had enough money for holidays and new books. Would I still be here, tethered to my till, in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time? A loser with an unattainable dream, supported by his parents?
Fortunately, many people were very supportive. Not only my parents and my friends, but also many of my customers. Not all of them could imagine what it was like, but they could at least empathise, and offer to help in their own small way. Sometimes just a little bit of encouragement meant the world.
Now it’s 2020, and I’m 33. I’m more than a year into a job that I love and that’s relatively secure. Nothing is further from my mind than job hunting, but I still look every now and then to see what’s out there. And for the last few weeks there has been nothing. The few years post-2008 were bad, but nothing like this.
I’ve written a lot about job hunting and career building on this blog, and don’t want to repeat myself. But for those of you looking for work in museums and heritage right now, I want to say that I get how it feels. I’m always happy to chat about anything careers-wise. Slide into my DMs on Twitter or comment on this post if you want to talk.
Out of curiosity, one day I asked him where he had worked as a head chef.
“Oh, I worked at the same place for over twenty years!”
“Oh, where abouts?” I replied.
“In a prison.
Alarm bells started to ring. Wasn’t that a role sometimes held by an inmate? And why would someone return from Thailand looking so pale and thin, with all that surplus of sunshine and green curry? Could he have been convicted and imprisoned over there – for something dreadful? And his job hunt – why was he having no luck? He was after catering positions, and there were hundreds locally. And his inability to respect personal space, like he’d been conditioned from years spent living in a cage.
Or were we all just being paranoid and letting our own prejudices run wild because the old white man in southeast Asia is such a long-legged trope?
I say we. I had subtly asked Mr B what he thought of The Creeper. He was not a fan. Neither was Martin – going so far to describe him as “Dr Death”. Even our landlord, always so keen to spend time in the house, and leave us whining messages on the whiteboard like the demented mother hen that he was, started to make himself scarce. Maybe it wasn’t just me. If even our landlord – our landlord who had a padlocked freezer, which may or may not have contained his collection of severed ladies’ feet – found The Creeper weird, well…
I started to dread being in the house. I would come home from work and see The Creeper in his room, sat up in bed, the video games he was playing reflected on his grubby glasses. My heart would sink. An evening of video game noise, and his nasal voice as he chatted to other gamers, and their replies in higher-pitched, teenaged tones. But The Creeper would never, ever go out – apart from some time in the day, when we were all at work, to buy his copy of the Daily Mail.
And the small things that he did started to add up. The shoes left right at the bottom of the stairs. His failure to ever tuck chairs back under the kitchen table. The slamming of doors. The Cath Kidston pannier bags on his bicycle.
About this time I fell ill, and was off work for nearly a week. Reading novels and phone calls with my girlfriend kept me sane. I was better the next week and returned to work, but then the weather turned bad. There was no flying on the base, so Mr B spent most of that week in the house. If The Creeper had a wife in Thailand, at no point in those two weeks did we hear him speak to her on the phone. At no point ever did we ever hear that, in fact. Somehow, the facts about The Creeper just did not add up.
At least The Creeper was (broadly) a creature of habit. I got to know his movements. He would usually start cooking at 5.30pm. By 6.00 he would take a whole dish or sauce pan up to his room, and I would hear the clattering of cutlery against the pyrex or metal. An hour later or so. he would head back to the kitchen to return the remainder of the food – still in its dish or pan – to the fridge, or wash it up if he had finished the last of the batch.
My habits were regulated by work. I had to leave the house at roughly the same time each morning – and I prefer to shower in the earlier in the day. My bathroom was shared with Mr B, and was on the first floor next to The Creeper’s room (who had taken over Willy’s ensuite).
Soon The Creeper began to develop a brand new habit. He would wait until I had finished my shower and dried myself down. Then, at the moment just as I came out of the bathroom to cross the landing to my room, draped in my towel, The Creeper would burst out of his doorway to head downstairs. The frequency of this move began to increase. I started to change the time that I showered, but still he would appear just as I was at my most scantily dressed. Every day.
