Moving on Up Event

Originally posted as Moving on Up Event Report 3 on Museum Development North West:

Nearing the end of my traineeship at Manchester Museum,  I’m grateful to Museums Development North West for the opportunity to find out ‘secrets of the successful museum career’, and see how others are finding things as their careers develop.  A wider theme through the day was the nature of leadership and how to effect change at whatever level within an organisation.

Hilary McGowan’s ‘How to pitch yourself’ had immediate practical impact and focused precisely on her message – clarity.  We learnt how to work up a personal pitch for different scenarios – in the lift, in the Dragon’s Den, in an interview, in a presentation, using a target time to put ourselves across succinctly.

Speed-mentoring was too good an opportunity to miss and a chance to practice my pitching.  Jack Kirby, Head of Collections at MOSI, got straight to the point with lots of common-sense advice.  If you get a chance to do this but are apprehensive, take the opportunity – its well worth getting another perspective.

Tamsin Russell, organisational development manager at National Museums of Scotland, got us taking control of our careers with ‘Mapping your success’, making the point that its good to have a plan even if other factors (such as life) intervene.  In 5 easy exercises we plotted our working lifetime and worked out how many ‘5-year chunks’ we have left, ticked roles on an organisational structure that would attract us, and reflected on what was needed to bridge the gap between where we are now and where we want to be.  ‘Listen to the advice you give your friends’ was a thought-provoking piece of advice.

In ‘Question time’ three museum directors, Kate Brindley, Graham Boxer and Katy Archer, shared how they got to where they are today and fielded questions from the audience.  There was little disagreement between the panellists on most things:

Tips for getting that job

  • Don’t be afraid to throw away the plan, its important to work out what you don’t want to do.
  • Apply for everything, don’t worry about rejection, be persistent.
  • Don’t expect a linear career path.
  • Interviews work both ways, use them to learn about the institution, and ask for feedback.
  • After shortlisting, most candidates interviewed will probably have the necessary skills, so its important to be yourself.  Make sure your attitude and values come across.  Show enthusiasm for the organisation and passion for the job.  Ask good questions – but not too many!

But bear in mind …

  • You won’t be happy if the organisations values don’t match your own.
  • Always put yourself first, you might do something not perfect to get a foot in the door and valuable experience, but be selfish.

How to cope when jobs you want to move into are disappearing

  • Taking other roles outside work add breadth to work life.
  • Have a go at everything, get different experiences and network outside your organisation, keep abreast of developments.
  • The prevalence of short-term contracts mitigate against developing project development skills, but they can widen skills and experience.

Qualifications? A difference of opinion … from ‘not relevant’ to ‘lack of qualifications can be an issue’.  It was acknowledged that they’re often used for shortlisting.  In response to a comment off-panel that ‘there’s no point in getting a degree from somewhere rubbish’, strong opinions were expressed that organisations need to lose the straitjacket of qualifications and review the criteria they use so they get people with the skills they need.  Senior staff need to look at the whole person, their skills and not whether candidates ‘hold a Courtauld degree – that mentality is unjust and blocks talent’.

So, you’ve got the job – now, how to be part of ‘a radical workforce who challenge themselves and the sector.’

Richard Wilson of OSCA, the Social Change Agency, thinks a new breed of leader is needed – the Anti-Hero – open minded, passionate, not detached, adaptive – very different from the ‘heroic leaders who dominate our institutions today’.  These days, he said, we don’t need to learn stuff anymore (our smartphones can look it up for us), but we need empowering, transformative learning – changes in how we know.  And we can individually change things we are passionate about through using the support of colleagues and friends.

But – what makes a radical workforce?  

Maggie Appleton , Rowan Brown and David Fleming described how they would shake up the museum sector.  This prompted fruitful group discussion out of which came:

  •  Think of your audience and know your values, be prepared to be flexible but stick to goals.
  • Using questioning to bring a fresh perspective
  • Remember, being radical is relative.
  •  The importance of personal passion working in an existing culture.  Work within the system to gain trust before trying to change things.
  • Theres’ a danger of a community feeling let down if there’s lack of continuity through constant changes.
  • Use periods of consolidation – not constant change.
  • Organisations want to be seen as radical but don’t want to change ways of working.
  • For the security of their career, people may feel they need to be strategic rather than radical.
  • Trust and empowerment of junior staff is needed, respecting the contributions of all staff.
  • Difficulties of motivating jaded staff
  • A culture is needed where its possible to fail.

