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Careers Centre

Museums and galleries

Sector Overview

This page has been written by Liz Batterham, the relevant Careers Adviser for this occupational area. To see how you can meet Liz, or any of our advisers, visit our website.

There are nine broad types of museums and galleries in the UK. Many are publicly funded:

According to the Museums Association (the professional body in this field) 'You don't just have to be passionate about art and objects to work in a museum or art gallery. The focus for museums and galleries is on interpreting collections and opening them up to as many people as possible.

Museum work is some of the most rewarding work you can do, but there are downsides: the museum sector has been badly hit by funding cuts in recent years, meaning there is always huge competition for jobs.

Most people starting out in a paid role will be educated to degree level and beyond, as well as having many hours of voluntary experience. In spite of this, the pay remains very low in comparison to other skilled professions; ten years into your career you may still be earning under £30,000.

On the upside, the profession needs a regular flow of new blood and you may find yourself with a high level of responsibility early in your career and there are opportunities to work almost anywhere in the country.

So, whether you want to pursue a passion, become actively involved in your community or simply help people have a good time, museums and galleries may have something to offer you.'

News on the sector from the National Museums Directors’ Council

Museums & Galleries attributes/skills profile

Key attributes/skills needed for the roleWhere you could develop these skills or attributes
IT skills - must be proficient in the use of administrative software, such as Word and Excel as well as any specialist programmes necessary to carry out the daily tasks Using the University’s subscription to the Microsoft IT Academy can help to develop your skills with programmes such as Excel
Excellent communication skills and the ability to make presentations to a range of audiences

CAPOD offers courses on these kinds of skills regularly within its Professional Skills Curriculum.

Taking on positions of responsibility in student-run societies will give you the chance to put these into practice

Ability to work to tight deadlines, sometimes under pressure
Leadership qualities and effective team working skills
A strong interest in and knowledge of art/historical artefacts

This is most likely to be developed and evidenced through your academic studies and work experience

Patience and a methodical approach
Manual dexterity and good colour perception

Other key attributes/skills demanded for the role: do you possess them?

  • An investigative nature, together with problem-solving skills
  • Genuine and personal interest in the arts sector
  • Self-motivation and the ability to manage an independent workload

Nature of sector or roles

Jobs, particularly in smaller institutions, can combine several key roles:

Like other organisations, museums may also have ‘commercial’ vacancies in public relations, fund-raising, marketing, administration and finance etc. Whilst smaller museums may offer the most varied jobs, larger institutions are more likely to allow you to specialise.

Though the competition for a starter job can be fierce, it does tend to put a limit on the number of people who can progress to higher echelons in the sector, so it is likely that fewer people will apply for your second job.

The Prospects website has good information on roles in museums and heritage management.

In her book How to get a job in a Museum or Gallery, Alison Baverstock highlights a number of pros and cons that anyone considering working in a museum or gallery should contemplate before applying for jobs.

Pros of working in a library or gallery include:
  • Close proximity to things of significance
  • The satisfaction of putting on a show
  • Educating the public
  • Connectedness
  • A very varied workload
  • The chance to meet interesting people
  • Working in a pleasant place
  • It is a job that other people find fascinating
Cons of working in a library or gallery include:
  • Collaboration and group work does not suit everyone
  • lack of benefits package
  • income levels (including that work experience is usually essential for a full-time job so you would likely have to fund a period of volunteering)

London Museums Group - good information on necessary skills for museum professionals. Includes other informative blog entries

Creative & Cultural Skills job specs

Museums Association ‘general career advice’ section

Networks - why and how to use them

Networking is particularly important and can help you succeed with your applications. If you have been in contact with someone working for the organisation then you have extra information to back up your case for why they should employ you.

Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook (many organisations have their own page) to connect with organisations.

Recent St Andrews graduates have gone on to work for Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments Scotland, Art Trust, Black Watch Castle and Museum, and the National Army Museum. Alumni can make extremely useful contacts, giving you an "edge" with your applications and interviews. There are several ways to make contact with alumni.

Have a look at the Network with Alumni section of our website for more advice and information.

How to gain experience/internships

In the face of so much competition, it is vital to get real experience of working in a museum or gallery on a paid or, more likely, unpaid basis; both employers and course providers will expect this demonstration of your commitment. A number of museums, galleries and heritage organisations offer student internships, work placements and also have well-run volunteer programmes. A part-time job can sometimes lead to a permanent position on the staff of the host organisation upon graduation, and getting work experience at a relevant institution can also secure you a reference and might introduce you to a mentor, and at the least it will give you an insight into the sector and you can use this to great effect on your CV when applying for subsequent jobs by showing you know the industry. Work experience can also help you discover if working in that sector is what you would want to do for a career upon graduation and can also help you decide if there is an industry specialism within which you particularly enjoy working.