My feelings of being uncomfortable around him soon turned into dread. Not only the whole bathroom thing, but he also started to follow me downstairs, usually on some pretext that felt very false. I began to lose my patience and grew fed up with being polite. I gave him one-word answers if he spoke to me, and would leave a room as soon as he entered. But he kept on following me, and talking at me, and coming uncomfortably close to me. Did he have a thing for me? I felt like I was being stalked in my own house.
I spent as much time as I could at my girlfriend’s in Birmingham. But in my house, I spent my evenings trapped and hiding in my room, rocking back and forth with anxiety, furiously Googling The Creeper’s name, and looking into the logistics of Sarah’s Law. (Under English law, in certain circumstance, you can apply to the police to find out if someone is a sex offender). But I found nothing.
It was time to get out of that house – and I did earlier this year.
I write this now, alone in my new flat, whilst socially isolating because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I often think how lucky I was with my timing. Had I not made the jump from the old house when I did, I might very well still be there. With him.
Nascent feelings of violence towards my oppressor had been starting to fill my mind. With no escape and no hope, might I have succumbed to them?
Counterfactual history is always counterproductive. Yet in staying my hand, I fear not the clap of the gaol doors. I feel spared the fate of living in shared accommodation in my 60s, unemployable, and being evasive about my past. While all around me the bright young things consider me, and speculate my nature, and my crimes.
It got even better when the noisy Willy moved out.
The quiet – and the peace – did not last long. In November a new tenant moved in to Willy’s old room. It did not take long for that tenant to be issued with a nickname.
The Creeper had arrived.
We were told about The Creeper’s (although he had yet to be assigned that name) pending arrival in October, via a note from the Landlord on the whiteboard. It didn’t say much. The Creeper was a retired head chef in his 60s, who had recently returned to the UK after some time spent in Thailand. Given that his real name sounded very white, we snickered.
But we also checked ourselves. Older white guys can go to Thailand for all sorts of legitimate reasons, right? What if he was just a hippy? That’d be fine.
And then he turned up, looking quite a bit like the creepy old man in Home Alone. With added thick-rimmed, fish-bowl glasses and a horrible beige coat. But unlike the creepy old man in that film, The Creeper never turned out to be a misunderstood old gent with a heart of gold.
Now, I am not a morning person, and certainly don’t care for company over breakfast. But only a few days into The Creeper’s stay was I in the kitchen, standing over the sink and waiting for the kettle to boil. He came in with a cheery ‘morning!’, as he fumbled about behind me. The kettle clicked. Before I had a chance to pour, he swooped in, and he took the hot water. My hot water. Without even asking me. That was his first black mark.
Nonetheless, I felt compelled to make small-talk.
“So, been over in Thailand have you?”
“Oh yes. Retired out there. And even manage to bag myself a wife!” he said, with a chuckle, almost conceited, that seemed to say “I’m a big white stud!”.
“But I had to come back!”, he explained, “The value of the Pound fell against the Baht, so I had to come back!”
By now I had discerned that he was prone to rambling, in his high-pitched, nasal voice. He was one of those people who can’t stand a silence, so they fill it with drivel.
“I lost so much weight when I was out there!”, he said, indicating his braces, “I gave up drinking beer!”
To turn again to his appearance, he was indeed thin remarkably thin. Long and lanky, he really did need those braces. You could see bones sticking out from beneath his clothes like the hide upon a famished ox. His deadful visage was hideous to behold. It was punctuated by black, peg-like teeth that looked the remains of an Iron Age post structure uncovered from a haunted fen. And his pallor was profound, the almost dazzling whiteness tempered only by the channels of a few dark, cold veins. His fingers, less like claws, were more like the tendrils of some lichenous life-form that grows upon headstones in gloomy, forgotten and ivy-strewn graveyards.
