Our recent blog by Rebecca Morris-Buck on leaving the museums sector caused a real stir with many of you. Danie Hadley, Events and Visitor Programmes Officer at Norfolk Museums Service, responds from her own experience.
You can follow Danie on Twitter at @ThinkExhibit
Rebecca’s blog on why she left the museum sector resonated so much with me – as I’m sure it did with many current and ‘recovering’ (I love this) museum professionals. Low pay, huge workloads, exhuastion, pessimism, exploitation, temporary contracts, and trying to squeeze the demands of two, three, four jobs and projects into your brain at one time – I felt all that too. I never actually intended to leave the sector though. At the same time as the rental contract for my flat coming to an end, the freelance work that was an instrumental part of my income ended. It was farewell London for me.
Outside of the hubbub that is the capital’s arts and heritage sector, I struggled to find work to ‘suit’ my skillset and experience. I had zero idea of where to look for alternatives – where would my seemingly ‘unusual’ skillset fit outside of the museum world? I struggled to know how to translate the last five years of my career.
The opportunity to join a school in an events capacity came along at the right time – after a long job search I had lost all confidence. In this new role, I was able to continue engaging with young people, was responsible for an amazing careers-focussed programme and for the first time in my career enjoyed working in one, full-time, permanent role (with no weekend working!)
Looking back, I realise that it shouldn’t have taken the ‘perfect storm’ of disaster to encourage me to take a step back and review the way in which I was living and working. I was working Monday right through to Saturday, and often Sunday too, in three different jobs – as a freelance educator, a project lead and a Learning Officer. I spent four of those years also working at a bar until the early hours of the morning, before getting up to go to my museum job the next day, just to keep afloat financially.
The tumultuous change and the decision to leave London was a blessing in disguise. I discovered what it was to have a stable income, to book holidays and make travel plans. To let go at 4pm on a Friday and to know that the weekend was mine. My break from museums was a welcome lesson in wellbeing and self-care. I would echo Rebecca’s words: there are other roles you can be happy in, don’t be afraid to step off the carousel, give yourself a break, don’t feel trapped.
Working on a term-time basis at the school allowed me the time to do occasional freelance work with my local museum in the school holidays. After a few shifts over the Easter break, I wanted back in, full time. I now find myself working on museum visitor programmes again and I love it.
More and more voices are being added to the discourse on the heritage sector’s poor practices – people are speaking up on pay, workload and contracts, and are challenging the restrictive routes into museum jobs. We’re calling out unhealthy museum behaviour and I hope that more of us are prioritising our wellbeing as individuals first. There’s still much to be done though. I’d like to explore how the skills developed in the course of a heritage career can translate to other sectors – we should know the true value of our experience and be confident in the transferable nature of our skills. It should be easy to hop in and hop out of museum working – without the fear getting left behind. Experience gained outside of the sector should also be recognised as valuable, if you decide to come back into it.
I’ll always be grateful for the breathing space that my ‘accidental’ break from the sector afforded me. This time out gave me clarity – it is possible for me to find happy, fulfilling and balanced work outside of museums. I am just not done with them yet.