Careers in museums, galleries and heritage can cover a whole range of professions – curatorial, learning and conservational roles are perhaps the most obvious but designers and craftspeople, administrators and human resources managers, visitor services managers and front-of-house staff are all equally important to the successful running of a modern organisation.
With such a diversity of staff there are, inevitably, different ways of getting into the cultural heritage sector. Some staff roles such as craftspeople and front-of-house may well draw in people from a graduate or under-graduate level. Other roles may well draw in people who have developed their skills in another sector and are stepping sideways into cultural heritage. This is especially true of people working in design, administration, human resources or visitor services management.
Employers of curatorial, learning and conservational staff have very different ideas about what their ideal candidates for these roles should be like. So there isn’t a single list of things you need to have before you go looking for a job.
It’s better to think that these roles demand different blends of knowledge, skills and aptitudes and that each museum, gallery or heritage organisation will have a different blend that they are looking for.
What you need to do, then, is think about the area that you are interested in working in, your own knowledge, skills and aptitudes so that you can identify your strengths and the things you want to develop. For example:
Until recently, it was more or less normal for people in curatorial, learning and conservational roles to acquire a relevant Masters in order to get these jobs. But attitudes to Masters courses are slowly changing with some employers putting an increasing emphasis on this broader set of skills, knowledge, experience and aptitudes. In this case, ‘experience’ is often gained through volunteering. However, ICCHS staff strongly feel that the Masters programmes provide graduates with a range of skills, knowledge and experience that give them a stronger foundation for a successful career in museums, galleries and heritage.
In April 2007 a report The Tomorrow People: entry to the museum workforce was published by the Museums Association. The report was based on a study carried out by Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association, during a Research Fellowship at the University of East Anglia.
The report attempts to describe the current state of affairs for people trying to get into the museums workforce and for those trying to progress in their careers, it also makes a series of recommendations.
Conversations with prospective students have indicated that some people have read this report and that it influenced their decisions regarding whether or not to enter the cultural heritage sector. For this reason, amongst others, we felt that it is important to present our responses to the findings and recommendations of the report. You can read our response in this document (PDF file).
The majority of employers look to see whether applicants for entry-level posts have already gained some experience through voluntary work.
Recent reports have criticised the sector’s insistence on volunteering as a precursor to work. But, for whatever reasons, the sector is showing little signs of change.
We recommend that it is worth volunteering if you can. For more information on how to gain voluntary experience at museums, galleries and heritage sites, please take a look at our Voluntary Experience advice (PDF file).
An extensive (8 week) Work placement is built into all the programmes in order to enable you to gain that experience.
Our MA programmes provide students with knowledge and skills that they might need immediately, as well as those they might need later in their career. We believe that the programmes also provide students with a broader understanding of the sector and help students think critically about how organisations work, how the sector works and how that affects day-to-day working practices.
This breadth and critical thinking is one of the strengths of an MA programme and possibly the only time in a career that you get to develop these skills.
Different employers want different sets of skills and knowledge and what the senior management teams say they want is not always the same as what employees say they need.
People working in the cultural heritage sector lead very busy working lives and have very little time to step back from their work and think about why they are doing it. It has also become clear that not all employers can or do invest significant resources into developing their staff.
So we are of the view that our MA courses deliver knowledge, skills and understanding that are broader than the specific set being demanded by employers but which is nonetheless of value to both employers and employees throughout their careers.
Not all MA programmes are equal. Employer criticisms indicate that not every course provides their graduates with the skills they need. Unfortunately the organisations that used to provide external accreditation of courses have stopped doing so. So it is difficult for people thinking about taking an MA to decide which courses are best; not least because we all claim to be wonderful!
The best we can do is tell you what our alumni said about how well our programmes prepared them for working in museums, galleries and heritage organisations.
"I feel I have much more of a broad view of museum work than some of my colleagues who have concentrated on one area of work."
"Although I hated it at the time, the academic rationale behind the Issues and Ideas module has been a foundation stone on which to build. I think as a sector we can get too bogged down in the day-to-day and forget the purposes behind what we are doing."
"The programme was a good introduction to how the sector works (organisational structures) and covered most aspects of the job I am doing now."
"Practical skills learnt on the course were invaluable."
"I feel that in my case I entered the sector at a junior level and it has taken a few years to progress to a level where the more issues in the course were relevant."
"It was a very practical, hands-on program, rather than theory-based, which I felt was much more helpful in the real world."
"The course balanced academic theory with practical skills to work within the sector - using people working within the field was excellent."
"I really enjoyed my Masters studies at ICCHS. It was challenging, fun and practical."
"The course gave a good overview for what to expect in the arts sector - with the placement giving a great hands on experience."
"Found it an excellent stepping-off point for employment in the sector."
"In general, I had a great time -I loved the people and the course material."
Our alumni have also provided valuable constructive criticism and we are responding to these by developing the course content and structure to further improve our programmes.
Doing the MA is another step towards getting a job in a museum, gallery or heritage site.
We have recently set up an alumni mailing list to help our alumni look for work or training. This list been advertised to the many organisations we work with. They can, and do, freely advertise jobs, internships, volunteering and training opportunities to our alumni. You can subscribe to this mailing list by e-mailing ICCHS and indicating your current e-mail address.
The Newcastle University Careers Service is also available to all graduates for 2 years after graduation, providing them with support and guidance.