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Sunday, 1 October 2017

Everyday sexism in Museums

Image via @feministfightclub
Here at the Ministry we have promised to be champions of women in museums and draw attention to issues that we encounter in our working life. After a recent conversation with some fellow female museum workers, we were left wondering about chauvinism in a female-dominated field. The Ministry of Curiosity’s Terri Dendy and Laura Humphreys discuss big picture misogyny and everyday sexism in arts and heritage.

Museums are in that rarified position of having a female-dominated workforce - a (male) colleague recently joked that having one man in a pool of job applicants counted as ‘diversity’. Anecdotally, those working in curatorial, collections management, and learning often report that their teams are almost exclusively female. Great, right?!

Well, kind of. Arts Council England’s most recent report (2015-2016) states that around 55-62% of the museum workforce is female. Not quite the dramatic split you were expecting? Us neither. But there is a simple, if depressing, explanation. The same ACE report states that in the upper echelons of Arts organisations, it’s still a sausage party - up to 66% of leadership roles are occupied by men. And as for the very top jobs? The museum industry has made some progress in appointing women to top jobs recently - like Sonia Solicari at the Geffrye or Maria Balshaw at Tate - there is still a long way to go. If you look at membership of the National Museum Director’s Council, 13 of 45 member directors are female - roughly 28%. These statistics all refer to the UK - is it any better across the pond? NOPE - of America’s 13 largest Art museums, only one is headed by a woman. That’s 93% male!

And as for why? It seems to be a sorry combination of all the usual suspects. Museums are generally a low-pay sector (don’t get us started on what this does to diversity as a whole), and when that pay has to cover childcare costs, you’re often paying to go to work . Men in leadership roles tend to recruit more men to leadership roles, and representation of power in museum displays and boardrooms alike is rather oestrogen-lite. And then there’s the old chestnut that women don’t think they are qualified or experienced enough, and without encouragement don’t tend to go for that stretch position of power.  

These sorts of statistics for the top of the field are available in several places (if often sorely lacking in intersectionality and detail), but what of the lower ranks? Early to mid-career stats are even more difficult to extract meaningful data from. But something that keeps coming up over lunch, on courier trips, at the pub and in angry whatsapp groups are the stories of everyday sexism piling the pressure on women in the museum sector.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the more physical aspects of our work. Collections roles require a range of skills, and in the all-hands-on-deck chaos of a gallery install, from fine art to spaceships, is where chivalry/chauvinism really comes into its own. Women know their way around a toolkit, safely maneuver heavy objects around, and manage large teams of contractors on a building site. And if they can’t do it yet, they can learn! But stories vary from the common ‘I’ll lift that for you’ to the downright outrageous - ensuring that a man is seen doing a ‘man’s job’ by visitors, because it’s ridiculous that a respectable girl should be seen anywhere near a scaffold tower, right?! Her delicate lady-brain isn’t used to heights.  Between us, we have been happily carrying a crate when a contractor take it out of our hands, been ‘taught’ how to screw mirror plates on after fitting hundreds and judged for our looks, not to mention become invisible on a gallery project we’re managing when a more junior male colleague appears.

Image via @feministfightclub instagram
And this behaviour is not limited to on-gallery situations: after a consultant visited a National Museum to talk about representations of women, we overheard three male colleagues discussing how wrong she was: without a trace of irony her presentation was described as ‘hysterical’ and alas, they did not mean funny.

It’s tempting to put out a call for more examples of this everyday sexism in museums (a la, but we thought that was bloody depressing. And women don’t need to hear about stories of sexism - we live through them all the bloody time. So, instead, we thought we would ask you: how do YOU deal with sexism in museums? Here’s a few from us to get started…

  • It hurts us to include this one but we’ve been blindsided on too many occasions not to: when someone subjects you to some old fashioned casual sexism, CALL. IT. OUT. This one is easier said than done, we know. In our early careers, on short-term contracts or even as volunteers, we let things go, because kicking up a fuss seemed more trouble than it was worth. Be polite - even when people really don’t deserve it - and don’t let it slide.

  • Are you a manager or a senior team member? DOUBLE the above point. Then triple it. Junior colleagues may lack the confidence or experience to call out sexism - especially from contractors or visitors. You have a responsibility to them to make sure your staff work in a respectful environment.

  • Embrace the sisterhood: AMPLIFY! After being constantly spoken over in a meeting, we were the beneficiary of Amplification: a tactic from the Obama Administration which women employed to make sure bright junior voices are heard - when you hear a good idea that gets shouted over or ignored, repeat it! Say you're colleague had a good idea and run over it again, or make room for her to do so!  

    You know what? She helped a bright idea make a difference. AMPLIFY!

  • Believe in yourself, your abilities, and your ambition. Get a mentor, join a network, follow @MuseumAgender.

So, how do YOU guys smash the patriarchy in your museum career? Leave a comment!!

Friday, 15 September 2017

Five years of the Ministry!

You may have noticed that we’ve been a little bit quiet for the last few months, whilst we've still been tweeting and instagramming our ability to keep up with the website has definitely waned. Can you blame us though? When we started the Ministry, we were just two early career museum professionals trying to make sense of work, friends and life in London. Nowadays we found ourselves (dare we say it?) mid-career professionals, our just about. While we don’t talk too much about our work places on the blog itself, in the past two years we’ve been working hard to level up in our respective careers. It’s certainly been a bit of a slog - Kristin has been doing her PhD and recently returned to curatorial work (at the same time!) and Terri has been working her way up to a Collections Manager role in a National.

