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Monday, 14 May 2018

On PhDs and museum jobs

Recently I've seen a number of conferences and symposiums aimed at PhD students exploring 'alternative careers' outside academia. With recent strikes and the continuing precariousness of short term and zero hour teaching contracts, pursuing a traditional academic career has become unattractive to many recent postgraduates. 'I'm planning to work as a museum curator' one such student said to me recently. Indeed, museum work and curatorial jobs are often highlighted as a logical alternate career. Personally, I think this is an incredibly irresponsible and misguided message to give PhD students and here's why. 

First off, let me just say that I think PhDs are great. I've got one, and I love it. PhDs have so many transferrable skills that can lend them to a variety of sectors - the ability to work methodically, to manage projects, to be self-guided in work, to write convincingly, to research thoroughly, the speak publicly and many many more great attributes. However, a PhD does not a museum curator make. Gone are the days in which curators were simple very specialist in a particular field, sitting in offices, researching all day long and producing niche but well research books. Just as this kind of isolation no longer flies in academia, it's definitely not the case in museums.

To work in a museum is arguably a vocation - it is a career typified by a very specific set of specialist skills. Whether you come at it from an MA in museum studies or from practical experience, museum workers need to be skilled in fields as wide as collections management, registry, documentation, Spectrum standards, hazards, accreditation, object handling, interpretation planning, public programming and engagement, text writing, legal frameworks and many many many more things. Museum professionals take years to build up their specialist skills which enable them to get jobs in a highly competitive field.

When this person at a recent exhibition opening said, 'I'm planning to be a museum curator', I naturally replied 'Oh have you worked in a museum before?'. 'Oh no', they informed me 'but I've always loved them.' Yes, museums are amazing and to work in them is amazing. We are all here because we love museums. But personally, I think the idea that one can just slide into museums is a bit insulting to an entire field of people who have spent years working their ass off to gain the experience needed. This is particularly true when it comes to curatorial work - which is often particularly coveted by those inside and outside the field. These days, curators need not only research skills but collections management experience to boot, not to mention a huge dose of public engagement prowess. 

I also feel like I have to mention in case this might not be apparent to students in the academy, museum work is terribly paid. Like, really. You'll see starting salaries in London museums as low as £16k per year (although we all agree that's terrible). If you are lucky, you might join the sector on £23k. For a full blown specialist curator, you are looking at £30k. Many postdocs get paid £40k to start, and senior lecturers can expect to earn between £45-55k. Plus that short term contract thing - yeah we have that too. It's a highly competitive and notoriously underpaid sector so, let's not get too romantic about the museum field. 

Now this isn't to say there isn't a place in museums for PhDs. For example, many institutions hire specific research-based roles which rely on drawing in new hires from the academy. The Science Museum recently appointed posts aimed at incorporating academic research into their new medicine galleries, and the National Army Museum is looking for a Head of Collections Research with academic chops. Research roles a great initial way for PhDs to join the museum community and start to build the skills they will need to one day become curators. Not forgetting of course that there is so so much more to museum work than just the curator! From learning teams to public programming, fundraising, marketing, social media and more - you'd be surprised how you can develop in the field. 

I'd also mention that museums LOVE to work collaboratively with academics. It is definitely possible that you can get some great experience of exhibitions through collaborative projects based at universities. If you do get to work on something like this, take all the opportunities you can to learn from your museum colleagues. 

My aim here isn't to put a downer on anyone's ambitions. I absolutely love working in museums and want to support others into the field. However, I think its important to be realistic about what museums can offer in terms of salaries and opportunity. Getting a museum job is just as competitive as academic work, so don't expect is to be an easy alternative to lecturing. And as for curatorial work, its some of the most highly sought after - so be sure to think big about the different career paths museums can offer you.

Personally, I am a museum curator with a PhD. But I'm not a curator because I have a PhD. In fact, I was hired for the job on the basis of my museum experience and in particular my years of work managing collections and supporting researchers. That I had a PhD in a relevant subject was something that was icing on the cake and maaaaybe got me over the line. But the core of what a museum worker needs is practical experience, demonstrable achievements and hard work. 

