5 ways to get your culture on at home

From building your own museum to top notch sofa friendly courses – we’ve got you covered

Right now the vast majority of us are in self isolation and social distancing ourselves from others. But just because you can’t leave your house and visit a museum, gallery or class, doesn’t mean that you can’t get your culture on!

In fact, the cultural world is at your fingertips and you can access it all from your sofa. Learn a new skill, uncover archives and explore the worlds best museums. How? Well to get you started we’ve popped together 5 of the best ways to get your cultural fix right now

1.Build your own museum

Yes. You read that right. Your own museum.

Art Steps is a really easy to use app (it’s free for those wondering) that not only allows you to create your own museum but also to explore other self made galleries from around the world.

art steps example
Example of an ArtSteps digital exhibition. Pot plants optional!

I stumbled across the app about a year ago when I used it to create an online museum of my work for a job interview (why yes I am that extra, thank you for asking) and I’ve been hooked ever since.

It’s kind of like if museum nerdom and sandbox gaming had a baby. What I’m saying is the possibilities are endless.

You can create anything you want. An exhibition you’ve always dreamt of, a retrospective you missed (or let’s be real, one you saw but kind of knew could be better). Hell, you could even create an online museum for a loved one. Stuffed full of their favourite artwork or goodies from a much thumbed through era, all for them to enjoy from the comfort of their sofa. The perfect pandemic gift.

example of art steps interface
Just to give you an idea of the ArtSteps interface – seriously it is stupidly easy to use

2.Google Arts and Culture 

Look I know it might seem obvious, but I swear, Google Arts and Culture is so severely underrated it is ridiculous.

From street view tours of the worlds most incredible museum galleries, to exploring endless retrospectives of different work and diving into high res art work. You could spend the whole isolation period on this site and still never get bored. Seriously there are over 500 art institutions to digitally walk around – and that’s just the art galleries!

Musee-DOrsay
Sure it might look like I’m sat on my broken sofa in London, but I’m actually on a private tour of the Musee Dorsay

But the real jewel in the Google Arts and Culture crown has to be it’s archives collections.

Many were created to tie in with a major anniversary of history week and contain the highlights of museum digitised archives and collections from across the world, along with specially made videos.

It’s an ideal way to really delve into a subject matter and not only read about it, but really get hands on (admittedly through a screen, but still, it’s bloody fantastic!)

Here are some of my favourite collections:

3.Delve into the archives

Speaking of archives, one of the many (many) great things the internet has given us is access to archives from across the globe. Now admittedly you used to have to order most archive resources but that’s not the case now.

This is 2020 and you better bet your bottom dollar that top quality shit is digitised.

If you’ve never tried out accessing archive records, now is a great time to learn how. After you’ve used Google Arts and Culture to get a feel of how to use archived resources, check out The National Archives and start searching for whatever takes your fancy.

reading
Study like a boss

They have over 32 million records from 1000 years of history, with some of that digitised (or described). 

You could test out archive digging by searching for your family history, an area of local history you’ve always been interested in or something more broad, like passenger lists from The Titanic or military records.

If you’re stuck, check out National Archive Discovery, which has some great archive collections, or their always fantastic blog, for inspiration.

4.Visit your local library at home 

Most libraries are now shut, but you can still borrow e-books, audio books and sometimes even magazines from the comfort of your sofa.

If you visit you’re local libraries website, then they’ll probably have a link to an online library like RBdigital, BorrowBox or Libby.

All you need to do is pop in your library card details and as if by magic you can download all the literary gems you might like to your phone or tablet.

Plus it’s all for free! 

Now, as with any library, there aren’t infinite amount of books, so there may be a waiting list for what you initially want, but it’s also a great chance to explore types of books that you might not normally read.

Because as the old adage goes:

library card

5.Learn!

Everyday is school day, even when the schools are closed and even when you haven’t been to school in like…er, actually lets not get into how long it’s been since I graduated.

One of the best ways to spend isolation has got to be by learning a new skill or immersing yourself into an era of history you’ve always wanted to know more about.

My personal favourite place for online courses is Future Learn, which has some amazing free courses (as well as many that you need to pay for access to) 

They’re put together by leading academics and universities, so there can be no quibbles over their quality. I’ve done their  Tudor History course, which I can definitely recommend (it takes place over six weeks with five hours a weeks work). Oh and they even have a course on Covid-19, so you can become an expert and dispel all that BS you find on WhatsApp and Facebook.

tudor course
Oh did I mention Suzanna Lipscombe teaches the Tudor History course?

