Blog

Looking Beyond the Crossroads

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Alex Bird, Sector Development Officer – Museum Development North West urges us to look beyond the crossroads and identify how Culture Now can help the sector navigate this changing landscape. 

It feels like the sector is at a crossroads for a number of reasons. The funding cuts over the last few years have been brutal and pushed many people to leave museums to pursue roles in different sectors causing the much publicised outcry about the loss of expertise. There also seems to be a changing of the guard with the appointment of Maria Balshaw as Director of Tate and Tristram Hunt at the V&A being the most talked about of the last few years.

The loss of expertise within the sector is worrying many people as the concept of the “lifer” is something that many people don’t necessarily have the opportunity to be in this day. With an increasing amount of fixed-term and zero-hours contracts the loss of expertise is inevitable but what can we do to retain people within museums?

CPD is the key to a successful workforce and workforce retention. A well-trained and well-networked workforce more than likely equals innovative practice, job satisfaction and above all happiness.

Arts Council England have recognised the changing landscape and have called for more multi-skilled people in their Character Matters: Attitudes, behaviours and skills in the UK museums workforce saying museum work is increasingly becoming multi- skilled with more emphasis on business skills allied to individual specialisms. Although not mentioned explicitly in the museum literature, this perspective resembles the ‘T’-shape model of skills; a popular concept used in other sectors.”

The loss of expert “lifers” means that the sector is changing and it has to replace the out-going skills with other skills now needed more than ever. With the reduction of specialist curatorial roles people are having to enter the sector via different routes and with different skills; skills such as project management, strategic planning, partnership brokering and networking are now a necessity to ensure the sector is buoyant, innovative and resilient. Yes the collections skills and expertise are still needed. It will always be needed within the sector but the “T-shaped” individuals mentioned above are now a crucial element of the workforce.

Not all people have the required skills though and CPD opportunities now go beyond the more traditional museum skills and support the development of those now required, yet I’ve spoken to many people who have participated in a vast number of CPD initiatives and haven’t been able to practice their new found skills in the workplace. We recognise that there are barriers facing people implementing new skills and we’re keen to hear from the network so that we can support the sector to change how its workforce is developed and how the skills are embedded in the workplace.

What barriers are you facing and how have you tackled them? How should the sector change in order to retain its workforce? What aspect of museum CPD needs to be challenged?

This is what Culture Now is about. It’s about sharing ideas, networking and giving a voice to those not leading organisations by questioning established thinking and influencing change. All feedback will be confidential but will be used as evidence to encourage change.

To get in touch please visit the contact page on the website and share your thoughts.

A change is as good as a break?

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Katie Ann Smith, Senior Youth Education Manager and previously Heritage Engagement Manager at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution speaks about the challenges of creating a diverse career in the sector.

Years of studying, volunteering and an infectious passion for what I do has landed me slap bang in the midst of a career cross roads. There is so much talk about diversity, appreciating diversity in gender, ethnicity, sexuality to names a few but we also need to talk about employment diversity. Taking an opportunity to do a little side step myself, this year I took the plunge and ventured into the world of education. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to gain a different perspective, understand what it is I love doing and devote some well needed time to focus on me.

However, whilst I’m sure this will benefit me in the long run there is a real risk of getting trapped in a more secure sector and little support (unless you make it yourself) for staying relevant and up to date with the sector. Which leads me to ask the question: should we not be encouraging diversity by providing support mechanisms for professionals to change their focus, even if it’s on a temporary basis?

It’s pretty much been a full time job for me to stay relevant and engaged with the sector, taking time off for meetings, covering conference costs (which I am no longer eligible for funding for as I’m out of the sector) and finding the resources needed to fully commit to developing my ambitions whilst still being amazingly kick ass at my day job. I can see how easy it would be to take the ‘easy’ route, and drift away from the sector, utilising my skills, enthusiasm and experience as a part time hobby at best, with casual museum visits and going for the odd drink with my museum pals (whilst hiding my envy behind my glass of red wine).

Taking this side step has equipped me with so many new skills, an understanding of a different sector, a new team and networks, broader partnership work, engagement with younger audiences (previously I’ve always been more involved in the collections and curatorial elements of museums) and the headspace for me to understand what exactly it is I miss about working in a museum. This last point has probably been the most revelatory for me over the past 6 months, and really what has given me the energy to pursue my career in the museum sector.

The reason I’m writing this is because if we are truly committed to diversity then I believe it is important we encourage our staff and teams to understand new perspectives, to take those secondments, try something different and work outside our sector, not just recruit people into our organisations with no museum or heritage experience from these sectors.

By letting our teams experience a life beyond the arts, we will be making ourselves more relevant, gain new experience and open doors for the sector to work in different areas. Organisations should be mapping out other sectors and see where we could gain useful expertise? 12 months working in health and wellbeing for the NHS? Youth services? Or how about the financial sector? Museums should not be operating in isolation and we will learn much more from speaking to people in the room next door to us than we ever will by continuing to talk to ourselves.

