Why Work in a Museum?

In comparison to my other picture filled blogs this one may seem a bit boring, but I want to share my museum experiences. Like many people starting off in the museum sector, I’m currently in quite an uncomfortable position. My contract is ending and unless I’m told otherwise, from August I am without a job.

This means a lot of job hunting – in a sector where there is high competition for jobs that are low paid. And a lot of worrying – about how I’m going to afford to live, if I will have to move back home (again) and how I’m expected to pay to get to interviews, without a visit to the bank of Mum and Dad, when the interviewers don’t provide travel expenses.

Some blogs give exact instructions of steps to follow to get a museum job, or are overly positive in their approach to the museum sector, running with the ‘follow your dreams’ sentiment. The reality is better describe by Terry Pratchett in ‘The Wee Free Men’,

“If you trust in yourself . . . and believe in your dreams . . . and follow your star . . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

So why do I, and so many other people, keep trying? Why do some many people want to work in museums? These are some of my observations from working in museums thus far.

Firstly, there is no one way to get a job in a museum. The vast majority of my colleagues have undergraduate degrees, but in an environment where our generation have, in the majority of cases, been encouraged into further education this is not unusual. A lucky few have worked their way up from apprenticeships, which you can only apply to if you do not have any higher education qualifications.

One thing is certain, you do not need a Masters in Museum Studies. In fact I get the distinct impression from some that such a MA is a waste of time, used as a lazy method of sorting through hundreds of applications quickly. I did a Museum Studies MA because I saw it regularly appearing as a desired or essential on job descriptions. And I stick by my decision to do it as it has also given me an understanding of theories behind museum practices. I also really enjoyed it. However valuable a MA may be, nothing trumps work experience. You could not rely on a Museum Studies MA alone, you have to back up the theory that you have learnt with practical experiences that you can gain from volunteering. This also shows a future employer that you are committed to the sector. Yes unpaid volunteering can be frustrating when you have to juggle it with working, but it definitely helped me to get jobs. But do be wary, if you’re volunteering and doing something that you feel should be being done by a paid member of staff this is probably doing more damage to the sector than good.

Why do I want a job in a museum? It may be childish, but this is what I have always wanted to do. I’ve spent a childhood loving history, being inspired by museum collections and wanting to create displays to inspire others. But in order to pursue this goal I’ve had to accept a number of things.

1) I’m not going to get paid a lot of money, probably ever. I’ve never heard my colleagues say they are in it for the money. In a year and a half I have gotten by, I’ve moved out of home, I’ve been on holiday, but I’m nowhere near even starting to pay back my student loan.

2) There are not loads of jobs, which means it’s very competitive. I have gained lots of different experiences in the sector, but even with this experience I often don’t get to interview. It’s not because I’m innately terrible at job applications (at least I hope it isn’t!), there are just so many qualified people applying.

3) The worst part of the job situation is not the low pay or the competition, but that jobs are rarely permanent. This means that, at least at the beginning, you live in a state of limbo where you constantly have an end date and never know where you will go next, or if you will get an extension. I find this the hardest thing to live with. It makes planning for the future difficult. It puts pressure on relationships. To put it into perspective, I got my first job in the museum sector in January 2015, a full-time 3 month contract and I jumped at the chance. This was then extended by another month. Then, on my leaving day, it was extended by another month – I was obviously overjoyed, but it was an odd day where I went back round to the people I had said bye to, to let them know that actually I would be there a bit longer. I then got another job, a 5 month contract this time, which was extended another 4 months, then another 4 months . . . but my time is now nearly up and due to funding cuts another extension looks unlikely.

So, knowing all of this, why do people want to work in museums? Why am I still job hunting within the museum sector? Well, because I love it. The museum environment is a fascinating place to work. The people it attracts are passionate and knowledgeable, the collections are incredible and developing innovative ways to share them and inspire people about museums and the past is interesting, engaging and exciting. If you want a job that is well paid from the start, easy and stable, the heritage sector probably isn’t for you. It’s hard and often frustrating, but rewarding.


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