Moving on up: Secrets of the successful museum career. #MOU2014

On February 6th, I had the amazing opportunity, thanks to Museum Development North West, to attend the Museum Association’s ‘Moving on up: Secrets of the successful museum career’ (MOU) event held at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI).

Luckily for me, MOSI is located merely down the road from my home; it’s quicker to get here than it is my own museum. Other delegates however came from far and wide. Throughout the day I met professionals from London, Wales, Scotland, and various other places dotted around the UK. With delegates from large museums, universities and smaller, local museums, the mix of people in attendance enable us to learn along with each other and yet, from each other and to network, network, network!!

I must apologise in advance for this post being quite long but with about 15 speakers, one to one speed mentoring sessions and 150 fellow attendees, there was a lot of information to take in, to share and ideas to be inspired by.

First up was Richard Wilson, author of the anti-hero report. Wilson spoke how the anti-hero suggests why we are so frustrated with the people who lead us. This is not just the people in charge of our museums, but also the people we have in place to tackle the much larger issues such as poverty and global warming. In order to deal with this situation as individuals we need to become more adaptable and flexible, less flight, more fighting fire with fire. As relatively new museum professionals (this conference was aimed at those in the first five years of their careers) we, well I know I do, often feel that our input and ideas might not be worthy of recognition. That is not on the people I work with, my team are amazing, but it is on me.

Wilson spoke how people who hold the reins might not always see modern issues and adapt to them; museums and these higher positions need to adapt, however only 5% are. This is where we come in. We need to step out of our comfort zone and get involved in what, I think if we are working in a museum environment, is our passion. If we change how we function, we will be in control; we become the change that we want to see!

You can read ‘Anti Hero – The hidden revolution in leadership and change’ HERE.

Following this David Fleming, Maggie Appleton and Rowan Brown discussed what makes a radical workforce. Each of the speakers’ referred to direct definitions of the word ‘radical’. Radical is defined as: 

“(especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.”

“characterized by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive.”

So how can we, in our tiny museums or larger ones that engulf us, be radical?

Maggie Appleton, chief executive of Luton Culture says that sticking to our values and what we believe in is essential. If you highlight your beliefs and what exactly you are setting out to achieve you can find a way to work on this with others. You don’t have to be in charge to be an authentic leader but ensuring your values and your passion shows in your work every day makes you a leader; it makes you radical.

David Flemming, director of National Museums Liverpool said that being radical, however, is relative; there has to be a comparison, and museums are achieving this. Museums are changing, they are becoming more demographic, accessable and relevant. They are now responsible for a broad social role that once would have been unthinkable. Gone are the days when all a museum had to do was care for its collection, with lots of money to do so.

But oh how I long for them, and I personally think that to some extent, if you want to work and be in a museum environment, then you must long for them too. Nothing would make me happier than to be locked in the stores all day surrounded by my rocks, my beautiful, beautiful rocks, but that is just not how it works anymore; this is where I have to adapt.

Rowan Brown, director of the National Mining Museum Scotland, addressed this change quite perfectly. In this now crucial role that museums stand in the greatest moral act is to use our skills and knowledge to the values of others. Despite how much I want to sit in a dimly lit room, documenting and ordering the geology collection forever, I am also desperate for people to enjoy and love them as much as I do. So for me, would being radical mean doing whatever I can in order to expose this great collection for people to explore with each other and learn from?

Brown explored this concept via a case study; real collection items were used in handling sessions during an outreach program for Alzheimer’s sufferers, which was initially met with disapproval. The collection items were being handled by the community that created them but at the end of the day they are collection items. Is this a radical approach? Usually collection items are kept behind glass and handled with the utmost care by people with the relevant training, but, and in my opinion, outreach sessions are becoming an important task that museums do have an obligation to provide, not just to schools but to other groups of community, it’s an amazingly rewarding task. I don’t think this is radical, I think it is necessary, but Rowan Brown did suggest that radical is in the eye of the beholder. I hope that people will see that we, as museums, are not just being radical for being radical sake.

One of the key aims of this day was to make connections and to network with people in the same position as ourselves, as well as others who had perhaps been where we are now and had advice and experiences to share, and so the day was extremely interactive. At various points of the day we were encouraged to find a new table, with new people and to discuss, debate and collaborate.

The next keynote was presented by Tom Andrews, chief executive of People United. Andrews spoke on dreams, Statistics and starting from scratch, but it was the dreams part that I took to; what are my dreams and will I ever be able to achieve them?

