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 have written more about the good and the bad of museum volunteering in a subsequent 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.

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