How to get that museum job (despite the world being on fire)

A beginners guide for finding that first job in museum and heritage in a Covid world.

So right now the world is, how shall I put this nicely – a fucking garbage fire of despair and uncertainty. And if you’ve just graduated and/or are looking for a new career in museums and heritage – mate, I’m so sorry. After all, this was already a tough sector to get a foot hold in and Covid has not helped that.

I’m not going to sugar coat it, the reality is this; pretty much every museum and heritage organisation is making changes to their staffing. Redundancies, hire freezes, pay cuts. The whole shebang. This includes small museums, medium ones and many of the major players. And yes, for the most part the directors of those big players will be retaining their same three figure salaries, thank you very much. However, in the immortal words of Whitney Houston, ‘it’s not right (in fact it’s utter bullshit). But it’s okay. I’m gonna make it anyway.’

Okay I may have paraphrased a tiny bit there. But the point stands, you’re dreams of working in history and heritage are not over. And to help you get to that dream, I’ve made this little guide to help you.

So, first things first, on a scale of 1-10 how fucked are you?

Surprisingly, not as fucked as you might think (hooray!) Though there are redundancies, there are still jobs. Which is fantastic news! BUT (and it’s a big but) it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. I spoke to Fair Museum Jobs for their thoughts and they came back with two major things you need to keep in mind when looking at museum and heritage jobs in this Covid landscape:

1.Prepare for competition. 

As Fair Museum Jobs told me ‘We’ve seen some buoyancy in the job market already, but it does mean application processes are going to be competitive.’

Shit is about to get fierce. You’re not just going to be going against other graduates or career transfers for those entry level jobs, but people who already work in the sector and have been made redundant. So, polish that CV and for the love of god, don’t knock yourself out in the first round by doing a copy paste CV and cover letter for every application. You’re going up against dozens if not hundreds of people – tailor it!

2.The sector will try and take advantage of you. 

Fair Museum jobs underlines that museums are likely to take use this staturated job market to save some coin, ‘We worry that organisations will use their financial situation as a reason to make roles voluntary, when really they are roles that merit paid staff.’

This will affect all types of roles, but chances are the roles that are inevitably going to be hit hardest by this lack of pay are in curatorial. This is because historically they always have been. Now employers can’t make a person redundant and then immediately rehire someone to do the same job (just at a lesser salary). Which is why we’re expecting to see museums get around this by making lower level and entry level positions redundant and then magically creating a ‘voluntary’ role which covers the same tasks, but has a slightly different name.

Go into this with your eyes wide open. Look out for jobs that are taking advantage of you and also make sure you remember how fierce your competition is and tailor you application for everything you go for (it’s a ball ache and takes time, but it’s worth it)

So with that all said…lets actually get on to how you can get a foot in the door when your dream job isn’t available (becuase be real, it probably isn’t right now)

Option 1 – volunteering

What a surprise! As we’ve just covered, these are going to be the most popular types of ‘job’ advertised. Now as an entry point, this is very elite. You really can only do this one if you can afford to. If you can’t afford to, then don’t worry. Skip this whole section, because there’s stuff for you later.

But if you are going to apply for a voluntary role, then it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

  • This will still be a full time or part time job. You just won’t get paid for it. So don’t expect people to be flexible with your hours.
  • You’ll almost certainly still have to interview for the role and have things like a relevant degree, MA and occasionally (kind of hilariously given the role) previous voluntary experience.

And know that there is no guaranteed job at the end of this. Of course some people have gotten a paid gig off the back of volunteering, but it’s far from guaranteed. The odds are not ever in your favour on this one. And athough how good you are does factor in to turning volunteering into paid work, it’s almost all down to luck. It’s basically the Hunger Games and chances are you’re not Katniss Everdeen.

However, if you do still want to apply and see this as your only option, then do. Just know your rights going into it. Make sure you have your hours set in stone and don’t work for free longer than you have to.

Option 2 – other avenues in

So, you can’t afford to work for free. Don’t worry, most people can’t. But you can still apply for jobs. There are jobs going in every area of museums and heritage, just much much fewer than normal.

One thing to consider is if there are jobs in other departments in the museum/heritage organisations you’re looking at. Retail, front of house and marketing are far more likely to be looking than curatorial, education, conservation etc. So this is a good time to work out if you want to be a conservator or a curator, or if you just want to work in museums and heritage. There’s no shame if it’s the latter. That’s why most people get into the sector, to be surrounded by amazing history every day.

