Working in museums today

In November 2013, the National Railway Museum held a conference for York students exploring how to develop and sustain a career within the museum sector. A variety of roles were showcased as well as discussion on current issues affecting museums and what skills the sector needs for the future.

The 4 key messages:

1. You will need to manage your own career development, as there’s no set career ladder to climb.

NRM Director Paul Kirkman explained it’s important to gain a variety of experience in different settings, not just at the start of your career through volunteering and internships, but also seek out secondment opportunities and potentially jobs in other sectors.

Interestingly he suggested that experience in the non-profit or public sector, rather than private, may be easier to transfer back into the museum sector, as there is a similar working culture and high levels of bureaucracy. In his experience, individuals who have worked in a fast-paced commercial environment can find it difficult to adjust to into the museum culture.

Paul’s career path includes: Philosophy BA, Civil Service – in the Treasury, then the DCMS, Art History MA, Natural History Museum (Head of Policy and Planning), Arts Council, Clore Fellowship, secondment to NRM and then permanent directorship.

2. You will need to network, make an impact and be prepared to move around.

NRM Volunteering Officer Matt Hick explained that volunteer management involves collaborating with different departments in the museum and with external partners. As a less defined and structured role than Curating for example, volunteer management allows autonomous working and the opportunity to get involved in policy and planning. This provides useful experience and exposure and can be a great stepping stone into more senior roles or other sectors, e.g. heritage management; policy and planning (for organisations like the Arts Council or English Heritage); or moving across to the third sector.

3. You will need to understand the museum’s collection and interpret its value to the public. 

NRM Head of Learning Annie Devitt explained that Museum Education involves creating engaging, memorable and inspiring experiences. At the heart of this very creative, performance lead role, is a deep understanding of the museum’s collection and the ability to communicate this to visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Consequently, working as an Explainer can also be a great stepping stone role as it builds confidence and a clear knowledge and understanding of both the museum collection and the needs of visitors.

4. You will need both a commercial view and an understanding of collections.

NRM Visitor Experience Operations Manager Jim Lowe explained that traditionally, the “business” side of a museum is led by the visitor and commercial services departments and care and understanding of collections is led by curators, archivists and conservators. However in the future, the museum sector will need to start employing generalists rather than specialists, as management structures will become more streamlined and fund-raising/income generation will become even more important.  This point again underlines the importance of gaining a variety of relevant experiences, developing skills in problem solving, analysis and budget management as well as knowledge of and passion for heritage.