The Open University also has over 1000 free courses that you can choose from. With a ton of amazing introductory history courses, as well as some for languages. Courses vary in length from one hour all the way up to thirty. So you can find something to fit whatever free time you have right now.

Plus the courses give you a certificate at the end, which is a handy way for you to show off all that new knowledge you’ve learnt. 

I don’t know about you but I’m really excited to put all this into action, escape my sofa and explore a world of knowledge. 

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Me when isolation ends

Why won’t museums pay their staff fairly?

With museum staff all over the country going on strike, we ask – why exactly do museums keep refusing to pay their workers fairly.

This week staff at Museums across the UK have gone on strike. Everyone from curators, explainers, archivists and front of house staff are calling to not just be fairly paid, but to be a paid a reasonable wage to live on.

Since 2011 Science Museum staff have seen a real terms pay cut of 10% since 2011. It’s estimated that 25% of staff earn less than the real living wage, which is frankly disgusting.

For those who don’t the national living wage is the bare minimum you can legally pay someone over 25. Currently this is £8.21 (or if you are under 25, it’s £7.70). HOWEVER, when you actually factor in silly little things like rising rent costs, inflation on food, transportation and general goods and services, the national living wage doesn’t cut it.

Instead it’s advised that companies pay the real living wage (which for you economics lovers out there, is £9 or £10.55 for those in London, because everything is more expensive in London!). But the key word here is ‘advised’. You don’t actually have to pay the real living wage and you best believe many museums are choosing not to pay it.

So what’s the big deal?

It’s not a matter of pounds but pennies right? And yet, those pennies make a difference. It’s knowing you have enough money for the bus to work at the end of the month, It’s having enough food on the table and putting the heating on when it’s cold. It’s the teetering point, between a good quality of life for you and family, or scraping by perilously close to the poverty line.

That’s an incredibly hard position to financially be in. And it’s made worse when you realise that whilst a quarter of staff are counting the coins to get by, The Science Museum Groups director is on over £100k.

As Prospect negotiator Sharon Brown said:

“It is clear from the accounts that SMG (Science Museum Group) can afford to pay a reasonable way. It’s time for management to sort this out so our members can get on with the jobs they love”.

And the Science Museum staff are far from alone. Also striking are staff at the Museum of London, who have seen a 6% real terms pay cut since 2013, but also watched on as the number of those in higher up positions earning over 100k has doubled. Oh and despite being in a period where the museum is undergoing a location move costing hundreds of millions and they apparently can’t afford to pay all their staff fairly – the museum Director took home a 5% raise.

Science Museum strike, Courtesy of Prospect
Because although this is THE WORST – museum staff know how to break it down. Courtesy of Prospect

Having worked at one of these museums in the last few years, I can categorically tell you that there is a startling disparity between how those at the top are paid and those at the ‘bottom’ are paid.

To give full disclosure, until Nov 2018 I worked as a press officer in one of the striking museums and I was paid around 31k. I didn’t negotiate for that, that’s just the set level. To put that into context at the same museum (according to glass door for an average as this fluctuates!) an archaeologist might be on something between £19-22k.

So why was my pay so much higher? Well to be blunt, because my role exists outside of the sector. If you work in something like museum PR, marketing, or events, having knowledge of history, collections and how the sector works is of course a bonus, but it isn’t necessary. You’re expected to know your area and because all these roles exist outside of museums, your generally paid the going rate that most companies would pay a PR, marketing officer or events organiser.

But that fair pay all goes to shit when it comes to the people who are the very glue of a museum. The people who look after the collections, put together exhibitions, care for archives and are the boots on the ground, making people fall in love with a museum.

The reason for this low pay is simple but bleak.

According to Fair Museums Jobs

‘why do museums pay so badly? Short answer: because they can. There are numerous museum related courses churning out graduates who need jobs, not to mention other academic courses for whom museums are a “back-up” career option, so there’s a constant supply of applicants for most jobs. Why would trustees or directors think they should pay more when they are getting applicants at every level? 

