Interviews

So after months (if not years) of waiting – and countless job applications – you’ve finally been called to your first museum job interview. Feels good right, kind of exhilarating? Are those butterflies flapping around inside your stomach? Enjoy it. But buckle up – we’ve got work to do.

You are going to be asked a series of questions by a panel of between two and four people, and there may be a test element involved too. Typically, you will be up against five to eight other candidates. The whole process is designed to determine that the best of those candidates – or at any rate the candidate who is the best match for the role and the institution – is offered the job. Nervous? That’s completely normal.

pirates
Interviews can be nerve-wracking, but not as scary as this early 18th century interrogation of a suspected pirate

They key to success is, of course, plenty of preparation. Between your receipt of your invitation and the interview date, there is a lot that you can do to you maximise your chances of victory. In this post, I will look at some of the more common questions to come up at interview. I have divided this post into three sections – questions about skills and experience, questions about you, the role and the institution, and curve ball questions.

What questions will I be asked?

  1. Questions about skills, competencies and experience

Ahh, this one is easy. Turn to the job advert. Remember that personal specification? If you have got an interview, then you will already have demonstrated how you met most of the criteria found on the specification via your application. The interview panel will likely ask you about those same criteria, but in more detail.

Looking at the role description can also be helpful. If there are duties outlined there which do not seem to have an equivalent criterion in the personal specification, then do plan for questions about those sorts of activities, functions or responsibilities.

Some institutions may make this even easier for you, by setting out explicitly how each criterion will be assessed. This is especially true for job vacancies in local government museums, and in some of the nationals. A typical job specification may look something like this:

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

 

If something is marked as being assessed at interview (I), do prepare for questions about those sorts of things. It is never a bad idea, however, to plan for all the criteria to come up – just in case.

Again taking this hypothetical job specification as an example, here are the sorts of questions that might come up – (based on the criteria marked as being assessed at (I) – Interview).

What experience do you have with museum databases or collections management systems?

What professional standards, codes of ethics, and legislation should you consider before implementing documentation procedures?

Given that museum objects are at their most vulnerable when being handled, what practical steps would you take to ensure the safe transportation of an object from an exhibition space and into a storage area?

When deciding whether or not to loan an object to external borrower, what factors should you consider?

You need the help of a curator in order to complete a task. However, despite being at work, they have not been responding to emails and your deadline is approaching. How would you proceed?

When have you used a software application in order to overcome a challenge?

Tell us about a time that you have contributed positively within a team in order to achieve results?

A member of the public has emailed you with an enquiry about the function of an object that they have seen on display in the museum. Set out the steps you would undertake in order to provide them with an answer.

Of course, the precise phrasing of the questions will vary from interview to interview – but the important point is that by carefully perusing the job description and role profile, you can get a very good sense of the sort of things about which you might be asked.

  1. Questions about the role, the institution and you

Okay, so this is a biggy. There is one questions that I have absolutely always been asked at every interview ever, without exception. And that is:

Why do you want the job?

(Or variations thereof). It’s a good question. And one that you simply must expect to come up, and for which you must prepare. In asking it, the interviewer is seeking a number of things. They want to know that you understand the organisation, and are sympathetic with its aims, objectives and mission. They want to know that you have thought critically about how and why the role would fit in with your own career progression and personal life. They want to know that you will be challenged, but not overwhelmed. They want to know that you will not get bored and bugger off after a few months. They want to know that you would be serious about relocating (if necessary). They want to know that you are the right person for the job.

In some respects, it is a question for which it is easy to prepare. Do your homework. Find out about the institution, its collection, and the challenges that it faces. If the collection is specialised, then come up with a coherent argument for why you want to work with material of that type. If the museum/ heritage organisation sits within a larger institution with wider aims, do show that you understand that and the implicit challenges.

How to answer such a question? This is what I said in my interview for my current post as Collections Management Assistant at the Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford. I guess I said the right thing as I was offered the post:

I have long held an interest in the history of science; in a previous role at Worcester Cathedral Library I curated an exhibition on the encyclopedic Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. I included a large section on medieval science. In my current role as Project Research Assistant at Guildford Museum, I have enjoyed learning about aspects of medieval medicine – such as uroscopy and surgery – through their physical archaeological remains. I would welcome any opportunity to develop my learning within this fascinating field.