Practical experience of working in a heritage environment will be 100% necessary to getting into the field. So, PhD or not, you, like the rest of us, will need to get onto some voluntary work, a graduate scheme, a paid internship, or some other entry level role. Basically, if you've never worked in heritage before, it's time to get some experience. And if you are serious about museums, it will be well worth it for the job you want! We've even made a handy getting into museums guide to get you started. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

30 before 30: Museum Rites of Passage

How is it Spring already? When we first thought about this article the year was looking fresh and we were starting the countdown to our 30th birthdays - now they are fast approaching! Age is only a number isn't it? But this has given us an opportunity to reflect on our time so far and how we have developed into mid-career professionals. Sure, we're pretty peeved that we've not made it onto the Forbes 30 before 30 list but has anyone in the museum world?! Where is our museums 30 under 30 list - looking at you Museums Association!

While 30 before 30 lists may feature of our #careergoals Pinterest boards they certainly give unrealistic expectations to what you can achieve, especially in an industry where it takes years of studying, volunteering, bouncing around positions to get a single toe on the ladder. So, the typical Ministry fashion we thought we'd mix it up a bit and think about the 30 rites of passage you may experience as you move from early career professional to mid-career professional. 

  1.  Get a paid museum job! It’s been a hard slog and you’ve spent way more hours volunteering with way too much responsibility but you’ve made it! 
  2. Apply for a new job a month into your contract – with short term contracts we’ve all spent time at work ‘in the stores’ applying for a job as soon as you’ve got one.
  3. Break an object (because we've all been there)
  4. Sign up for Museums Showoff 
  5. Delete a record on the Collections Management System - by accident of course.
  6. Have a strop for not being invited to an exhibition opening 
  7.  Finally get invited to an opening 
  8. Get so drunk at an opening on the excitement of free booze and canapes that you puked in the toilets - hey at least its not on an object!
  9. Pull a sickie for a hangover (after the opening)
  10. Pull an all-nighter on an install (or several in a row)
  11. Wake up in the middle of the night and panic about the location of an object or status of a loan.
  12. Go to a museum late and dance the night away 
  13. Rip your jeans at work - right. across. the bum.  
  14. Play pallet truck races in the stores (a safe distance from the objects, obvs). 
  15.  Eat at the nearest dirty café to the museum
  16. Schmooze your way into a free coffee in the museum cafe
  17. Speak to the director of your favourite museum, have a fan girl panic, then creepily add them on LinkedIn. 
  18. Have your photo taken for press and marketing 
  19.  Stalk a celebrity in the museum - and know how to act around them
  20.  Be called a curator (even if you’re not) correct them, explain, give up, let someone call you a curator. Conservator also counts. 
  21. Explain to your family that you won't be going on antiques roadshow. Also why you won't be buying a house any time soon. 
  22. Explain that you're not able to give valuations for their ‘priceless’ vase/necklace/hunk of junk that’s been in the garden shed for ten years. 
  23. Go on a courier trip! 
  24. Realise that overseas courier trips are actually a bit lonely and there is a lot of waiting around. 
  25. Fall out of love with museums, fall back in love with museums. In, out, shake it all about - this one never goes away. 
  26. Spend every Thursday lunchtime refreshing the Leicester museum job page. 
  27. Spend every weekday working in your museum, then every weekday evening at other institutions at events and openings. 
  28. Visit an exhibition and spend most of your time checking out the art hanging, checking the distance between the object and the barrier and tutting if it’s against your own museum policy. 
  29. Check out a range of museum stores and have storagegasms at their plan presses, rolling racking, shelving, the things we would do with good storage facilities! 