It is, of course, quite wrong to judge someone based on their appearance. But my anger at the kettle incident was compounded by a growing sense of dislike. He was so awkward in manner, and had no respect for personal space – constantly leaning around or over me to get something that he wanted. And while he gabled in conversation, he was also very difficult to talk to – only ever talking about himself, but always in vague and evasive terms.
His habit of joining me in the kitchen at breakfast time did not relent. I was forced to change my routine. Beyond my antipathy to company in the AM, he just somehow made me feel so uncomfortable. I got up earlier and earlier to eat in the morning, but could never relax. When would he come through that door? My shoulders were wound tight like springs.
Sometimes he would get up even earlier than me, to get his cuisine going in the slow cooker. I hid in my room, sometimes going to work without any breakfast just so I could avoid him. Sometimes thirst and hunger would make that impossible, and I would have to go downstairs and, out of politeness, engage in unenjoyable conversation.
Now here’s a thing for a retired head chef. All – and I do mean all – of his food looked like sick and smelt like shit. And always batches of the same few meals. Shepherds’ pie, bolognaise, coronation chicken and chilli con carne.
But he clearly had a good opinion of his culinary skills. One evening, Mr B came in with a takeaway curry.
“Oh”, The Creeper said, “I never get curry from an Indian. I can make it better myself!”. My olfactory senses begged to differ.
Out of curiosity, one day I asked him where he had worked as a head chef.
“Oh, I worked at the same place for over twenty years!”
I started my current job in January 2019, which meant moving up to Shropshire from Surrey. I’ve written previously about my woes with house-hunting. This post returns to the woes of house-sharing.
I knew from the time I saw the advert it was an odd house. A retired RAF engineer was seeking quiet, professional, single male tenants for his four-bedder. I turned up for the viewing. The landlord talked – a lot. He ran through some his rules and preferences.
No women – gender mixing makes for an unhappy home (he said). He preferred RAF chaps – they’re dependable. It’s a quiet house. Lights-out at 10.00pm. Literally lights-out – for at that time a series of low-powered, blue emergency LEDs would come on automatically. He gave me the spiel about insulation, the nice neighbourhood and the competitive price. He also pointed out the device that emitted positive ions. And no overnight female visitors. Well I was stuck, so I put my qualms aside and signed up for a short-term let.
Of the other housemates, I got on best with Mr B. He was an ex-RAF corporal who now worked at the nearby base (next to my Museum) as a contractor. Pretty easy going – plus he only worked three days out of seven. When not working he would return to his wife and main home up North. His room was next to mine, and he was very quiet.
Willy’s bedroom and ensuite bathroom were also next to my room. Another ex-serviceman who was now a contractor, Willy was a Scotsman in his 60s with a big ginger moustache. His accent was thick, but also had a rhotic and vibrato-esque quality that made him sound like a Caledonian pirate. He was loud of voice and noisy in action – a dragger of chairs. He also had a chronic, hacking cough and suffered from some kind of digestive complaint. Let me just say again that his bathroom adjoined my bedroom.
Frequent ejaculations of his included:
(Of a morning): “Arghhh darn, where are my fucking keys?”
“Arghhh fuck darn my insides”.
Willy spent more time in the house than Mr B, but he did occasionally go out of an evening. You could tell when this was going to be, as the air would smell of his distinctive aftershave. He would listen loudly to music and sing along excitedly. Then he would emerge from his room, resplendent in a pressed shirt and shiny shoes.
“Arghhh, off to see Showaddywaddy in Telford, fuck aye.”
“Arghhh, Shakin’ Stevens tonight, fuck aye!”
Martin was the third housemate, who lived below me – in his 30s, and also ex-RAF. He liked the TV – like a lot. And liked it on loudly. Weekends were the worst, with constant football noise drifting up through my floorboards. It was like being in an old folks’ home. He also enjoyed his passive aggressive notes. It was unreasonable to take his things out of the washing machine – wherein they had lied for four days – and leave them in a heap on the side. He also snored, and rarely did his washing-up. He wouldn’t just leave it on the side – but would ensure it was left soaking, and supparating, in the communal bowl.