In the past 4 years, between leaving university and now, my dreams have changed. At first they did focus on more personal achievements; I want to work with amazing objects, I want to identify and catalogue because I like order and it makes me happy and I want to work in the dark pits of a museum because I like objects more than I like people! Yet somehow, I graduated from a geology degree and started teaching social history… which was not my dream.

Six months later, in 2011, I started working for my current museum, doing exactly what I wanted to do; retrospective documentation of a wonderful, possibly underappreciated geology collection. This was the first time I came across a lady named Caroline Birley. Birley was a local geologist who spent her entire life collecting in the field and preparing her finds for museum use. Identifying, cataloguing, labelling, she even opened her own small museum to show case her collection. However, I never once learnt of her in 6 years of studying geology, until I came to a museum whose collection now holds a massive part of hers. Essentially, she is important to not only to the scientific world of geology and palaeontology (even giving her name to two marine fossils), but also to our collection that we hold today, yet she is unknown. I felt such an overwhelming connection with this woman and a huge sadness that her dedication and passion is not recognised that I felt I had an obligation to share her story.

And this is where my dreams changed.

The building blocks are still the same, but the outcome changed dramatically; To work with amazing objects others is a privilege and an honour, I want to identify and catalogue because this is what makes these objects accessible to explore and educate and to bring them out of the dark pits of a museum acknowledges their history, their importance and identifies the stories they can tell.

Fundamentally, dreams are often replaced when reality comes in to play which is what Andrews deliberated, yet the dreams are what keep us going. Museums are not for people who are money orientated in their career choice, but who are powered by passion and a love for what they do. David Anderson, president of the MA and director of National Museum Wales highlighted this in his final thoughts for the day; should we identify ourselves as a profession or a vocation? It is the dreams and passion that make it a vocation to work in a museum based environment, and to take on that responsibility to improve lives. But Andrews asked, does the work we do really make a difference? And again it came back to the point that we need to be the change we want to see. As relatively new starters with fresh eyes and fresh ideas, this is a great position to be in but we need to ask ourselves what exactly is the goal, what are we trying to do. If we address this and challenge ourselves yet stay true to our dreams and needs we will be making sure we make a difference, not just to ourselves or our museum, but to the lives of the people walking through the doors.

If you got into a lift with the director of your favourite museum would you be able to introduce yourself with coherence and confidence? This is the question Hilary McGowan, museum and heritage consultant, asked next. My answer straight away was I probably couldn’t even answer that question with coherence and confidence! McGowan introduced this workshop with what the format of a pitch should look like:

Clarity: who are you and what do you do?
Credibility: why you should listen to me
Personal story: how I have learnt from my experience
Problem: you know how….?
Solution: my solution to the problem
Mission: what I am known for and how I leave you feeling

This format is interchangeable depending on the situation you find yourself in because, of course, the perfect opportunity won’t always arise in a lift; it could be an interview, a meeting or the chance introduction to someone at a conference. You might have five minutes or more, but if you highlight what exactly you need to be saying and how you want to be saying it, with clear and understandable language you can pitch yourself in a way that exposes your skills and your ideas and thus permits people to see how they can transfer your experiences and use your abilities to benefit their team and their institution.

We then had the chance to talk with the other delegates we shared a table with and have ago at planning our pitch. Sharon Heal, editor of the Museums Journal, was the assigned mentor on this table and had amazing insight into how we spoke of ourselves in this limited time format and offered some great advice. From listening to others I felt I would much rather address how I spoke in this situation before looking at what I said, as a number of other people addressed their formal qualifications and skills yet I would much rather be known for my passion and what drives me to want to excel in museums. This might be difficult to get across in five minutes, but I think your love for what you do is equally as important as a university certificate.

However we all still had questions, and perfectly the next session was a question time with three museum directors who started their careers with entry-level jobs and so know the apprehensions, difficulties and obstacles that come with that and hopefully could answer some of our questions on how to approach the sector with drive and determination and share their own experiences to inspire and assist us in gaining our own.

Katy Archer, director of the Peoples History Museum in Manchester, mentioned again that when entering museums many people have a plan that is just not going to happen and we should not be afraid to throw away this plan. Set ideas of what or who you are going to become might be unrealistic, not everybody is destined to be a curator. You might discover an option you would have never considered before, don’t be so focused on a plan that you don’t allow yourself to swap paths.