I welcome the opportunity to gain experience within a university museum, and am particularly keen to understand how the activities and mission of the museum sit within the wider aims of the University of Oxford, including higher education and research.

I am keen on the role for the breadth of experience on offer, encompassing collections management in its widest sense. I am particular eager to further my experience of loans administration and documentation work, which I have been enjoying in my current and previous roles at Guildford and Worcester, and in my current roles as Loans Support Volunteer at the Horniman Museum and Ship Portrait Cataloguing Volunteer at the National Maritime Museum. I feel that more experience of these areas in a professional capacity would be the key to my further career progression.

Finally, I have a genuine passion for Collections Management Systems, and their capacity to facilitate core museum functions. I have developed a great competency with collections management systems and databases including Mimsy XG, Cabal and Microsoft Access. While I have not used the KE EMu system before, I feel I have enough experience with similar platforms to quickly build a familiarity with it, and I very much welcome the opportunity to do so.

You will be asked ‘why do you want the job?’, so make sure you have an answer ready!

Similarly, you could well be asked something like:

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

The key here is to show that you really understand how the role would fit into your career development aims. If you want to be a registrar, but are applying for an education role, this could be difficult. But if you are applying for an assistant registrar role and want to be a registration manager, then do show that you have thought about how the role would fit within your aspirations.

Another question which might be asked of you and your fit for the role could be something like:

What are your key strengths?

Or

What particular strengths do you think you will need to fulfil this role?

Again, this question is an easy one in many respects. The answers can be found in the personal specification for the role. The recruiters have literally outlined the strengths (in terms of skills, experiences, competencies and attributes) that they want the successful candidate to have. Parroting the personal specification back to the interview panel will, however, only get you so far. Use the role profile to judge why they are looking for those particular strengths, and talk about how you have applied those strengths in previous roles.

Closely related is the oft’ dreaded question:

What are your greatest weaknesses?

Yet again, an easy one. We are all human – so there is no need to be brutally honest (e.g women and wine). Equally, the oft’ flaunted response to dress up a strength as a weakness ala ‘I’m a perfectionist’ will just make you seem something of a cocky shit.

Instead, pick a genuine but not catastrophic failing, and be honest about it. Crucially, mention the steps that you have taken to address that weakness, and make clear that you are well and truly on the road to recovery.

Finally, do expect questions about the institution itself. Do your homework. Study their website, follow their social media feeds. Make sure you read their mission statements and (if going in for a collections role) their Collections Development Policy. Visit the place before your interview if you can, and take copious notes on what you liked and what you didn’t like.

In the past, I’ve had questions like:

Which of the [large heritage organisation’s] sites have you enjoyed visiting?

Or

What specifically about the Museum and its collections would you be most excited to work with?

If you struggle to answer either of those, there could be some serious amounts of egg on your face.

  1. Curve ball questions

We’ve all heard about them. Apocryphal tales about Oxbridge veterinary science course interviews, where you’re asked to throw a model of a cow out of a window. Or the old classic ‘if you were an animal, what animal would you be?’ Such questions can be useful for seeing how a candidate responds, on their feet, to unforeseen and unexpected scenarios. However, I have never been asked a genuine curve ball in a museum interview. I’ve asked around of my peers on Twitter, and none of them have either. Preparing for a curve ball is, then, probably not the best use of your time.

The closest I have ever got to a curve ball question is ‘how would you describe yourself?’ I responded with a gallic shrug and ‘I don’t know’, and still got the job. Seriously, don’t worry about curve balls.

If you are asked the animal question though, do give a sensible answer. Basically, steer away from the truth. We all might want to say something like:

I would be a big bear, so I could glut on [smoked] salmon, sleep for ages in a nice warm cave, and spend the rest of my time enjoying the affections of mama bear.

But it would be better to say something like:

I would be a beaver. I have nice sharp teeth and wide tail, so have all the strengths and tools required for my key roles of swimming and constructing dams. I am able to understand complex structures and procedures, such as those needed for watercourse management. Finally, I am industrious, and appreciate that overcoming big tasks up-front (like tree-felling) may make my role as beaver more productive and efficient in the long-run.

In the next section, I will talk about particular techniques for answer interview questions, and let you in on some of my top tips for interview preparation.

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