I decided that working in museums was for me when I was about 17, but when I told my classmates, their main question was…why? And over the years, I’ve asked myself the the same question time and time again. To what seemed like everyone else my age, museums were dull ‘mausoleum’-type places, visited for educational reasons rather than out of interest. The vain and confidence-lacking teenager in me asked ‘Am I boring for wanting this kind of job’ and ‘Am I indulging my inner old lady’.* And later, when I was struggling to find a job, I asked myself, is this worth it? Why spend all these hours writing applications for jobs that I’m not getting interviews for, competing against an invisible crowd of people who seemed to be far more qualified and experienced than me? And what for? The majority of jobs that I felt I could do were part-time gigs that paid next to nothing, or worse, full-time voluntary positions that grudgingly paid for travel costs. Why bother?
Okay, so the last few questions, bar one, are pretty standard for anyone experiencing unemployment or trying to break into a new sector. Constant rejection sucks away at your self confidence, particularly when you screw up an interview you know you would have aced had you a) prepared for the right questions, or b) kept your head. So that leaves two main questions: does wanting to work in a museum make you boring/old, and why do the job if it doesn’t pay well? Give me a chance, and I will try to answer these questions in a very round about way!
Are museums really ‘mausoleums’ full of dusty things that belonged to dead people?
Not necessarily. One of the main purposes of the museum is to create and preserve collections of objects, and quite often these objects once belonged to people who are long since dead. They are also very likely to be dusty. Plus these objects have been taken out of their ‘original’ context, categorized, and put on display in an artificial setting. However, does this mean that they are ‘dead’ spaces that never change?
As someone who works in museums, my answer is a resounding no! If the only purpose of a museum was to accumulate a pile stuff then guard it jealously, then yeah, they would be dead spaces. But there is more to most museums than just that. For the last couple of decades, concepts like ‘Access’, ‘Engagement’, and ‘Representation’ have completely changed the way that museums think of their role in the local, national and international community, and therefore how they justify their existence. The collection itself is obviously very important, but their main strength lies in how it is used, or rather how the museum enables their audiences to use it. Whether developing galleries and exhibitions to interpret these objects and tell stories, brainstorming immersive and interactive events for audiences to engage with, or encouraging researchers to use the collection to learn more about the past, museums actively seek to make sure that their collections are accessible and relevant to as wide an audience as possible, and to expand these audiences to their limits.
Moreover, the collections themselves are often in a state of flux. Museums continue to develop them to make sure it is ‘representative’ of the world we live in. This can mean anything from reflecting changes in the natural world to illuminating technological development. It could mean exploring changes in our political system, or revealing the histories of people whose stories have often been whitewashed or buried in traditional narratives.
I don’t know about you, but the impression that this has left me is that museums can be surprisingly dynamic places, both to visit and to work. I suppose, for me, this realization answered both of the questions I asked myself earlier in this post – I was fascinated with the idea of working in a museum, and, in particular, working with museum collections, and so I was willing to struggle indefinitely to get the job that I wanted. Does this make me boring? There are plenty of things that (in someone else’s eyes) make me boring, but I don’t really think my job is one of them. Besides, who cares?
My second question ‘is it worth it’ is slightly trickier. Financially, no, it probably isn’t – I can’t think of anyone who entered the museum world for the money. I suppose that this would be a sticking point for some, and so it is really a matter of priorities. For me, my fascination with the sector outweighed my desire to ever own a house.*
*At this point in time, I was very concerned that I wasn’t acting ‘my age’.
*Please note…I sometimes have a tendency to be slightly (only slightly) over-dramatic. I have to admit that several of my colleagues and friends in the sector do, in fact, own a house.
*The featured image for this post is of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where I found my first, full-time, paid museum job. It was an amazing museum that initially seems to have stayed exactly the same since it’s creation in 1884. In reality it’s displays are regularly updated, and it now actively engages with communities around the world to develop it’s understanding of its ethnographic collections, and to display/care for them with cultural sensitivity. More on that later!