  30. Make friends and as you move on, get insider info from museum across London and the country!

This is not an exhaustive list and nor is necessarily something to aspire to but most of these points have been part of our journeys.  We'd love to hear more about how your museum career looked in your 20s! Tweet us @curiositytweet using #30before30. And if you are writing for the MA and want to publish a UK museums 30 under 30, just make sure to publish it in the next few weeks, ok?!

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Museum celeb etiquette 101

Something curious has happened to us in the last year, dear readers. In the last 12 months, both Terri and I have (wait for it) met the Queen! Yes it's true! HRH Queen Elizabeth II herself! But the odd part is - that's not so strange in museums. While meeting the longest serving monarch in British history is pretty cool - meeting, greeting and touring celebs and other important people is kind of part of the museum deal. It might be one of the few places where plebs like you and me get to use their titles as Registrar or Curator as the cultural capital you need to meet the stars. Or, let's be honest, sometimes you are just stuck looking after days upon days of filming, waiting to get a glimpse of your favourite Hollywood actor. But the fact is, if you are a museum worker, odds are you are going to end up bumping into a celeb before long. So, drawing on our years of personal experience, here you are -  meeting celebrities in museums 101.

Kristin is pretty excited to give HRH the Queen an exhibition tour. Copyright - Getty Images.

1) Be cool. I think we must start here. The first step is just to be cool around celebrities. Whether you are the Queen or Benedict Cumberbatch, they'd appreciate you not screaming at them or stalking them down the corridors. If a celebrity finds there way into your museum, it's probably because they are themselves there for work - an opening, or research or filming. So they are acting work professional, and so should you. Or at least wait until they are out of the room before freaking out.

2) Know your stuff. In most instances, if you are being asked to meet and greet a celeb, it's because they want your specialist knowledge, whether that's of conservation or an exhibition or a certain subject matter. So to the extent you can it's a good idea to brush up - try and anticipate their questions, or maybe write yourself a little introduction. Having a general idea of what you are going to say also helps calm the nerves. Meeting a celeb is also a great moment for advocacy - lots of people may not know much about your museum or museum work generally, and here is your chance to tell a proper influencer! I know Terri personally explained what a registrar was to the Queen.

3) Stay out of the way. Really celebs are there to get a job done (or just to have a visit) so once you've had an intro or done your bit, just get out of the way and let them get on with it. Particularly important if there is filming happening at your museum - that's lots of intense work and they've got scheduled to stick to! Similarly, if you just spot someone visiting with friends and family, better to just let them be. That said...

Simon Pegg visits a Power Up at the Science Museum.

4) Read the room.
Obviously we are all in it for a selfie, but with any celeb, you've got to time your request just right. They might be in character for an intense next scene or in the middle of a piece of research. Or sometimes, they might just be bored and wanting a chat. In which case, the time is right - get that selfie! Recently had to hold back asking Lucy Worsley for a selfie, while she was very friendly, she needed to get back to work!

Tom Hanks filming Inferno at the Palazzo Vecchio 

5) Have a laugh.
For the most part, if you are asked to look after a celeb in your museum it's because they are there for a work event. So compared to the work they are there doing - your job is probably pretty cool! People love to hear stories about wacky behind the scenes things, objects you've got to touch, amazing experiences you've had in museums. Feel free to share and entertain and make them smile - it's what you are there for! That said, there's no accounting for taste. I once joked to Eddie Redmayne that I was there to keep him from stealing our stuff. Well, I thought it was funny.

6) Know your protocol. So if you do end up meeting HRH the Queen, there is some more formal protocol. You should wait to speak until addressed. Greeting the Queen takes the form of a light hand shake with a curtsy or bow (your choice!). You should address her as 'Your Majesty' in the first instance and 'Ma'am' after that. No touching of course - and just be friendly! She's just like any other museum visitors... right?!

All sounds common sense, but believe us, it can be hard to remember when Eddie Redmayne is in your museum store. Have you had a close encounter with a celebrity at work? We want to hear your story! Tweet us @curiositytweet #museumceleb 

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Moving on up: from early career to... what?