Science Museum strikers, Courtesy of Prospect
Science Museum strikers, Courtesy of Prospect

What makes this worse are that The Museum Association guidelines for pay are kind of screwing people over. For those becoming a curatorial or conservation assistant, with a post graduate degree (or decent experience working in collections, which they probably had to do for free FYI) The Museums Association advises they are paid a just 17-22k. Break that down to an hourly rate and its £8.17. Which you guessed it, is below the real living wage!

Whilst museums can get away with paying people a pittance, they will. Which is why strikes like this are so needed. As Fair Museums Jobs put it:

“If we want to see change in this area, then actions like these strikes are crucial. They have brought the issue to the mainstream UK media and increased awareness with visitors about the unfair practices of their organisations. More visibility = more pressure = we hope, change!”

Change is a coming, but it is happening slowly. 

The Science Museum Group have now agreed to pay their lowest paid staff the living wage (and London living wage for those based in their flagship museum) they won’t actually do this until April 2020. Which means months more of a quarter of their staff having to just about scrape by.

In addition, The Institute of Conservation recently announced that entry level conservators should be paid at least £27,108, which is fantastic! Recognising all the years of work and training these people do. BUT, it’s just a suggestion, museums don’t actually have to do it. And lets be real, until they are made to, they won’t.

strike, from Prospect twitter
Striker, courtesy of Prospect

So what happens now?

Well it looks like industrial action will have to continue. And we can expect to see more museum workers unionising and going on strike in the coming months. At least until museums realise these three key things:

  1. ‘What I did for love’ is not a decent hiring strategy – This is not A Chorus Line. Do museum workers love what they do? Yes. Can you keep on depending on being able to retain amazing staff based off of the love of museums rather than actual pay? No. Sadly you can’t feed a family on passion.
  2. You can’t diversify museums with low pay like this in place – It’s a fact that museums are facing a diversity crisis, especially in areas like curatorial and conservation. A huge reason for this is that the extraordinary low pay for entry level roles in these departments simply prices out many candidates from low income and minority backgrounds.
  3. People outside the sector are realising how shady this is – These strikes are drawing attention, not just at the museum sites but in the national press. The longer this is drawn out, the less people will want to come and drop their cash at a place that doesn’t care about it’s staff.

 

Fair Museum Jobs kindly gave as the below statement on this issue. It’s definitely worth a read: 

“The Science Museum Group and Museum of London strikes highlight the fundamental issue that many jobs in museums and heritage just do not pay enough to live on. In such a highly qualified sector, where expensive post-grad qualifications are constantly deemed essential; that many organisations pay 25% of their staff less than their directors annual bonus is ridiculous.

“So why do museums pay so badly? Short answer: because they can. There are numerous museum related courses churning out graduates who need jobs, not to mention other academic courses for whom museums are a “back-up” career option, so there’s a constant supply of applicants for most jobs. Why would trustees or directors think they should pay more when they are getting applicants at every level?

“If we want to see change in this area, then actions like these strikes are crucial. They have brought the issue to the mainstream UK media and increased awareness with visitors about the unfair practices of their organisations. More visibility = more pressure = we hope, change!

“Some organisations are leading the charge for this: Institute of Conservation recently announced that entry level conservators should be paid at least £27,108 – recognising the training conservators go through before their first job. 

“In short, if you want highly qualified, accredited, candidates, you must be willing to pay for them.

“More work could also be done by the Museums Association; their salary guidelines are a good starting point and we would welcome some robust implementation of these across the sector. Funding bodies should also take a look at their policies and requirements: for example, we would love to see National Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund and Arts Council England add salary and recruitment requirements for project posts.

“Nobody goes into this sector to become a millionaire, but all of us deserve to be fairly recompensed for our time, skills, knowledge and qualifications.
Fair Museum Jobs campaigns on fair and transparent recruitment, pay and jobs in museums and heritage. Find out more about our manifesto here: https://fairmuseumjobs.wordpress.com/manifesto/ “

 

 

News flash: Exhibitions don’t have to be boring

When I was little, one of my favourite videos to watch was Passport to Paris, a Mary-Kate & Ashley film that, being a twin and a child of 00s, I was obsessed with.

What’s always stuck with me, however, is a scene in Passport to Paris, where the twins walk through the Louvre, and slowly, their fascination turns to utter boredom. The painting fly past them, barely noted, as they walk, shoulders slumped, through gallery after gallery.  (Oh, and while we’re here, FYI other 00s kids, I can tell you  that in real life twins don’t make their prospective boyfriends tell them apart by dressing the same, it is not a done thing).

