Experience, Experience, Experience: Volunteering

In my last post, I mentioned some of the reasons why I decided to pursue a career in the museum world, but I also ‘hinted’ at some of the problems that I encountered in my job hunt. When I left University, I was unable to find a museum job for around six months, which is actually quite a short amount of time when attempting to break into this sector. During this time, applying for jobs was almost like a full time job in itself, and although I was given several interviews, I was knocked back each time. The main reason for this: I did not have enough experience. It didn’t matter that I had an MA in Museum Studies – without experience, I couldn’t really be considered.

So, in this post (and probably the next), I am going to talk about just that – how to get the skills and experience you need to get yourself a paid job (and subsequently more experience to find an even better job). I am in no way an expert on this, and so I am going to have to rely very heavily on my own story.

The Joys of Volunteering

Volunteering is probably the best way of getting the basic experience you need to stand a chance in interviews, and, fortunately, there are a lot of institutions rely on volunteers in the day to day running of the museum or heritage site. It is also a great way of working out what type of museum work you would like to be doing.

As you may remember from my last post, I mentioned that I first began to consider museum work as a possible career back when I was 17, and this was because I had started volunteering for the National Trust. Before then, I had been dragged to different castles and stately homes on family holidays and weekend trips since childhood, and eventually had grown to enjoy them. I had always had a particularly vivid imagination (to the extent that I would often do everything in my power to avoid everyone so that I could explore my daydreams undisturbed), and so I particularly loved immersing myself in the historic decoration, furniture and paintings I found there. I wanted to know what things were so that I could envisage how they might have been used, and then work them into the stories I was creating.

However, I never really considered the idea of working in a museum until I started volunteering. After my GCSEs, I took part in ‘The Challenge’*, at the end of which I was expected to volunteer for some sort of organisation or charity. Because of my fond memories, I chose to volunteer for the National Trust, working first at the Birmingham Back to Backs, and then at Baddesley Clinton.* At some point, I realized that I actually quite liked telling people stories about the house, the objects inside, and the people who once lived there.

And this is the point I became fixated with the idea of working in museums.

In many ways, this was the best way of working out what I wanted to do with my life – I now knew what I enjoyed doing and could now work towards some sort of goal. By volunteering you can try out lots of different kinds of museum work – at the National Trust, for example, I tried my hand as a Room Guide, served customers in the reception and the shop, and helped out with ‘housekeeping’.*

It also meant that I met people who worked in the heritage sector and were actually paid. They could offer me advice, and were often brutally honest about the obstacles that I would face. Although I don’t think I fully realized just how difficult it would be in reality, this gave me some sort of a game plan.

Getting Older and Wiser

If you’re serious about working in the museum world, you really have to persevere. Volunteering can’t just be a one time thing, but something you constantly work at or revisit. Later on, you also have to become more targeted in terms of the types of experience you want to gain, and work out how you can fill gaps in your skill-set and knowledge. In a way, I did this throughout my degrees, volunteering in the local Cathedral Library and Archive, and then for the local museum service. However, this was sporadic, and it was only after I had finished my MA, that I realized where the biggest gap in my knowledge lay – documentation.

I am planning to write a post about documentation and museum collections databases later on, so I don’t really want to go into too much detail here. To quickly summarize, documentation refers to the information that the museum holds about its collection, which is usually stored in an electronic collections database. It may sound dry, but it is one of the most important aspects of museum work, recording information ranging from what the object is, to who actually owns the object (which, believe it or not, isn’t always clear). I had decided that I wanted to work with museum collections, and this kind of experience was essential. Unfortunately, it is really difficult to find. For some reason, museums can be rather touchy about untrained volunteers meddling with their records. (Something about accidentally deleting entire records…?)

Eventually I was able to gain documentation experience by volunteering in the collections team of a small, local museum, but this was only after a lot of research, and contacting a lot of different museums.

I suppose that my point that I am trying to make is that it is great to volunteer as widely as you can at the beginning – it gives you a ton of opportunities and experiences that you would otherwise have missed. However, you also have to be smart about it. Think about where you want to go with your career, and pinpoint the areas you need to develop in. Hopefully this will mean that you will move forward, rather than staying stuck in a voluntary job.

* The Birmingham Back to Backs and Baddesley Clinton are both National Trust properties, but they are very different. The Back to Backs are a set of back-to-back houses built around a courtyard, the kind of houses that working class families would have lived in between the Industrial Revolution and the 1960s. Baddesley Clinton, on the other hand is a moated house in Warwickshire which is full of priest holes (used to hide Jesuit priests attempting to convert England back to Catholicism in the 1580s and 1590s).

* House Keeping was almost like set-dressing in theatre. The aim was to create an immersive environment, so included things like setting the fires in each house, turning the mattresses, adding different scents to different rooms, all of which were supposed to make the houses feel lived in. 

*So basically I think I have deleted all of the photos of anywhere I volunteered (because I am an idiot) – the featured image is of A La Ronde in Devon, another National Trust property – although I haven’t ever volunteered here myself, this is still a great example of the kind of place that you could volunteer at. Also, it is a really nice picture.


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