Inching towards equality

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Simon Brown, curator at Newstead Abbey and the National Justice Museum in Nottingham, has been thinking about the direction of the museums sector.

In a recent job interview I was asked to describe the current ‘trends’ in the museums sector. It was an odd and unexpected question, but I understand why it was asked.

In considering my answer I realised that a massive part of the current conversation can be filed under one word: equality.

It was something my mind was drawn back to last month, as I attended a symposium at the V&A about the concept of ‘decolonising’ museums. There were plentiful case studies of individuals driving their institutions towards addressing difficult subjects around race and the legacy of the British Empire.

There are numerous other projects on equality that have been implemented and discussed in the past 18 months or so. The National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride programme saw a deeply traditional, conservative organisation embrace the opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partial legalisation of homosexuality. The Past is Now exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery explored Birmingham’s relationship with the British Empire and its continuing legacy- it was fascinating as much because of the process of its development than the brilliant exhibition itself.

Shape Arts continue to develop a huge programme of work supporting access to culture for disabled people- the annual Adam Reynolds Memorial bursary will next year include a residency at BALTIC in Newcastle. At an even higher scale, Arts Council England have made the Creative Case for Diversity a central pillar of their National Portfolio Organisation framework.

These are large scale examples, but are being replicated at different levels all over the country. The unveiling of Gillian Wearing’s statue of Millicent Fawcett on Parliament Square, in this year of the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, felt hugely significant. The statue always seems to be surrounded by people waiting for photographs next to it, and is one of dozens upon dozens of projects celebrating the anniversary all over the country. That the continually inspirational Glasgow Women’s Library came so close to winning such an establishment-minded prize as Museum of the Year is another acknowledgment of the value of work towards equality.

I never imagined I would be stood in a queue at a conference, among other white men in suits, waiting to have my nails painted by a trans activist. Yet that is what I experienced at last year’s MA conference in Manchester. Just the opportunity to spend five minutes with inspirational people like Charlie Craggs put me in the company of someone whose experiences I have little personal comparison to. Opportunities like that are why I visit museums in the first place.

All of these projects, and many similar ones on small and large scales all over the country, have all had a similar aim- to make our institutions more open and equal for all. Not only in terms of the workforce, but ultimately for the public.

I came to understand in that moment that this work is a huge part of why I – and many others – am in this sector. When I was growing up, I never felt that museums were for people like me. Museums and art were simply never on my radar, in just the same way as ballet or golf. It took the extraordinary opportunity to go to university, and move to a different city, for me to feel confident enough to even try setting foot in one. If this white, straight, deeply conventional bloke can feel that way, then what about everyone else?

A lot of this work has been spoken about for a long, long time. It could easily be me being naïve, but I feel that we’re pushing forward. Many conversations around equality in museums five years ago spoke about intentions– now we are speaking about case studies. We have examples of successful projects that have tip-toed national institutions towards being properly representative of society. This is progress. Small progress, but progress nonetheless.

This should be celebrated, but it is far more important to see this progress as a catalyst to move further forward. I hate to think of such a fundamental issue being a ‘trend’ – but those of us who are gaining positions of responsibility can keep moving beyond that, to push the sector further towards equality.

 

We’ve launched a podcast!

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We’ve launched a podcast!

Culture Now is a community of mid-career museum professionals who want to challenge established thinking and provide platforms for discussion and debate on the major museum issues of the day.

The podcast is full of shared experiences and questions and is for anyone who feels ’emerged’ in their career but not quite ready for that Director of the British Museum job just yet.

First Episode – What is a mid-career museum professional anyway?

In this first episode co-hosts Sarah and Simon explore what it actually means to be a mid-career museum professional and share what they believe are some of the main issues which go with that badge.

You can download the podcast through spotify, iTunes or your favourite podcast app, or you can simply click the link below to listen:

LISTEN NOW: Culture Now – What is a mid-career museum professional anyway? By Sarah Hartshorne and Simon Brown.

Get involved:

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with the episode? Do you have experiences you’d like to share? Please share these via email at thisisculturenow@gmail.com or DM us on twitter @_CultureNow

In the next episode we’ll be discussing some of the issues we face in our mid-career. Keep your eyes peeled and let us know what you think!

WHY I LEFT THE MUSEUMS SECTOR

 

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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.

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.

Can I Emerge Now?

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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.

@simonianbrown