Simon Brown, Curator of Collections at Newstead Abbey, reflects on how his career has reached the point at which he now finds himself.
After three years of university, eight years of taking whatever opportunities I can grab, and innumerable short term, part-time contracts, I have this year been appointed to my first permanent position as a museum curator. It’s a wonderful, exciting, challenging job.
At the same time, I have been thinking about just how difficult it is to establish yourself in this sector. A recent Museum Hour on the subject of emerging professionals made fascinating and often depressing reading. People are applying for dozens of jobs a week all over the country, or are volunteering while working full time in the hope of a break. Even that holy grail of a first job is never permanent or full time.
An emerging museum professionals group has just been established for the East Midlands, and last month held their first meeting in Nottingham. It was inspiring, as it always is, to spend time with such an enthusiastic, capable group of people, all full of ideas for how we can better serve the public.
I didn’t attend the meeting in the belief that I could count myself among them, only to lend support and to offer encouragement.
These experiences have thrown stark light on just how hard I have had to work to get to the position I am now in. There was a period in my life when I had three casual museum jobs, each for two days a week. I volunteered with a curator for an afternoon a week. I played in a band, playing three nights a week. I even managed to see my wife occasionally. I loved all of it, but it left very little room for anything else, and I was earning very little.
This is not a sob story and I wouldn’t swap any of it. I worked on the documentation of hugely significant, designated collections. I worked front of house in several bustling, brilliant museums, learning how the public use them and how we can make them better. I dressed as a Siberian bear for a fashion show at a gallery opening. Everything about working in museums is absolutely brilliant.
What I now know is that having done this huge amount of work over several years, it is only now that I can view myself as no longer emerging, but emerged.
But emerging is not the same as arriving. And the challenges don’t go away, they just bend to a different situation. And in order to meet these challenges, I believe more than ever that we all have a responsibility to our colleagues, both above us and below us in the payscales. We have a responsibility to support each other, help each other learn, and to make our museums better. That is the next challenge, and it is a privilege to take it on.