Museum Meanderings – Advice on A Career in History, Heritage, and Museums – Part One

So you fancy a career in museums? You just don’t want to me one of these lovely ladies above peering at the art but working with the art work? Read on for some seasoned advice from a museum career veteran (seriously though I’m not that old and have only been working in museums and heritage for ten years!)

To degree or not to degree?

For the majority of museum jobs that I have applied for and had the opportunity to actually get the job I have needed an undergraduate degree as a minimum. This is normally in a related field of fine art, art history, history, archaeology, anthropology, etc. However, more recently I have seen jobs that offer pathways into museum jobsĀ without a degree and either want experience instead of a degree or will offer on the job training.

I know of someone who is head photographer at a museum in England that does not have a degree but some may argue that they are they are lucky. That as you progress up the museum career ladder you will need at minimum an undergraduate degree and possibly a master’s degree in museum studies, history, archival studies, etc.

I hear you argue that this unfair to those who can’t or don’t feel that they need to go to university to work at a museum. However, the museum world is somewhat academic in it’s approach to research and curation and a degree does offer a solid framework of research and presentation of that research which is transferable to a career in museums.

In my opinion if you can combine a degree or other equivalent qualifications with museum volunteering you will have a better chance of getting the career you want in the future. However, who knows what museums will be like in the future? Maybe they won’t require as many well-educated staff and experience will count for more than your degree.

Excellent Experience:

Talking about experience it is a very rare occasion indeed that someone walks into a decent museum job, i.e. a curatorial or collections based role, without some sort of voluntary experience or having worked in some form of another at a museum. You will have to work jobs you don’t like and volunteer at weekends and odd hours in museums to get the experience you need to get that coveted museum job!

Before I drove I had to get three buses to undertake a National Trust placement but this grit and determination led to my first proper museum job then my MA degree ad infinitum. Without getting up at 6am and getting the three buses I would still be working at Tesco’s. Hard work pays off in the end as I am now in a comfortable curatorial job and am being recognized as a freelance historian.

But what if places won’t give you experience I hear you cry!? I only know to well how hard it is to get experience volunteering in museums especially with large national museums. My advice? Go local! Smaller museums are always crying out for volunteers and you will get a breadth of experience you might not get in a larger museum. I have done everything from front of house to collections manager to oral history volunteer at small museums which have sometimes ended in being offered either a full time or part time job.

Additionally, one of the benefits of covid is that many volunteering jobs can be done remotely! I am currently working with a museum in England and one in Scotland on two different projects but I don’t have to physically be in either country. If you can’t find volunteering locally then digitally might be your answer. Not only do you get enhanced digital skills you also get voluntary experience for your coveted museum job!

Next time I talk about further education for a museum job and how to apply for and accept a museum job offer!

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