Looking Back to Look Forward: Breaking down the barriers to diversification

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Alex Bird, Museum Development Officer: Workforce and Skills for Museum Development North West, reflects on the impact of internships on the sector.

The first job I applied for after finishing my GCSE’s many moons ago was an entry-level one, and I still remember the response: “You do not have the necessary experience for the role.” I was absolutely gutted. My brother worked there at the time and he loved it, but after speaking to those recruiting it became obvious that at the time, to get an entry-level job in a museum, you had to have a number of years of volunteering experience. Because I was unable to do unpaid work at the time, I was initially put off applying for museum jobs, but being the stubborn person I am I didn’t let this stop me and eventually got the necessary (paid) experience to get ahead.

Almost 20 years later and little has changed. Across the sector people are expected have some form of unpaid experience in museums prior to starting a career, and many entry-level back-of-house roles require applicants to have a masters. But how are these requirements impacting on the diversity of the sector? In my opinion, these requirements are restricting the diversification of the workforce. It’s very likely that many young people are put off pursuing their dream career in museums, as they simply don’t have the means to undertake unpaid work. The perceived need for an MA can also be off putting, as once again many people are not financially able to do an MA in order to get the qualifications deemed necessary. Yes, specialist skills and expertise will always be needed, but is an MA really essential for an entry-level back-of-house role? At a time when job opportunities are few and far between, and with massive competition for all types of roles, we need to look beyond the norm and embrace more diverse skills and recognise that benefits that skills from outside the sector can bring to museums.
Going back to when I was a teenager, it was suggested I get some experience by undertaking an unpaid internship. Internships can be wonderful experiences. I recognised this immediately and although I was desperate to work in museums, this was not an option for me, as is the case for many people. Being aware of this when the opportunity arose to take on paid interns at Museum Development North West, we jumped at the chance to get involved and were hugely grateful for the funding via the Creative Employment Programme. The funding allowed us to take on two young men that had studied non-heritage courses (film-making and journalism), and allowed us to benefit from their diverse skills in a variety of ways. This subsequently led us to develop a region-wide, university placement programme for students from non-heritage courses to gain experience working in the sector. The programme also allows the participating museums to benefit from the diverse skills the students bring and it’s our attempt at bringing some diversification to the workforce.
I was recently interviewed for the Museums Journal about unpaid internships, their impact on the sector and those who undertake them. I ranted for quite a long time about how these opportunities are unrealistic for many people. I actually found the experience quite cathartic, but felt sorry for the journalist on the other end of the phone who had to make sense of my ramblings. Since that call I have been thinking a lot about the sector, the diversity of its workforce and the future, and came to the realisation that we need to start with our learning programmes. We need to inspire people at an early age the same way I was inspired all those years ago. We need to engage with schools and colleges and showcase the sector as a viable career option. We need to move away from the need to have volunteering experience to get an entry-level role, and recognise the importance of other, non-museum skills. We need to be a sector in which all types of people, no matter where they’re from, are able to thrive and share the wonderful histories museums have to offer.

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