Later this month, the MA will host it's fantastic Moving on Up one-day conference for early career museum professionals. We think it's a pretty great initiative - and not just because we spoke at the first ever one held in Manchester way back in 2013. 2018 marks 5 years since that conference, 6 years since we started the Ministry and a few measly months until we each hit the big 3-0. So that begs the question... when do we stop being early career professionals?!

Ah, so young, so fresh-faced in 2013. 
Maybe its the weight of the big birthday hanging over our heads, but we've spent a lot of time reflecting on where we are actually at in our careers these days. Moving on Up (MOU) is aimed at museum people in the first 5 years of their careers - and we have clocked up more like 7 or 8. Bother. When we started the Ministry in 2012, it was all about being early career professionals trying to make sense of the industry, get ahead, and have some fun. And you know what - we did all those things. We both now have managerial jobs in our respective museums - set programmes, balance budgets, hire staff. Are we the gatekeepers that we went to MOU to try and talk to?

Kristin looking very professional in her current role
It's an uneasy line between early and mid-career in museums - how are you meant to define that crucial shift? Is it years in work? Or is it age? Is it level of responsibility? Or, as one person suggested, having achieved something substantial or innovative (which sounds a terrifying measure of success by the way). I think the challenging thing about museums is that the workforce does tend to be quite young. You will often meet full curators at museums or other quite high level collections workers who are in the late twenties, having been working their way up since about the age of 22. Isn't it possible to be both an early career person and someone in a position of power?

Giving a keynote for the UKRG in 2014

Moving on in your museum career can be quite a scary thing. No longer identifying as early and emerging is scary for, well, the very human reason that aging is quite scary (or disorienting at least). But also, being in more responsible positions means you have an opportunity and an obligation to try and put some of the things you pushed for earlier in your career into practice - valuing the opinions of your junior staff, being more supportive of social media, being risk taking, encouraging diversity in the workplace and in exhibitions - and trying to improve canape provision at openings. And you know what? When it's your budget on the line, you dealing with organisational politics - you kind of get why it was so hard for your boss back in the day. 

Terri repping purple glove club, 2017.
If the goal was to move on up, I think we are on our way. If there's one thing that MOU is absolutely crucial for, it's networking. Networks are a lifeline in museums - partially because its a very unique field and you need to have people around you you can vent to, but also because we are really one small industry, and who you know can be very helpful. Particularly in collections roles (and for some reason especially with registrars) and can feel like there's about 10 people just swapping jobs in different institutions. But, being a closely-knit community is half the fun. 

But there are some things we wish all the early and emerging conferences and workshops had prepared us better for - like leadership skills, decision making, and budgets. These are tasks inherent to more senior roles, and not ones which you often learn before you need to just start doing them. You can be a really really good curator, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can balance a budget or manage a project. Fortunately, there are some good leadership programmes you can go on - the MA Transformers and the Clore Fellowships look particularly exciting. 

MA Transformers session
So what can we say to those of you heading to Moving on Up in a few weeks time - stay enthusiastic, stay curious, stay angry (as there are still many things in the field which need to change), but do what you can to build up not only your networks and social media presence as well as your skill sets. Volunteer to help with project and grant applications, shadow others when you can, take any leadership courses available to you, and for your own good, learn excel and all its mysteries (because it will come for you eventually). 

If you want to read more about our journey check out a few of our advice pieces here: 

Getting into Museums
Pay and the museum sector
Thoughts on museum blogging 
The story so far

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Jaffer-Humphreys Test: A Bechdel for the Museum World

A guest post by the wonderful Laura Humphreys (@tweetingbogart) 

I recently spent two years working on the Exploration Wing Galleries at Royal Museums Greenwich (Opening later in 2018). Walking back from a meeting, my colleague Aaron (Jaffer, Curator of World History & Cultures) and I were chatting about issues of representation, and particularly, of women. Wandering through the National Maritime Museum’s sprawling Neptune Hall, we were continuing a conversation which had started in the meeting: does Queen Elizabeth I represent women?

