The CAL Careers Team recently attended the Museums Association annual conference, held at the ICC in central Birmingham.

This two day event was aimed at museums professionals and, as well as the main conference, there were some free workshops open to anyone.

We went along to the enticingly titled workshop ‘So you want to work in museums…?’ to see what we could find out for students interested in this sector. Run by two members of the Museums Association, this 30 minute talk to a packed audience gave an overview of the sector as it currently stands, along with useful tips for developing your career. Rather than discussing experience and volunteering opportunities, the workshop focused on developing relevant skills.

Unsurprisingly, the first thing that was highlighted was that it is tough out there at the moment – local authority museums are expecting a further 25%-50% cuts! The speakers assured us that there are still opportunities out there though!

The speakers highlighted that the type of future museum professionals that the sector needs are:

  • Agile
  • Understand that museums are core to communities
  • Able to embrace risk and failure
  • Able to influence
  • Open to change

They also put forward that in their experience, the number 1 skill for helping you develop a career in museums is the ability to listen. Although this might seem like an obvious thing to do, they explained how practicing active listening throughout all stages of your career gives you the ability to gain a better understanding of the field.  Some tips for active listening include:

  • Use positive body language
  • Ensure the person knows you are listening but don’t interrupt
  • Focus entirely on what they are communicating
  • Ask open questions
  • Don’t try and resolve problems, let them explore the subject

The session then moved on to explore the topic of ‘Why do you want to work in museums?’ and encouraged the audience to think about the following:

  • What are the key values you have about working in museums and what difference do you want to make
  • What will you not compromise on? (Location etc.)
  • The sector is changing and shrinking. Many traditional roles are disappearing.
  • Roles are becoming more varied e.g. a mixture of different things such as curating and education etc.
  • Think about how you can build flexibility, jobs that will take you to the bigger picture (vision of where you want to be)
  • Think about this when you are looking for jobs. What excites you?

Although the museum industry is very competitive, there are gaps in the market. The sector currently struggles to recruit those with skills in IT and technology, entrepreneurial and business skills.  Communication skills and the ability to influence others are also key. The speakers highlighted the need for those looking to work in museums to consider their strengths and weaknesses and work on developing skills that can set them apart from others.  Some other suggested tips for building a career in the sector were:

  • Get a mentor- they can be very useful in supporting you to think about things differently. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to be your mentor or ask if they could suggest someone appropriate.
  • Speak to peers – others at a similar career stage can help you learn and suggest new ideas
  • Join local networks or become a trustee of a heritage site. Both of these could allow you to get involved in organising events etc. and building your management skills.

Some final thoughts that we were left with were the need to be flexible in your approach and appreciate that the sector is going through a period of change at the moment. Those looking to work in the sector may have to take periods working in a different field and then come back in. However, this could be useful in helping to develop some of the skills needed for a successful museum career.

This post was written by Natasha Kerven, Placements Officer and Michelle May, Internship Officer.