As leaders, we need to support our colleagues to take on new challenges and welcome them back into the museum and heritage sector with open arms, brimming with new ideas and enthusiasm for what we do, having had a chance to make a change, take a break and think differently. We should not be isolating them as they take what is a very daunting and isolating leap of faith into a brave new world and make it increasingly difficult for them to remain ‘relevant’ to our work.

I’m yet to make my move back into the sector, but the one thing I do know, is that I’ll be an even better leader, manager and collaborator for this experience.

Chatting shop: the importance of developing ourselves

Charlotte Pratley, Director at Culture Syndicates CIC, reveals the ideas behind Culture Now and requests your help in creating this new support network.

Many years ago, a group of tenacious museum lovers formed a group to support their career development. Those individuals went on to become some of the most influential people in our sector, including David Fleming, Director of Liverpool Museums. At the famously bleak end of 2016, a new support group was born. We even managed a Chinese and a tour of Manchester Museum from 5 year olds taking part in Museum Takeover day.

Like many CPD activities, chatting shop with old and new heritage buddies couldn’t be directly attributed to revenue so I’d had to argue my case to go. Yet, as I’m reminded every time I step out from behind my desk, the inspiration and knowledge exchange that comes with making connections was invaluable for my personal and professional development. Naturally, that extends to my organisation as I bring new ideas and perspectives back to the office.

As the sector settles into its post-recession form, we’re learning that a dynamic, networked and entrepreneurial workforce is needed. Character Matters found that the resilient museum of the future will depend on nurturing workforce cultures of curiosity and self-efficacy yet the most commonly cited reason for workers not accessing Career and Professional Development (CPD) opportunities is “I am too busy/I have no time.” 71% of heritage workers self-initiated their CPD in full or partly despite low confidence across the industry in career development (1).

Google spend millions on developing and retaining their workforce. Admittedly, their 2015 turnover was almost nine times that of the UK heritage tourism sector but we need to learn some lessons on good business here. They found five common elements of high performing teams (2 & 3):

  • Psychological safety (being listened to and supported to fail openly)
  • Dependability (people can be relied upon)
  • Structure and clarity (everyone understands their roles, plans and goals)
  • Meaning (everyone has a clear sense of purpose)
  • Impact (everyone believes their work has a positive impact on the organisation)

In times of trouble, it’s not hard to understand why these suffer. However, creating an outstanding and relevant arts sector will rely on investing in workforce development. Funders and policymakers are giving us clear steer: projects that do not relate to diversifying and developing our workforce, in order to build solid businesses, will not be funded.

The Culture Now steering group are seeking to create the sustainable arts landscape of the future. We’re supported by our organisations and policymakers, including Arts Council England and the Museums Association. Our organisations are making significant changes on a local scale. For example, Transport for London run fantastic programmes to develop freelance staff and recruit more diversely; Museum Development run training directly informed by a business diagnostics tool for museums; and Culture Syndicates undertake valuable consultancy work that act as paid training opportunities for sector entrants and beyond. But these deep programmes of engagement cannot support the broader heritage workforce.

In particular, we’ve noticed that emerging to mid-level career professionals lack support in heritage and the arts. Culture Syndicates’ interns reported a variety of struggles, such as how hard it is to form networks when you are starting out or coping with rejection from job applications. Fortunately, Alex has brought us together to address these such issues with the creation of Culture Now; a platform for emerging to mid-level creative professionals to make change; a network for support and knowledge sharing; and an advocate for better workforce development.

We want to signpost existing opportunities so that we aren’t duplicating activities. We want to elevate the needs of the workforce in policymakers’ agendas. We want to meet up, have a drink and chat culture. So what does that mean we do? Well, we’re not sure. We can tell you our opinions (and will hopefully get a chance to do so soon) but we’re aware that the best way to start is to better understand the problem. So over to you – what issues are affecting you in your career in the cultural sector?

References

  1. BOP Consulting & The Museum Consultancy, 2016. Character Matters: Attitudes, Behaviours and Skills in the UK Heritage Workforce [online]. Available at http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/ACE_Museums_Workforce_ABS_BOP_Final_Report.pdf [Accessed 25.01.17]
  2. Dubner, J., 2016. How to be more productive (rebroadcast) [online]. Available at www.freakonomics.com/podcast/how-to-be-more-productive-rebroadcast/ [Accessed 20.01.17]
  3. Ambler, G., 2016. Google identifies five norms that make up successful teams [online]. Available at www.georgeambler.com/the-five-norms-that-makes-for-successful-teams/ [Accessed 20.01.17]
  4. Oxford Economics Ltd, 2016. The impact of heritage tourism for the UK Economy [online]. Available at file:///C:/Users/N0661672/Downloads/20160927_-_the_impact_of_heritage_tourism_on_the_uk_economy_-_final_repo.pdf [Accessed 25.01.17]
  5. Statistica, [date unknown]. Annual revenue of Google from 2002 to 2015 [online]. Available at https://www.statista.com/statistics/266206/googles-annual-global-revenue/ [Accessed 25.01.17]