Do not trust them on twins or museums

That scene in the Louvre represented, to me, how people often saw museums. Lengthy, complicated interpretations, medieval paintings, some marble and if you’re lucky, some decent taxidermy.

So, when I started to work in museum, my greatest fear was that people would walk through my exhibitions the same way that the Olsen sisters walked through the Louvre – without looking at a single thing, uttered uninterested.

But, having been on the inside, I can say with authority that museum people are no longer the tweed jacket and elbow patch wearing people that the Olsen twins (and many of others!) thought they were. Museum folk aren’t out there just to recite some lengthy historical facts and bore visitors to tears.

The museum world has fought against this tired image and today, exhibitions and events in museums, galleries, historic houses and archives are becoming more and more engaging, accessible, fun and inviting. 

In 2017 I started putting together an exhibition on the suffrage centenary, Represent! Voices 100 Years On, for Manchester’s Peoples Museum. At first, the main goal was to ensure that the people visiting the exhibition didn’t trudge through a’la Mary-Kate and Ashley. That they were able to discover stories of incredible women and leave excited and engaged. 

It turns out that saying you want your exhibition to inspire and engage is a lot easier said than done… 

Putting together Represent! was was the best of times and the worst of times – like with any job, huge amounts of stress was involved, but also so many rewarding moments. So lets look at all the lessons I learned!

Represent! Voices 100 Years On at the People’s History Museum, Manchester

What struck me throughout the process was how different it felt. People’s History Museum worked with so many different community groups and individuals to interpret the stories, contribute their own opinions and ideas, and actually make the story we were telling relevant, and impactful.

See, that’s what was missing from Passport to Paris – impact. (FYI, something the Louvre has a lot of – don’t believe those sneaky twins). Visiting a museum or an exhibition shouldn’t be about expectations. If you’re expected to appreciate, understand, or even celebrate what’s on display, then you’re going to feel out of place. You’re going to feel lectured at, and you’re going to switch off.

But that’s where most museums are changing.

If you see yourself reflected in the objects, in the labels, in the interpretations – something you might have thought, or said, something entirely not curated or edited – you might feel a stronger connection to what you’re seeing, or reading. That realisation that one voice – the voice of a curator – is not the most important voice in the room is the biggest change that museums have made to exhibitions, for the better.

 Now, of course, working with communities has its challenges. Traditionally, you source your objects, working with the Collections team and Conservation to ensure everything in the collection that we want to use is in a good condition and is able to go on display. Loaning objects might also be part of the process, from other institutions, or sometimes just individuals. A lot of work goes into preparing these loans, so it’s always a relief when they finally make it into the building.

Working with communities, you don’t always get that level of planning. Even if you do plan, things might go awry.  

One of my favourite moments from Represent! was when I spoke to a well-known group of activists, and met them to discuss potentially lending some objects to the exhibition. They turned up to our meeting with a treasure trove of objects – only I was stranded without an entry form or the paperwork.

Sometimes, working with activists and grassroots groups means that proper museum practice can’t always be as black and white as it traditionally is. Flexibility, and to an extent, spontaneity are definitely needed.

That’s the best part of mixing the past and the present, though! Getting a glimpse into the heart of campaigns today, then seeing it reflected back in objects from 100 years ago is what made the exhibition what it was.

That’s the beauty of it! How can you look away? Real people make you feel included, and part of something.

There’s more, though. The raw truth that community groups and individuals are able to deliver – untamed by the voice of the museum – offers a sort of uncomfortable reality whilst also being authentically inspiring.

Honest reflections like these fill the walls of Represent!, with phrases including “The vote was for white women” and “Feminism is about equality and if the values were actually played out, maybe I would believe in it.”  Alongside these quotes, narratives and stories of the continued fight for equality show that it still very much needed.

Platform guests at the Represent! Preview, recreating the Caxton Hall photograph

Right until the end of the process, we kept this community-led focus on the exhibition.

We launched the exhibition by recreating the below photograph, taken at Caxton Hall in 1910, just before this deputation of suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst marched on Parliament and were brutally attacked for hours on end (on the orders of none other than Winston Churchill).

We filled the platform with activists and campaigners of today, and it was a moment where the past and present combined, to commemorate those who had gone before, and to champion those who were carrying on their struggle.

