Rebecca Morris-Buck, Alumni Relations Co-ordinator at Nottingham Trent University, describes her motivations for moving to a new career outside of the museums sector.
‘Recovering museum professional’ is how I describe myself on my Twitter bio, six months since I actually worked in a museum. Working in a museum isn’t just a job, it’s more definitive than that, somehow. It makes it hard to let go.
I never imagined I’d need to let go. My museum career began front of house, in costume. I moved into education delivery, then education project management, then volunteer coordination and community participation. A career trajectory of nearly a decade in which I discovered that my motivation was engaging people. At a heritage conference I heard John Orna-Ornstein say he believed that museums are more about people than things, and he seemed to speak to my soul. In an ideal world, I’d have remained in FOH where engagement is real and every day. But we all have bills to pay.
I took my passion with me from FOH – I wanted to invite people in, connect with them, give them the space to connect with each other. I love history and heritage with all of my heart and I’ve long been an evangelist for the power of heritage sites and museums to move people, to tell stories, to provoke reflection. I wanted so badly for that to be the essence of my work life, forever.
But those bills still needed paying. And something else had happened too. I was tired. I found myself describing the sector as ‘abusive’ – strong language I didn’t use lightly as a survivor of domestic abuse. I felt as though my passion was being exploited, that what I loved also kept me trapped. My income came from HLF – in the form of fixed term contracts. In the end, I was working in two entirely different museums, in two quite different roles, in two part time, fixed term, jobs with demands I’d have struggled to fit into a full time week, some weeks. I loved the museums and the projects. But I was so very tired.
And tiredness wore away the passion. At that point I began to see the faults with the sector I loved. Primary amongst them was the tendency towards navel-gazing. In my roles, we talked about engagement, participation and diversity a lot. But we were mostly talking amongst ourselves. Once, I was on a panel discussion about audience diversification when a question was asked related to the museum workforce being mostly female. We then spent the rest of the session fixated on this, rather than the audiences we were meant to be discussing. It’s a conversation that needs to be had, for sure, but audiences are the lifeblood of museums and how to engage them, to me, needed to be higher on the agenda than discussing our own profession – again. In heritage, I felt, I was increasingly stuck in a bubble full of good intentions.
I was also entering mid-career without an MA and with no available time or financial cushion to study for one. So many conversations with new museum contacts would include ‘where did you do your MA?’ that it was difficult not to feel like it impeded my career progress. Part-time, fixed contract project jobs also offer less CPD opportunities, with organisations less committed to staff who will be leaving, taking any support towards an AMA or similar off the table.
In the end, I was too tired and too poor. My passion was eroded to nothing. So I took my transferable skills, and my network, and got a job in alumni relations in a university. All jobs have their frustrations, but I am carrying less weight, I am less tired.
I’ve stopped looking for jobs in museums now, stepped outside of the bubble. And I feel relieved. I miss heritage and I’m still a believer in its power. Outside of my day job, I’m a freelance writer, and I hope to stay connected with museums by crafting the words they need to tell their stories, when they need an extra wordsmith. But I don’t think I’ll work in the sector directly again. Sometimes you have to know when to let go.
If I do return, I will do it in full knowledge of what I am taking on and that taking a side-step, a break, is not the end of the world. My museum jobs were not good for me, mentally or physically. The transferable skills they gave me opened up other doors. And walking through those doors was the best thing I could have done.
Museum friends: you don’t have to be heroes. Sometimes, we have to admit defeat. We all know of the people who work 12 hours a day for virtually no money and volunteer at another museum on the side because they’re so dedicated to heritage. But, honestly, there are other roles you can be happy in, when you need to take a break. Perhaps you’ll return, refreshed. Perhaps you won’t and life will lead you in another direction. But don’t feel trapped. Don’t only look at museum jobs.
You won’t lose your museum friends. You can join in on Museum Hour on Twitter, you can attend heritage events, you can join your local Heritage Forum, you can stay part of the conversation – taking a break doesn’t cut you off. Don’t let your passion burn out, don’t be worn away to nothing.
Curate and conserve your own life as if you’re an object in your museum’s collection. You deserve that level of care.