On the one hand, of course; she’s an imposing figure in our history, who oversaw a ‘Golden Age’ despite the best efforts of her father and the constraints of her time. But on the other hand, she was operating in a patrilineal structure, and the beneficiary of unimaginable inherited wealth, power, and status.  Does she almost… not count?  

Of course she counts, but she’s not enough. It’s a problem reminiscent of the ‘Strong Female Lead’ in films; there are many great films with an amazing lead female character who dominates the screen. However, sometimes those films don’t feel particularly feminist, or even equal, and the best way to articulate that is the infamous Bechdel Test.

The birth of the Bechdel Test, from Dykes to Watch Out For. © Alison Bechdel, 1985.

Based on a comic from Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel in 1985, the Bechdel Test provides a simple assessment for the level of female participation in a film/ book/ show. It asks these questions:
  1. Are there at least two female characters?
  2. Do two female characters have a conversation about something other than a man?
If the answer to both is yes, you’re in luck: your film has passed the Bechdel Test! It’s a low bar, right?

Not low enough, it seems. Many films don’t fulfil this most basic of requirements. Toy Story doesn’t pass. The Godfather doesn’t pass. Citizen Kane doesn’t pass. 7 out of 8 Harry Potter films don’t pass (interestingly ALL the books do… but that’s another blog entirely). And nowhere in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit films is there a passing conversation. And as for films with that Strong Female Lead? Run Lola Run, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Blind Side all fail. Even Alien only passes if you assume the titular Alien isn’t a bloke.

So, in a brazen act of plagiarism, we decided it was time Museums had their own version, to articulate why cursory nods to Queens and wives are not good enough. Enter the Jaffer-Humphreys Test! When visiting (or preferably, developing) a museum exhibition or gallery, ask yourself these two questions:

1. Are there at least two women ‘on display’ in this gallery?
This doesn’t need to be photographs or paintings of women – it needs to recognise the role of women in the history of a place/ industry/ event/ movement. There are very few legitimate cases where women don’t belong in a gallery narrative – so if they aren’t there, someone isn’t doing their job.

Florence goddamn Nightingale pioneered the use of statistical analysis and visual representation of information to save lives.

The Winton Gallery of Mathematics at the Science Museum is a good example; Florence Nightingale’s pioneering use of statistics and Ada Lovelace’s l33t computer programming skills are central stories, in a gallery which celebrates the sweeping geometrical architecture of the late Zaha Hadid. There aren’t images of any of these women, because there don’t need to be – they have parity with their male counterparts.

2. Are they presented in terms of their relationship to a man?

What we’re looking to avoid here is “Ethel was the wife of Great White Man who takes up 95% of the gallery – here is her glove” in a display case near the exit. Mothers, daughters, wives, and mistresses have long been hastily co-opted into a gallery because someone noticed in the final draft that there weren’t any women. This women-as-historical-footnote approach is tokenistic and reactionary, and it needs to get in the sea.

BUT – these women can, and should, be presented as whole beings in their own right. A good example would be Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity which was on display at the National Maritime Museum 2016-2017.

Emma Hamilton, plotting the downfall of the patriarchy

Hamilton was famously Nelson’s mistress, and has long been maligned as a homewrecker and a distracter of one of our national heroes. This exhibition aimed to portray Hamilton as a political and cultural actor in her own right, a polymath and social influencer long before she ever clapped eyes on Nellyface. The reason the National Maritime Museum collections are rich in her belongings and archives is because she was his girlfriend, sure – but it’s what you DO with that stuff that counts. Even a superficial reading of Emma Hamilton takes you beyond the mistress narrative, and reveals one of the most spectacular humans in European history.

So, to pass the Jaffer-Humphreys Test you need at least two women, presented in their own right, in any gallery or exhibition. As with the Bechdel itself, the stark truth of the current situation lies in the reverse test. Can you think of a single film where two men DON’T talk about something other than a woman?! Almost unheard of.