Kate Brindley, director of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, had some slighty conflicting but still relevant advice; don’t stray from your plan! If you are looking for a job apply for everything, yes, this might not go along with your plan but any experience is a good experience for you. This along with voluntary work is essential to get your foot in the door, you will be able to develop the skills that mean if you then apply for your dream job on paper you will be able to do it and the interview will be about selling yourself to them. You have the abilities, you just have to make sure the interviewer knows you know, you know? But then, it’s not only down to them, it’s also down to you. You have to interview them as much as they interview you; ask good questions. Good questions will enhance your enthusiasm for the sector, showing you to be perfect for the role.

The Ministry of Curiosity was established in 2012 as a Twitter-driven blog that aimed to challenge people’s preconceptions about the museum sector and the people within it. Founders Terri Dendy and Kristin Hussey spoke of the stereotypical bearded curator, locked away with the collection and fawning over it. But that’s just not realistic, despite my earlier claim that that was my ultimate life goal and dream. Give or take the beard.

Dendy and Hussey seem to have got the mix just right and run a successful blog promoting museums, whilst still being employed by one and not getting sacked. Different museums have different polices surrounding social media and the use of it by their staff; some however, forbid it all together. Times are changing and no one can deny that the internet is a huge part of that. Twitter, in my opinion, in particular is becoming an essential tool for many aspects of life. So why not museums? It’s a simple and fast way to get your voice out there, to have it heard. The ease in which you can swiftly interact with others, previous contacts or not, can be met nowhere else and this surely is only a good thing? Many museums do it well, many, unfortunately, do it quite badly and that has got to change. To adhere to their social media policies many museums have one person who will deal with the Twitter account, yet this is not always someone who has the information worth tweeting. Others have various members of their staff tweeting exactly what they get up to, after all twitter is an in-the-moment kinda tool; snap a photo and with a hash tag it can reach unknown numbers of people.

Maybe I am bias coming from a curatorial stance, but I think this is an important tool for a collections team. I find this is often an area over looked as what we do is not visible to the public, maybe it is forgotten or almost dismissed that there are people caring for the collections in the stores and this is an important role; no collections team, no collection, no museum. And let’s face it, people love to know what is going on behind the scenes, this is the perfect opportunity to do that. To uncover the vast collections we hold as its inconceivable to have them all on display all at once, and to share what it is we do every day to insure that these collections are there for future generations.

I have found twitter and blogging to be crucial in my day-to-day work; contacting experts or like-minded people for assistance has helped me to improve the quality of the collection in a way I just couldnt have done otherwise. Without twitter I would still have a box on my desk of 47 exotic birds described on their MODES records as merely ‘birds’.

My favourite quote of the day sums it up in one sentence – “If you trust us to handle your precious collection objects, trust us to post a tweet.”

Liz Hide, University of Cambridge museums officer, was next to speak on how to lead when you are not in charge. With the example of putting on a Sound of Music showcase Hide asked what would make you get involved? The floor suggested many reasons including, not wanting to be left out, morale and team work. But is it the leader’s responsibility to make you want to get involved? A leader must have a clear vision of what they are doing and the ‘project’ they are facilitating. They have a responsibility to motivate the team and recognise that different people have different skills that could enable a successful outcome. They have to have an authoritative approach yet simultaneously respect and inspire. Working as a team has its own rewards but everyone has their own incentives to be part of something. If you work out how to achieve your vision, negotiate that you can and want to do this, motivate your team, recognise achievements and you can do anything. Amongst our table we had the opportunity to discuss any experiences we had had involving this kind of structure. It was inspiring to hear others tell their stories and perhaps even sparked my own ideas.

Liz Hide was also a speed mentor in the afternoon. 16 mentors held 80 nine minute one on one slots in the afternoon. I had signed up to see Hide as I arrived earlier in the morning as her background lay in geology and palaeontology like myself and I was interested to question how she had progressed from this into the museum world. This was an opportunity only the MOU day could provide and I appreciated and gained so much advice, motivation and encouragement in simply 9 minutes.

The whole day itself was an extremely rewarding and stimulating experience. I left MOSI with a drive to change what I can for the better, to strive for my dreams and to excel.

Catch up on tweets from MOU at #MOU2014

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4 Responses to Moving on up: Secrets of the successful museum career. #MOU2014

  1. Hi Lauren,
    Thanks for the post! Lots to take in here and some great insights 🙂

  2. Pingback: Birds, a film set and fixing the world. | Exploring the Collection…

  3. Pingback: 11 questions to a museum blogger for #museumweek | Exploring the Collection…

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