Arts Sector Advice: Thinking About a Career in the Museums Sector?

Date Created: 15th Aug 2019

Lucy walking in front of an art installation of cartoon faces in the Barreau le Maistre Art Gallery at the Jersey Museum in 1992.

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Lucy Marder volunteered with prominent galleries and museums like The Tate and the V&A, whilst studying a BA (Hons) in Art History, followed by a Post Graduate course in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. Combining her studies with practical skills development within these institutions has given her a huge bank of useful advice to help guide anyone pondering a museum career.

Lucy currently works as one of our Strategic Managers, having joined us in April 2018 after a career with the South East Museum Development Programme, acting as their Cultural Partnerships Officer.

Read below about Lucy’s interesting journey through the arts and cultural sector whilst she highlights the management skills that she learnt along the way.

My passion for museums was instilled very early. London’s fabulous free museums were the entertainment of choice for my family on rainy weekends. In 1970, when I was six, my mum was one of the co-founders of a wonderfully progressive, cooperative-run primary school, where we seemed to spend more time out of the classroom than in it, much of it in museums and parks. Then, a couple of years later, I had the further good fortune to be one of a group of child guinea pigs for experimental sessions run at the National Gallery by an inspiring art educator, whose example showed me that museums weren’t just amazing places to visit, but places where you could actually go to work.

My route into a museum career was pretty conventional for the time. I took Art History at A-level and then BA(Hons) followed by a postgraduate course in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. I was fortunate to have family support that made it possible to do volunteer work in museums during the holidays to build my CV, including stints at the Tate, V&A and Commonwealth Institute. Around these, I fitted Saturday jobs in a shoe shop and waiting on, plus paid summer work at music festivals and in a youth hostel. Museum volunteering was uncontroversial in the early 80s, but there’s growing understanding these days that the (continuing) expectation that applicants have built up a record of unpaid work is a serious brake on workforce diversification in the sector.

The professional training I received via the postgraduate course in Art Gallery and Museum Studies was heavily focused on the specialist skills of an arts curator. This suited me at the time – I loved working with collections and developing exhibitions and greatly enjoyed the year. But once I went into the workforce full time, I found it hadn’t provided me with all the tools I’d need. In the real, day-to-day work of the museum, some of the transferable skills I learned from my youth hostel, shoe shop and café days – being customer-focused, dealing with people issues, handling finances and organising resources – were just as valuable as the curatorial specialism I’d gained at university. It was all very well having a great concept for an exhibition, or plans for an improved collections storage facility, but without the ability to negotiate for resources, deal with money, influence people and coordinate colleagues’ input, how could I possibly bring them to fruition?

My first supervisory role as a young museum curator was managing an Art History student as a volunteer, while they were back home over the summer. This experience, now some 30 years ago, gifted me some of the most painful and valuable learning of my career.

The task I had identified for the student was to update catalogue records of some hundreds of works of art in a store. I’d made certain assumptions about the student’s level of local knowledge, which I hadn’t thought to test. Additionally, I had been a pretty driven, geeky student volunteer myself, given similar tasks I’d grilled a detailed briefing out of the curator asking an aggravating number of questions (‘Exactly how do you want this data presented?’) and then had beetled away pretty diligently until told to stop. I gave the student a briefing, there weren’t many questions, so I presumed all was clearly understood. And the student did beetle away diligently, for several weeks. I’d drop in and ask if all was OK, they’d say it was fine. I thought I was doing a pretty good job as a manager.

One day towards the end of the summer, I was looking something up in the catalogue. My search brought up a newly updated art record and I could not make sense of it at all. It described a large watercolour as being of ‘Girl on Column Holding Flute.’ I knew the art collection pretty well and this didn’t ring any bells to me. So I went to find the actual picture in the store via its location record. To my horror, I saw that the picture was of a well-known local landmark, a statue of a Hanoverian King, in classical robes, holding a baton. Very worried, I looked up some of the other records that the student had updated. I found a large proportion of the records were inaccurately done, with ‘best guess’ descriptions, speculative attributions, height x width dimensions given interchangeably, sometimes in imperial, sometimes in metric. The poor student had done weeks of work and updated hundreds of records. This had wasted both their own time and ours, as many of the records had to be redone. The fault was not the students, it was the lack of adequate supervision, training and support that had led to this.

I was extremely fortunate that my boss at the time was a passionate advocate for leadership development in museums and suggested I go on a management training course. This was not a common opportunity for curators back then. After that, through courses, mentoring and loads of on-the-job experience I gradually started putting together the management toolkit that my curatorial training had not provided. It’s an ongoing journey of learning and one I recommend every aspiring museum professional to get started on as soon as possible.

More than ever, the sector is seeking workers who can help museums be more enterprising, efficiently run, financially resilient and audience focused. It’s great to have a passion for museum collections, but that alone is not enough. A combination of lack of museum opportunities and curiosity about the wider world actually took me out into other roles for the best part of two decades. The learning that I gained – – working in in consultancy, leadership development, local government, IT and other things – was incredibly valuable when I eventually came back into the cultural sector.

If you are thinking about a career in museums – my advice would be:

  • Build your transferable skills, not just your specialist ones. Museums today are looking for business, digital, fundraising and change management capabilities. Jobs that exclusively focus on collections expertise are generally in decline.
  • Keep your options open: many more people want to work in museums than there are jobs for, opportunities in the sector are almost always massively oversubscribed.
  • With this in mind, try not to be disappointed by rejections, use them to build your resilience and your prospects. If an employer offers feedback on an application, take it with grateful thanks and use it to inform your next steps.
  • Be realistic about salary expectations. Yes, in the movie Wonder Woman, Diana Prince goes to her day job at the Louvre in fabulous couture. But in real life, according to Museums Association research, over half the sector earns less than the UK average wage.
  • Keep an eye on the ‘Workforce’ pages of the Museums Association’s website which have loads of useful guidance and signposting to career development opportunities.

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For 15 – 25 yrs Museums Work-based learning

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