The house was very regimented. Each drawer was labelled. Towels were colour-coordinated. Devices such as the extractor fan and tumble dryer were pasted with instructions. The landlord visited regularly and left nagging comments on the communal white board. He had provided the shoe rack for use as a shoe rack, so please could tenants not leave their shoes anywhere else. The upstairs bathroom floor had been left a little wet. And somebody had left a light on somewhere – electricity isn’t free, you know?
But I got used to it over time. The curfew wasn’t set in stone, and the blue lights could be overridden. I even managed to sneak a girl back. Yes it was a bit weird (and only late in the day did I notice that the freezer in the garage had been chained and padlocked-shut by the landlord), but I grew to tolerate it. It was well-insulated, the neighbourhood was nice, and it was not super expensive. It got even better when the noisy Willy moved out.
The quiet – and the peace – did not last long. In November a new tenant moved in to Willy’s old room. It did not take long for that tenant to be issued with a nickname.
The Creeper had arrived.
In the next exciting instalment of My Weird House-Share, get to know The Creeper better. Was he really that bad, or just a misunderstood scientific genius?
In this first of (what I hope will be) a series of blogs, guest writer Charlotte Pargeter profiles some of the people who really shape the heritage sector. Who are these leaders, and where did they come from? Today Charlotte meets Richard Applegate, Senior Curator at the Royal Eastbourne Museum.
I meet him at the reception desk. In chinos and a shirt (think M&S Blue Harbour), Richard exudes an air of comfort and easiness with a look that says contemporary cool. Yet tradition is present too, with a pencil moustache that says less hipster-chic and more 1930s establishment. Not quite an army officer, but a man of action nonetheless, as Richard spreads out, with one en-brogued foot casually resting on a paint-spattered step ladder, itself in turn leaning against a display case very much in the course of arrangement. Intelligence meets manful confidence.
“Charlotte? How lovely to meet you!” he exclaims as he proffers a hand to shake. He grips firmly, as he leans in for a hug, and speaks into my ear “why don’t you come into my office?”.
After a short walk through the galleries – here a penny farthing, there a rack of spears – he opens a door and ushers me into his office, guiding me with his hand on the small of my back. I look around in admiration at the rows of leather-bound books. A computer and a shelf of brightly-coloured ring-binders are a very few of the clues suggesting that we are in the 21st Century. Richard closes the door behind him with a click. “So,” he says (smiling), “where shall we start?”
Tell us about your route into museums, Richard?
“Well,” he responds with a casual, classless lilt “like a lot of people, I rather fell into the museums game by accident. Back in the 80s, I graduated with BA in Ancient History from Durham University. Soon afterwards, I applied for and got my first heritage job – a collections role at a museum in Bath. That museum then funded me to undertake the MA in Museum Studies at Leicester. I then became a Curator in London, before settling on my current role as Senior Curator here at Eastbourne. Everything really was rather easy.”
Eastbourne Museum won the Arts Council Britain’s prestigious Museum of the Year Award in 2017 – you must have been very proud?
“Tremendously proud, and it was a well-won accolade. The collection should take some credit of course. It’s extremely diverse – brought to Eastbourne from darkest Africa, the jungles of South America, or furthest Asia. Such a collection is naturally full of stories – but it really takes suitably gifted and qualified museum professionals to tease these out in a way that a normal person can understand. So ultimately, I’m indebted to my team of highly trained curators, and the academic excellence that they bring to the table.”
I’m interested that you mention diversity, Richard. Sector workforce diversity is being talked about more and more. How diverse do you feel Eastbourne Museum’s workforce is?
“I am fully aware that ‘diversity’ is now a fashionable buzzword. I am more interested in having a workforce that is effective than diverse. I can’t speak for the whole museum, but I recruit my team in a manner that is wholly meritocratic. I don’t see race. What I do see is qualifications from top universities, or hours sent selflessly volunteering at the nation’s most prestigious museums. I really value practical skills – so the combination of previous experience with academic excellence for my entry-level curatorial posts is of the upmost importance. Those are the criteria on which I recruit.