In his Final Thoughts, David Anderson was bored by the argument ‘Are museums for collections or people?’  We need to think about what we want to achieve.  Again, as at the MA conference, he asked ‘Are we a profession, a service, or a vocation for a bigger purpose beyond ourselves’. His answer was ‘a vocation’, with special responsibilities to help improve people’s lives (prompting a twitter-flurry –  ‘but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t pay a living wage’.)

This was the second time I’d heard David Anderson speak and again he finished with a rather depressing call to action.  He said what he’d heard today gave him great hope in the human spirit and urged us to act on today for ourselves but also for the sector – its up to us to sort this mess out…

In a day when we were urged to be leaders, there was acknowledgement that its not always easy to say what we think, and that we all need the support of friends and colleagues and an organisation that’s prepared to listen.  It was clear that everyone I met, or who spoke, is committed to working in organisations which change lives for the better, and that’s reassuring.  Events like this can help to evolve a supportive museum community with a shared ethos.

Claire Miles
HLF Curatorial Trainee in Natural History, Manchester Museum

Widening horizons: MA Conference


On 11 and 12 November, I attended the Museums Association Conference along with my 3 fellow HLF trainees.  The experience took me out of my comfort zone at times, was depressing at others, but stretching, informative and rewarding overall.

Of the 2 keynote speeches, 3 networking events, 8 talks and seminars and 4 workshops here are snapshots of 3 of the most inspiring and/or practically useful sessions I attended …

Dead zoos

 3 panel members set out their position for two issues relevant to my own area: Why do we need specialist natural science curators and how can natural history collections help people connect with environmental sustainability issues?

For me, obviously the first topic was preaching to the converted, but the questions raised by the audience highlighted current issues with natural history collections, particularly the lack of specialists ie ‘How can collections be used without a specialist curator?’

Darren Mann (Oxford Museum of Natural History) explained why curators need to evolve from ivory tower ‘curationists’ to curators who not only care for collections, but make collections accessible and engage with visitors, students, researchers and others. Specialist curators are needed so collections aren’t lost.

 Clare Brown (NatSCA) outlined what a gift a natural history collection is for discussing and promoting environmental issues and examples were provided by the panel and the audience.  She encouraged actively seeking help and collaboration  – with NatSCA (who can help with funding applications, for example), and with larger museums who have a responsibility to support others.

 For Henry McGhie (Manchester Museum), using natural history for environmental messaging is about connecting collections to the present.  A questionnaire made us wonder if our attitudes relating to nature were the same as our values.  Key messages were: ‘You are not your audience’ (nature means different things to different people, and these views are equally valid) and ‘More love, less loss’ (hammering the extinction message can lead to apathy).

 An audience member suggested promoting environmental sustainability was not necessarily presenting a ‘balanced’ view.  It was pointed out that the Code of Ethics lays out the need to support biodiversity and sustainability. Specialists can help people to understand complex issues and provide a trusted point of reference.

2013-11-12 11.06.47

Keynote speech:  Ricardo Brodsky, Director of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile .

This was a thought-provoking speech about an institution set up for a specific purpose at a particular time, dealing with extremely difficult issues both past and present. 

Given with the aid of an interpreter, he set out the context for the opening of the museum in 2010 as a national and regional reference centre, with a mission to make known the human rights violations during the military regime from 1973 to 1990.  Mr Brodsky described it as the State’s expression of moral reparation, to return dignity to each victim and fulfil a duty of memory, to strengthen the national will and prevent similar events.  The first precept was to establish truth – 2 commissions acknowledged massive human rights violations by the government at the time.  Victims’ groups were initially critical, seeing the museum as a government-led project. (It is a private foundation set up by the state with finance awarded annually.)  However, he says, people now feel included.  Some visitors experience tension between records of physical reality and their subjective memories so it is critically important to have the most accurate available records.  ‘To transmit a universal message requires a central reference and the opportunity to debate’.  We were reminded this is an environment in which many protagonists still hold public posts. 

Overcoming your fears of managing volunteers.

Curators rely on the work done by volunteers so I was keen to get an insight into how others approach this and this was one of the most practically useful sessions attended.

The benefits of recruiting volunteers were outlined – creating ties to the community, acting as ambassadors, performing tasks staff don’t have time for, providing specialist knowledge/skills and not least, providing a team for staff who may spend a lot of time on their own.  The nitty-gritty of recruiting a diverse range of volunteers, setting up role descriptions, interviewing and training were discussed as well as handy hints on how to fit it all in with the day job.  How Volunteer Managers work with curators was an interesting question which, unfortunately, there wasn’t time to discuss.

By combining this session with the workshop on Tips on how to professionally manage volunteers and the session Youth Justice, I comprehensively covered the benefits, practicalities and pitfalls of working with volunteers and young people.