WSPU members, including Emmeline Pankhurst and Sophia Duleep-Singh, on the platform at Caxton Hall

Different, from start to finish. Different, diverse voices. Unique, unsung narratives. Costumes,newspapers, banners, placards, arrest warrants, pink pussy hats, maiden speeches, paintings and pamphlets.

I don’t think Mary-Kate and Ashley would have been bored in this one.

Helen Antrobus is 1/3 of F Yeah History. She’s also a curator (formerly for Manchester’s Peoples History Museum) with a passion for telling the stories of radical women and working class history. 

How unpaid work is killing off museums

Recently the Victoria and Albert Museum put up a job advert for an unpaid voluntary curatorial role. To land this job you needed, minimum, a masters degree and to be able to work for free.

Obviously as soon as this job advert went live, all of history Twitter protested. 

And the V&A duly apologised, said the whole asking people to work for free thing, had been a huge mistake and took down the job advert.

Fantastic win right? Well, kind of, but it’s also something that happens everyday in the history and heritage sector, it’s just that this one time, it was caught.

But we can’t carry on staying quiet every other time this happens. Because our reliance on these voluntary roles will inevitably end up killing our sector.

Lets look at the average route into a paid role at a museum: 

  • Undergraduate degree (ideally from a top university and in a relevant subject) 
  • Postgraduate degree (again, top uni, relevant subject) 
  • Voluntary roles in museums/archives (for an unspecified time) 
  • Part time/low pay full time role (average 18k) possible volunteering on side
  • Eventually land a full time paid role 

Can you spot the problem here? 

detective .gif
Spoiler: You don’t need to be a detective to solve this ish

Now, lets not even start to focus on the whole, top university, masters degree minimum thing (though we do know that people from lower income, and also minority backgrounds are very much the minority; in terms of people attending these institutions) 

BUT can we all agree that the industry is currently asking candidates to do a metric shit ton of free work, before they can even be considered for a job.

It is insanity and it is not ok! 

By asking for so much free work, swathes of people are immediately being cut out.

It becomes not so much a matter of – who is the best for the role – and more a case of, who can afford to not get paid and still pay their rent and eat!

Spoiler: it’s probably not going to be the candidate from a minority or lower income background.

bullshit.gif
Straight up!

But it’s not just that it’s far from an even playing field.

History needs diversity to survive 

There are two key reasons for this: 

  1. People are interested in a more diverse look at history 
  2. Museum visitor figures are falling. Too help tackle this, we need to start engaging with new audiences and communities. 

Museums have to start hiring people with a diverse range of experiences. People that can research other annals of history, give a different perspective on well trodden ground and develop ways of bringing new communities to museums.

If history and heritage starts to do this, not only will it help ensure that we as sector survive; it will make history thrive.

But how can we actually do this? 

Well, we need to ditch our dependance on voluntary roles.

Now I know nobody has a magical money tree, but we can’t have diversity if we don’t actually make museums a viable career for more people.

So lets wave bye bye to this attitude to free work: 

fuck off!.gif
Bye bye privilege fuckery!

Now thats out the way, lets say hello to:

Paid Internships and Apprenticeships!

Yup, you read that right. Paid. Minimum the living wage (£17k, and £20k for London)

By offering paid work, we’ll be able to access a broader pool of candidates than ever before. People who can bring something new and exciting to the table.

Plus we’ll actually be paying people for the hard work they do, and thats just basic ethics.

Apprenticeships can also help bring in people from the local community that maybe don’t have the degree, but that do have everything else you need to be an incredible curator, historian, conservator, etc.

Now, paying people means that budgets in other areas may need to be cut.

This is definatley something the bigger museums and heritage organisations can start to do, but understandably this isn’t something smaller museums can click their fingers and do overnight.

Long term budget changes will need to be planned out, grants may need to be applied for; it will be a ball ache and it will take a long time.

BUT it will be worth it. 

We can’t keep on blocking out the future, just because we’ve always done something one way, doesn’t mean we should continue doing it… guys we work in history, we know this.

So, lets keep on calling for diversity. Lets call out bullshit free work job adverts. If you can, start a conversation about bringing in paid internships into your department. Go to local schools and communities and find ways to bring them into your museum.

History should be everyone’s story, it should be open to everyone and we need to start making that a reality; it’s just good business. 

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