Richard, you’ve mentioned race in relation to my question about diversity, but what about the other aspects of the term?
“Look, black, brown, white – it’s all the same to me. Yes, all of my team are all white – but so what? White people are the only ones who applied. Nothing about my selection techniques has been discriminatory – far from it. I even interviewed a Pakistani last month…”
That’s a very encouraging sign that your Museum can attract such international candidates. Where in Pakistan were they from, Richard?
“Bradford. But before I digress onto the topic of Pakistanis with utterly undecipherable Yorkshire accents – could it just be that newcomers to this country just aren’t interested in museums, the arts or culture? There may be a reason that Renoir (and we have one of his *delightfully* plump nudes on the first floor) studied in Paris rather than Karachi.”
Richard, such a statement isn’t without an element of…look. There are other aspects of diversity. Let’s move on from race and ethnicity. For instance, the Royal Eastbourne Museum has yet to even once acknowledge LGBT History Month, even though it was established in 1994…
“May I remind you, young Lady, that I qualified as a Museum Curator well before 1994. We certainly didn’t need an ‘LGBT History Month’ back when I started out in the sector. Firstly for one thing, can say how jarring I find that rainbow flag. It certainly is unbecoming amongst Eastbourne’s grand Victorian architecture. It just jars”
“Also, at a time when I’m told that Museums should be reaching out to wider audiences, like families…is that a time we should be sexualising our interpretation? I certainly don’t think that’s appropriate – whether you’re talking about normal sex or gay sex. I just don’t feel it’s ever appropriate to discuss the sex lives or sexual orientation of people in the past. We have never done it before, why should we do it now for homosexual sex? I don’t see the need to pander to this ‘fashionable’ LGBTQNTQEHE?!”*>] (or whatever nonsense it is these days) gay agenda.”
So moving on to a different subject, how do you think the Museums profession has changed over the past 30 years?
“Well it certainly has professionalised. When I first started out, Curators were little more than hobbyists, often with no social skills. The stereotypes live on…too many cats, stained cardigans, medieval encaustic tiles in use as coasters. Some of the ones I met in the bad old days I even suspected to be autistic. Nowadays things are much better. Curators these days must have a Postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies, and that rather sorts the wheat from chaff.”
There has been a general discussion recently about credentialism in the sector. Is that a discussion you have been engaged with at all?
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand this term ‘credentialism’. What does it mean? And no. I haven’t seen such discussions – where have they been taking place?”
Credentialism is defined as belief in or reliance on academic or other formal qualifications as the best measure of a person’s intelligence or ability to do a particular job. These discussions have mostly been taking place on social media platforms…
“What a lot of nonsense. Firstly, I do not engage with ‘social’ media…I prefer to get my news from serious outlets such as academic journals, the BBC and The Times.”
“Secondly, I do happen to think that formal qualifications *are* the best way to get an instant measure of someone’s quality of character and values. Someone with a good degree from a Doxbridge university is going to be a better sort of chap than someone with a 2.2 from Leeds. I’m sorry but that’s just a fact…”
But what about the fact that degrees are so expensive to obtain these days, that they present opportunities only to those who are privileged enough to afford them?
“More people are going to university today than ever before. The costs of fees are clearly offset by the better availability of student loans. It is by no means obvious that university education is socially exclusive. Even if student debt causes all sorts of problems further down the line, it hardly is the function of museums to solve these issues. Museums are, and should be, neutral. We exist outside of the perceived wider societal problems. Otherwise where would it stop? Museums as houses for public toilets, warmth for the homeless, or safe spaces for prostitutes and drug addicts?”
Thank you for your robust opinions on this topic, Richard. Let me move on to the issue of non-disclosure of salaries, or salary cloaking. Your institution has come under fire recently for advertising jobs without publishing a salary range. What benefits does your organisation receive from this practice, and how do you feel about the negative implications for individual candidates?