So, if you think you might fall into the ‘I just love museums and want that to be my job’ category, then apply to other departments. Having worked across the board in museums and heritage, I can tell you that you still get that amazing experience. Also some of those departments are actually better paid (and you get more transferable skills, should you ever want to leave the sector one day!)

And if you do feel like it’s ‘curator or death!’ then other avenues in are still worth considering. I know many curators, conservators and historians who got their start in a museum shop, as a guide or greeter. It’s a foot in the door. A way to pay your rent, get to know what visitors want and become one of the team. Plus, it never hurts to be an internal applicant.

Option 3 -the waiting game

This is probably the option you don’t want to hear about. But honestly, it’s not that bad and I say that having done it myself. Sometimes no matter how many applications you send in, that entry level job doesn’t happen. It’s not anything on you, it’s just a limited number of jobs and a crazy number of applicants.

I’ve been there. I landed my first job as a paid intern and then after my contract ran out there was nadda. I went for jobs and didn’t get them and it was a couple of months until I landed my next role in the sector. During that time I didn’t have the option of sitting on my hands; after all my landlord still wanted rent and I was very much team I’d like to have enough money to eat please.

So I worked in a shop and then as an admin assistant in an office. I’ve also been a call centre worker (selling double glazing natch), a children’s party host and (arguably) the worlds perkiest leafleteer. None of those things were what I wanted to do, but it got me by until I could do what I wanted.

Between you and me, I actually count those times as some of the most valuable in my career. I got my word per minute speed up, became a boss at spreadsheets and learnt to manage difficult customers (seriously, working in a call centre makes you a boss at dealing with tricky people) It doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s the stuff that meant when I was in an interview and they asked me ‘how would you organise X’ or ‘how would you manage this tricky interpersonal situation’ I had some solid answers tucked up my sleeve. And now, having been on the other side of the desk during assistant interviews, I can tell you that not many candidates have those.

So don’t just apply for those history and heritage jobs, spread your net. And if you strike out and don’t land the dream job, it’s ok. The experiences you get in other jobs whilst you wait will still count.

So what happens now?

Well you apply. And apply and then apply again. And the probably apply some more. Chances are, this is going to take at least a couple of months. And whilst you wait, you can boost your CV, take online courses (there are a ton of free ones I’ll link at the bottom). Join the history and heritage community on social; it’s a great place to find opportunities, but also just to meet some amazing people.

And remember to know your rights. Check out the Museum’s Association pay salary guidelines. Flag up BS job specs to places like Fair Museum Jobs. Check out unions (seriously every museum worker should join a union!) and go to places like GlassDoor to find if the place you want to work at has any major red flags.

Most importantly, don’t give up. This might be a long road, but you will get there.

Handy free online course links:

Future Learn has a ton of amazing online courses you can do for free (their history ones are great) but they also have them in things like interpersonal office skills, safeguarding (handy if you plan to work in education in the future) and presenting your work.

Reed offers several free acredited courses in improving your IT skills and HR basics.

Open Universityhas a ton of free courses (including one on the value of coffee, which I actually now want to do…) stand outs for padding out your experience and CV include project planning, leadership skills and finance basics.

Check out Fair Museum Jobs full statement and advice

‘Given Covid, it’s inevitable that organisation are going to suffer financially. We have already seen that Tate and National Trust Scotland among others are consulting on staff redundancies. This is doesn’t mean there won’t be jobs being advertised, indeed we’ve seen some buoyancy in the job market already, but it does mean application processes are going to be competitive. Don’t let organisations get away with using Covid as an excuse to treat you badly: make sure to check the salary and working hours – can you reasonably live on this? Check the job requirements – are they proportionate to the person specification, and the salary? It’s also worth doing some research about the organisation – How have they treated their staff during covid? What are they doing in reaction to Black Lives Matter? Allow yourself to feel empowered to make ethical choices in your job applications.
We also worry that organisations will use their financial situation as a reason to make roles voluntary, when really they are roles that merit paid staff. At Fair Museum Jobs we would say, don’t apply for these jobs, and challenge them when you see them. It will never be acceptable for any organisation to use their financial situation to treat other people poorly, no matter their charitable status.’

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