How to Get a Job in a Museum Or Art Gallery

Foreword

Museums and galleries are a microcosm of the world: places of pleasure and learning. And working in them is an exciting way to be involved with the big questions of where we have come from and who we are. What used to be slow-paced and sometimes backward-looking organisations have, by and large, become lively and audience-centred, concerned with how issues of current public interest can be understood through collections of art and objects – and also be engaging. The key element of a good museum is making someone’s visit wonderful and memorable.

One of the many changes over the past 20 years has been a new focus on training and professional development. Museum directors and managers have realised that however much energy is devoted to collecting and understanding objects, the people who work in the institutions matter just as much. The many skills of the staff are needed so that objects and works of art can be carefully conserved, beautifully presented, properly recorded, researched and understood and then communicated to a broader public. The range of museum skills has now been extended to include fields such as digital programming, educational outreach work, specialist marketing and fundraising.

Those working in museums, both small and large, will therefore have a mix of talents and experience, and increasingly come from diverse backgrounds and educational routes. What they will probably share is an inquisitive nature combined with considerable creativity, self-reflection and a passion for teamwork. Objects matter, but enjoying the processes of learning from other people is crucially important.

If you think you might be interested in working in a museum or gallery, go and visit one, examine it critically, and consider whether this is a place to which you would like to contribute. I hope that reading this book will help you on your way.

Sandy Nairne, Director, National Portrait Gallery

October 2009

Part I:

The world of

museums and

galleries

Chapter 1

Why work in a museum or art

gallery?

Working in a museum or gallery is an appealing career prospect for many; it often attracts those who visited them during their childhood, found them places of solace in their teenage years – or rather liked the look of what Ross in Friends did for a living. Visits as part of a university course may strengthen that desire – and students of history or history of art may find themselves particularly drawn to such a career (although experts are needed in many fields of speciality, as broad as a museum’s range of content, from palaeontology to machine tools).

But while it’s easy to dream of working in such an institution, the practical details of what’s involved are less easily come by. This book provides guidance on how to discover if the world of museums and galleries is really for you, and how to find a job if you decide this is indeed your chosen path.

A word of warning before we start. Entry is highly competitive and there are many more people seeking jobs than there are positions available. But then if you don’t try, you stand no chance at all.

What working in a museum or gallery is really like

‘I did work experience in The Courtauld Gallery during the summer before my final year at university, and found the real privilege was in seeing the pictures in different lights each day – from the harsh light of the early morning to the balmier light of the afternoons. I really felt I got to know the pictures and this was hugely satisfying.’

ALISON BAVERSTOCK

If you cherish the notion that working in an art gallery or museum is a peaceful escape from the hurly-burly of modern life, or that it offers a haven away from more commercial choices, then think again. These days, galleries and museums not only have to compete for funds but also raise a substantial portion of their own revenue. Loving the items under your care is not enough, and your employers will want more from you than simply the knowledge that you are enjoying your surroundings.

What’s so satisfying about working in this world?

1. Close proximity to things of significance

Working in a museum or gallery offers you the chance to get close to items that have witnessed, or played a part in history, over both the long and short term.

People who work in galleries and museums feel that what they do matters; that they are looking after the cultural capital of the world and preserving it for future generations, and that by explaining the significance of items to a wider audience they are enhancing life.

‘Many of the skills