“My job is to serve the best interests of my institution. I am certainly not in a position to act as some sort of ‘social justice warrior’. Given the sheer number of applicants we get for vacancies at the Royal Eastbourne Museum, I am hardly in a position to treat the people behind them as individuals. Museums are a tough industry to break into – and people just need to man-up deal with that reality.
“When I advertise a position as ‘competitive’ it means exactly that. My use of the term ‘competitive’ is not to restrict candidate applications, but to remove any potential constraint on salary being a factor in applying for the role. These are roles where we can be flexible on salary, subject to the candidate’s skills and experience. I feel that if we had advertised a range, with lower and upper limits, we may, unintentionally, exclude some applicants. So actually, before these ‘Social Justice Warriors’ have a go at me, they should acknowledge that maybe I too am doing my fair bit for museum sector ‘diversity’ by not scaring-off diverse candidates by dangling salaries in front of them which they couldn’t possible comprehend.
Eastbourne Museum has come under similar fire for hosting and advertising for unpaid internships. How do you feel about that backlash?
“It’ absolutely ridiculous. One of the great things that is essential to Britishness is a sense of public duty – that you do something for nothing for people or organisations that can’t pay. May I remind you that the Royal Eastbourne Museum is a charity. There is nothing wrong about volunteering and giving back to the community. If only *your* generation understood that, rather than being so orientated around money.”
Clearly none of us are motivated by money in this sector. What gets you out of bed in the morning, Richard?
“Public service will always be an important part of my job. But what really motivates me is my sense of passion – for my Museum, and its collection. It’s a passion that would mean I would still do this job, even for bread and water.”
Some might say that such a statement can only come from a position of privilege?
“There is nothing privileged about my background. I have had to work hard to get where I am today. I came from *the bottom* and worked my way up. State grammar school. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be at Durham and not from the likes of Eton or Harrow? And the poverty! In my first job in London I was having to live off £8000 a year – and yet people complain about far less these days. I only wish millennials could be as passionate about museums as they are about their own so-called ‘wellness’.
We’ve touched on privilege, and that leads me on to my next question about museums in the post-colonial context…
“Another ridiculous buzzword. For better or worse, the British Empire happened. And it stopped happening in 1945, nearly two decades before I was even born. And only in the last few years has it come under criticism…unfair criticism. What’s bad about Cricket and Railways? But if this discussion was in Belgium, mind you…”
Thank you, Richard. Finally – what changes do you think we need to make to ensure the long-term sustainability of the museum sector?
“I think it’s a little ironic that my answer to your question is that we need to see less change. Museums have been amazing audiences for well over a hundred years. Yes, there have been some improvements down the lines. Mannequins and the like, and audio guides. But have we now gone too far? Are museums becoming worse? Here’s a few things I’d certainly like to see less
Dumbing down of exhibits. If you’re not intelligent and engaged with the arts, you’re hardly likely to engage with museums in any case?
Pandering to ethnic minorities who never visit or want to work in museums in any case.
Pandering to the gay agenda.
De-skilling our workforce by making entry-level positions more accessible.
Repatriating our collections to Third World countries who wouldn’t know how to adequately care for them.
Encouraging children into museums.
Allowing un-trained and un-qualified members of the community the opportunity to co-curate exhibitions (N.B. see ‘dumbing down’ above.)
Honestly, there’s so much I could say, but I think I’ll stop there. Do you have any other questions?”
Thank you so much for an…uncompromising…set of answers. Yes, that concludes our interview.
Richard stands up. He walks to his office door, and stands with his back to it, looking at me, and barring my exit.
“Charlotte,” he says, smiling, “You are a *good* girl, aren’t you?”
I benefitted greatly from my place on a graduate traineeship. But did I need a degree to do it, and is right that we continue to ask for them as requirements for entry-routes into the sector?
Like so many people, my path into museums wasn’t an easy one. I didn’t really know what to do after I graduated in 2011 with an MA in Classics. Exploring various options, I started volunteering in my local museum (Guildford) and soon fell in love with it. This is the industry for me, I thought. Now just to get a job in it.