Internships


Volunteering


Resources


Remember, you will probably need to be proactive and make speculative applications to museums and galleries, using your contacts (if you have any) and to network. Museums Galleries Scotland has a searchable database of museums and galleries in Scotland.

How to get a (graduate) job

Jobs in museums and galleries tend to arise individually and are, therefore, rarely advertised on our website.

There are a number of ways to make yourself more employable in the sector. For instance, there tends to be fewer staff with science or technology qualifications, so having a related degree could give you an edge in certain institutions. Also, having a broad range of skills, including IT and finance skills, could help you acquire a job as people with these abilities are often put off by the relatively low rate of pay. Furthermore, you must be willing to move in order to secure a job and to thrive in the sector of museums and galleries - as competition for careers is a global issue, applicants must be prepared to look far afield for jobs in the industry. This also applies to career progression into subsequent jobs in the business, as a promotion will often necessitate relocation.

When beginning your career it is important to bear in mind that to acquire a higher-end job in a museum or gallery it is likely that you will need to be an expert in a specific field or have done a relevant postgraduate course; for instance, you might be an expert on the First World War and so your knowledge would be valued by an exhibition centre focusing on that era and conflict.

Read the relevant journals and newspapers regularly and supplement your search with speculative applications. Vacancies can be found in:

Relevant Postgraduate Study

According to the Museums Association 'A postgraduate qualification in museum studies is a useful way to develop your career in the museum sector, but it’s no guarantee of a job and there is always tremendous competition for museum careers.' It is important that you think carefully about your decision and invest time and effort in ensuring that you make the right choice to benefit you in the long term. Read Is a postgraduate museum studies course right for you? for further information. You can search for relevant postgraduate courses on the Prospects website. The University of St Andrews runs various courses in Museum and Gallery Studies.

A Masters degree related to Museum and Gallery Studies usually incorporates both theoretical and practical elements as working in a museum requires both practical and intellectual skills. As a result, most courses will have a vocational emphasis and include practical aspects and placements in museums and galleries. For this reason, forms of assessment are unlikely to be limited to academic essays.

Work placements as part of a postgraduate degree can give you the essential transferrable skills desired by many organisations. These might include project management skills which can help you define aims and objectives, understand what resources might be necessary, and give you a good sense of time management as well. As projects might be coordinated either individually or as part of a group, participants must be both self-motivated and good team workers.

Most courses cover the theoretical framework and the social and political context within which the museums operate, and will also consider the history and development of museums and galleries and their purpose and function for different members of the public. Some courses extend to include discussions on financial planning and personnel.

In order to get on a Masters degree programme it is likely that you will be expected to have had some prior experience of working in a museum or gallery. Not only does experience show you have the necessary skills for the course, but it also shows that you have an active interest, enthusiasm and commitment to the industry. Gaining experience will also help you realise if a career in the museum and gallery business is right for you personally.

Baverstock gives a word of wisdom on the usefulness of a postgraduate degree. She explains on p. 186 of How to get a job in a Museum or Gallery (available for loan in the Careers Centre library) that some job criteria will demand a postgraduate qualification, but in some cases applicants are told that they are over-qualified for the position or that they did not gain the desired skills from their course. However, she does end with comforting words: ‘The broad view and theoretical underpinning delivered by a postgraduate course is very useful as you begin a career in the museum sector, and is not something you can acquire from work experience. The research, organisational and communication skills acquired from writing a dissertation, the ability to absorb and evaluate information and to think critically and reflectively will never be wasted as they are skills which are transferrable to most areas of museum work’.

For further information on researching and planning for a postgraduate qualification, please visit the postgraduate study page.

Applications, interviews and assessment centres

Before you start searching for a job, you should take some time to consider the image of yourself that is readily available on the internet. Consider doctoring your Facebook page and changing your email address to something that sounds more professional than the one you have used since school.

Every aspect of your CV will be scrutinised, but in the field of museums and galleries your interests might receive particular attention because they hint at your personality-type and organisations in the industry are looking for people who function well as part of a team as well as on their own. Another important aspect of the application process to bear in mind is that your CV will be read by a variety of different people, including very cultured and cultivated individuals. For this reason, be specific about your interests; for instance, instead of saying that ‘reading’ is a hobby of yours, name individual authors that you like.

Pages 214-228 of Alison Baverstock’s How to get a job in a Museum or Art Gallery (available for loan in the Careers Centre library) give great examples of job vacancy specifications and how you should address them in the best and most impressive way possible in your application. Also included are separate chapters on how to act during an interview.

Key Links and Resources

Careers Centre resources

Online

Use CareerConnect, your central careers hub, to:

GoinGlobal

For reference:

Books:

Related Careers A-Z pages

Professional Bodies, Trade Organisations & Journals/Magazines

USA

Careers Centre resources

Other Information

Internships in the US - Museums

This list is by no means exhaustive. It is simply designed to serve as a starting point.

Vacancy websites