And so – can you think of a museum gallery where there AREN’T two men, represented in their own right? Me neither.

Bout time we changed that, I reckon.

Another absolute belter from 1985. Not enough has changed.

The Jaffer-Humphreys Test: FAQs

OH CRAP. The exhibition I’m working on doesn’t pass the test! What do I DO?!
Calm down and take a breath, friend. It’s pretty bad that your exhibition doesn’t pass and you should really examine why that is, but you have realised in time and we are here to help! Firstly; women are 51% of the population, currently and historically, so numbers are on your side. Secondly, women are everywhere! You may have to look a bit harder, because we’re working with 2,000 years + of systemic sexism, but women are fierce and have left their mark on history.

For example: Are you struggling with 16th & 17th century maritime history, which women were nothing to do with? You’re in luck! That’s a lie – how about pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read? Or, the archaeological evidence from the HMS London disaster, which Samuel Pepys wrote about in his diary that shows women and children were on board? Or take a different approach to your sources, like the excellent Hannah Worthen, who is researching the petitions of women in the Civil War to the admiralty for aid to build a better picture of their lives as naval wives.

Archives, objects, and history itself are all deeply political. As boss scholars like Antoinette Burton, Jacques Derrida, and Miles Ogborn have all argued, archives and museums are political actors in their own right, and sometimes their silences speak louder than anything else. What is kept and what is binned is never an accident – and nor are the stories and voices you amplify.   

But, isn’t this a low bar still?
YUP. Supes low. Painfully low. But when the Jaffer-Humphreys Test was first presented, we asked a room of about 30 people – largely museum professionals – to think of a gallery they know well or have worked on, and apply the test. We asked everyone to raise their hands at the end if their gallery passed the test… and, nothing.

This is a tool to push people to recognise that representing women isn’t optional/ too hard/ irrelevant to their topic – it should be integral. Use this test as an indicator of the bare minimum – the job is far from finished at two women, but at least it has begun.

I work at a Natural History/ Geology/ obscure hand tools museum. We have no people, so we have no problem, right?
WRONG, my dude. Rebecca Machin has written about staggering gender bias in Natural History Displays, and there’s a whole book about women in Geology – if you’re just showing people rocks, you have a-whole-nother problem. And hey, did you know that the circular saw was invented by Tabitha Babbitt in 1815? No excuses – humans are an integral part of all museums; our relationship with objects and their history is what makes museums museums, not cupboards.

Does this test account for intersectional representations of women?
Nope – and that’s another reason it should be used with great care. This is one simple test for one facet of representation, but there are almost endless issues with how museums interpret histories and geographies of race, sexuality, health, wealth, and gender, to name but a few. We need to keep looking long and hard at what we say and display; and again, I point you in the direction of far smarter dudes than I, who have written extensively on this subject. And I invite you to mess with the test and come up with a better version!

Does this work for Art Galleries?
Errrr… not always. It does in some cases, and depends on how you apply it. Women are often artists, depicted in art, and generally a major part of the world. However, that doesn’t always translate to representation, so we should definitely be turning the eye of scrutiny towards art galleries. But it’s tricky; art doesn’t have to be figurative, so a Jackson Pollack or a Mondrian exhibition would mess with this test, for example.

I am a confirmed art idiot despite my best efforts, so I would encourage you to seek out the wonderful art historians, curators, and artists who write brilliant stuff about  this subject. They will have a much better plan!

Why does the man’s name come first in the test name?
Aaron & I first presented the Jaffer-Humphreys Test as part of a seminar we gave on developing permanent galleries (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galleries), which was delivered in an A-Z format. We had about 17 ideas for H, and not a sausage for J. So, not patriarchy, but pragmatism! You should go see the #SeaSem seminars by the way: they’re GREAT.

Do Ships Count?
No mate, they don’t. And if you’re still referring to ships (or any other inanimate object) as “she”, you’re more out of date than Lloyds of London. Try harder.