Fast-forward two and a half years, and I was still in the same place – working for money in a supermarket, while giving up what free time I had to volunteer. The frustration and desperation were real, and I felt like packing in my dream for good. But then it happened – I got my first heritage-y job, back in 2014. Receiving that offer was one of the happiest moments of my life.
I had won a place on a paid 15-month Traineeship, funded by the HLF. My placement was at Worcester Cathedral Library, but there were six other trainees based at various museums and archives across Worcestershire. The posts were graduate traineeships. Each had the essential requirement of an undergraduate degree. Each also asked for previous experience in the heritage sector as a desirable requirement.
The idea behind the traineeship, part of the wider HLF Skills for the Future programme, was to increase the range and quality of work-based training in the sector, meet identified skills-gaps, share good practice, and increase workforce diversity. Alongside paid practical work experience, we also studied for a Postgraduate Certificate in Heritage Management, and were exposed to significant training and professional development opportunities.
The main aspects of my day-to-day role in the Cathedral Library were conducting tours, setting up temporary exhibitions, answering enquiries, facilitating research visits, running social media and managing volunteers. As an unplanned surprise, I also assisted with a decant of the library’s holdings, initiated by urgent ceiling repair work.
It was pretty much everything that could be expected of a curatorial or collections assistant role, and was excellent first-hand experience. The training opportunities were ample too, with courses on fundraising, the National Curriculum, project management, and specific areas of conservation. We also held swap-shops across each of the placements, as well as away days. Beyond that, the study element was also interesting, although I’m not convinced how useful the theoretical side of it has been.
The best thing about it all was the support network though. My supervisor – the Cathedral Librarian – was fantastic. So were the rest of the Cathedral community, the traineeship coordinator and the other placements’ supervisors. But the company of the other traineeships themselves was what made the opportunity priceless.
At the end of those 15 months, it still wasn’t a case of walking into a job. I returned to Guildford as a paid Research Assistant on a 12-month contract. A mixture of subsequent collections and documentation roles followed. But it wasn’t until I took my current position, in January 2019, as a Curator of Aircraft in a national museum, that I felt truly emerged, with my first permanent job and introduction to line-management.
It is the feeling of being settled and secure that makes now a good time to reflect on my past and where I’ve come from. I have learnt a lot over the last five years. One of the things I’ve learnt is that my background – white, and comfortably middle class – is very privileged. This doesn’t mean that I have not had to work hard. But it does mean that I have had it a lot easier than some. And I have always had something of a financial safety-net by means of my family.
This safety net meant that I could go to university without worrying about student debt. It meant I could live at home rent-free while saving up for my MA. And it meant that I could commit to significant amounts of voluntary work before I got my first paid job in the sector.
If a degree was an essential requirement for the graduate traineeship at Worcester, it’s only fair to ask how much use I made in the role of my university credentials. The answer is very little. That was as true then for my traineeship as it is now for role as a Curator in a national museum. Some things I learnt at university have been useful – an improved sense of critical and analytical thought, and source citation conventions – but these are things which don’t have to be necessary taught in academia exclusively.
My experience of working in the sector to date is that what really determines how effective an individual is are the ‘softer’ skills. These are things like communication, teamwork, negotiation, diplomacy, leadership, problem solving and organisation. Training courses might exist for each of these, but most of us pick and up and develop these skills in the course of our daily lives or in any work place.
If these ‘softer’ skills can be learnt from experience, I have no answer as to where innate values come from. Values are what distinguish an effective and efficient museum professional from ones who are inspirationally fantastic. Integrity, fairness, open-mindedness, ability to engage, affability, humour, story-telling and belief in the arts as a force for good in society – these are the values that the best people in the sector live and breathe every day.
If skills and values are what best determine a candidate’s performance in the workplace, why not recruit along these lines? This question can be asked again for recruitment into traineeships. This is especially true when a traineeship’s stated aims are to increase sector workforce diversity give a leg-up to those struggling to break into a notoriously impenetrable sector.
I urge any of you in recruitment positions to carefully consider what attributes are *actually* necessary for a person to successfully fulfil a role, instead of slapping on a degree requirement as a lazy short-hand. Candidates should be free to evidence how they meet these attributes from any source, not merely the traditional routes of university education and prior voluntary experience in the sector.
To be clear, none of this should be about disqualifying graduates from traineeships, ignoring the sacrifices that so many people make to go to university, or undermining the value of higher education. Instead, it’s about trying to diversify entry routes into the sector and opening doors rather than closing them.
I greatly benefitted from my traineeship. But there may have been candidates who could have benefitted from it more, and performed better in the course of their duties, than I did. It’s not fair that my previous experience and two expensive degrees – the products of my privilege – allowed me to profit at their expense.
It’s high time we opened the gates to the sector and called time on traineeships designed exclusively for graduates.
A flippant Tweet for mine recently took off in a way that I hadn’t expected. The reaction to it has given me the impetus to explore ideas around what Twitter means to both me and the museum sector.
The world is changing extraordinarily quickly with improvements in global communications, and social media is playing a big part of that. Despite a worrying resurgence of the far-right across the developed world, we are also seeing a growing awareness (amongst liberal audiences at least) of the inequality that continues to blight society. Be it through the Women’s Marches, a growing understanding of the nature of gender or the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, perspectives have been changing. As a white, middle-class male, I only began to realise in the last few years my own immense privilege. Not from self-discovery, but from the diverse views coming into my social media feeds from outside and from voices with which I would not have otherwise engaged.
The Museum sector has responded to these sorts of changes in various ways. Trends (pioneered decades earlier) in the democratisation of interpretation are fast becoming the mainstream. Community participation is now less an experiment than an expectation. Didactic and paternalistic approaches are now routinely laughed out of exhibitions.
Front of house staff, for so long undervalued, are now widely and rightly seen as the champions of visitor engagement and the most valuable source for exhibition evaluation. Curators are no longer seen as the ‘only’ members of museum staff, and the sector’s petty attempts at ownership of the term have rightfully been called into question, even if some of the more elaborate uses of it have been appropriately ridiculed.
Wellness and mental being are topics that are being talked about more and more openly. Burnout and stress are no longer badges of shame, but acknowledged as factors than can effect all of us. Suicide is no longer a taboo – we can grieve it publicly, and shout about the sources of help available.
Our most prestigious museums are now enlivened by LGBTQ tours, and organisations such as the National Trust (long associated with a sense of green-wellied, middle-Englander conservatism) are celebrating the LGBTQ heritage and stories enshrined within their properties.
Finally, recruitment and its equitability are beginning to be discussed more and more openly. No longer is it considered acceptable to make as essential requirements expensive post-graduate requirements that are impossible to achieve by so many who would be absolute assets to the sector. Unpaid internships are increasingly being called out as exclusive preserves, while inclusivity in recruitment is being championed more and more.
To claim that any of these developments began in and because of the social media age would be an utter disservice to the giants on whose shoulders we stand. But their prevalence has certainly been accelerated and entrenched by the rapid exchange of ideas and thinking that social media platforms can facilitate.
Is talking to a museum professional not on Twitter the same as talking to a museum professional from the 1950s? Of course not. But it is remarkable how prevalent the qualities of classism, snobbery, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, un-empathy and gatekeeping are amongst those who favour the siloed-Hobbit Holes of personal comfort over the vast, terrifying awesomeness of wide horizons.
Engage with new ideas, listen to new voices, and put your feet in other people’s shoes. But let’s not grow complacent either and assume that the regressive conservative voice in our sector is dead. Only last week did the alarming comment below appear on the Museum’s Association website, in reaction to the story about the People’s History Museum removing a transphobic sticker from an exhibition space.
Social media is both a receiver and a transmitter, and we all have a duty to challenge bad practice, exclusory attitudes and hate-driven agendas – whilst also toasting the many, many good things out there.