Since 2012 the Ministry has been our platform to discuss what’s going on in our career-driven and museum-loving world. Five years on in 2017, we find ourselves in a bit of a different position. It’s been a steep learning curve but lots of fun (obvs). Whilst we want to continue to advocate for early career professionals (and in particular getting into museums), our own careers have moved forward and so to our experience of the museum world. Things change, and so now must the Ministry!

Through our blog we will continue to be sassy, opinionated, strong champions of women in museums and collections care - sharing our thoughts through commentary pieces on the blog once a month. On insta and twitter you’ll find our experiences of exhibitions and behind the scenes adventures (so please do follow on those channels!). While our ability to blog  may have dwindled (we don’t want to stress ourselves out too much about posts with our time commitments), our devotion and passion for the industry certainly has not.

So after five years in the blogging game (yes five whole years!) we hope you will continue to follow us on our journey, be inspired, stay motivated and keep on loving museums! Thank you so much to all of our lovely followers who have been there with us along the way. We look forward to many more discussions -  sharing thoughts, ideas and pet peeves for years to come.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Story so far, advice for students at Goldsmiths

Here at The Ministry we have been big advocates for helping each other out when it comes to getting a step onto the museum jobs ladder. We've even provided some guidance here and spoke at Museum Association events such as Moving on Up on the topic. 

But most recently I was invited back to my old university to tell a group of students from the History department my journey so far, some tips and tricks for getting in and how bloody amazing working in museums is. So I thought i'd continue on this sharing mission by providing access to my talk for Ministry readers. If you want to know more, read on! 

'I am currently the Registrar at the National Army Museum, and with almost ten years experience working in museums  and galleries I have taken on a number of roles in the industry since graduation from Goldsmiths with a BA in History and Anthropology in 2011. From Art technician at Tate to Collections Registration Coordinator at the Science Museum I have overseen large scale installations of exhibitions such as Cosmonauts and travelled the world with objects to ensure their safety and security. In 2012 I co-founded this  blog with Kristin! As you'll know here we aim to provide an irreverent insider’s view into the world of London’s museums and aims to change current perceptions about those working in museums.  Thanks to this I have been featured in the Guardian 's Young, Early, Emerging series and have written and presented for the Museums Association and Collections Trust. 

But what is the role of a registrar in a museum? Well it’s a bit of a mixed bag (readers can find more here) primarily I am responsible for implementing policies and procedures, adhering to national and international laws and guidelines all relating to the care of cultural objects. It doesn’t always seem to be that fun or exciting but actually a large part of my day is spent with objects of national importance, I arrange for them to go on loan or holiday  to other museums. I manage the paperwork and relationships  when the museum wants to acquire a new object and on occasion I ensure the  legal and ethical practice is adhered to when disposing of objects. Day to day my job can be incredibly varied, I can be asking the home office for permission to transport a live firearm one minute and the next carefully lugging around paintings in the stores. I’ve been lucky enough  to see Damien Hirst’s shark lifted out of its tank, hand carry an early calculating machine (that looked like a bomb!) across to Germany and install the first woman in space’s flight suit and Churchill’s onesie. I often say, I’m blessed to be able to touch what people are often told not to – but while wearing gloves of course!

I studied History and Anthropology joint honours BA at Goldsmiths and was fortunate to get a paid job within the museum sector only a couple of months after graduating. The summer before landing that position however was a grueling slog, I was in four jobs trying to pay for my rent and get some experience. I gained the experience through a volunteer placement in the Horniman’s collection stores and an internship at Orleans House Gallery in Richmond, to fund this I worked long evening shifts at Waitrose and in the National Maritime Museum’s retail team at the weekends.

 But, it paid off and led  to me getting the position of collections assistant at the Science Museum. This was a great exploration into the wonderful storage centre that is Blythe House where the Science Museum , British Museum and V&A  currently store their medium sized objects. In this role I learnt the importance of working hard, not only mentally but physically many museums are understaffed and so if you want something moved you have to do it yourself. I undertook a large scale collections move of the prosthetics collection, the torture collection and as whole load of Victorian drugs.  One of the most valuable things I have ever learnt is to always be nice, approachable, and try to be confident. This is key to establishing your network. Many of the people I met in my very first day of working at the Science Museum are still my friends and colleagues now. They have helped me to enhance and grow my career and after leaving my role as collections assistant in 2012 many remembered me and my willingness to work hard when I returned to the institution in 2014.

I have always highly valued the exclusivity of working behind the scenes in the museum and in 2012 I co-founded a blog (with the lovely Kristin you'll know well by now!) to show that this industry isn’t all Indiana Jones and old white men.  Museums workforces are full of young professional women and the stores are brimming with 95% of the collection that is not on display. The founding of this blog has been an invaluable resource; I’ve built up a network online and a name for myself outside of the 9-5. This has granted my opportunities for public speaking, writing and networking far beyond what I could have achieved. It’s been a game changer and made me stand out in interviews and for myself has been a way to digest and better understand the industry.

 Blogging may not be for everyone but social networks have had a huge impact on the industry and how it networks, dedicated discussion groups like Museum Hour on twitter have become a great way to digitally converse with the person who your trying to get employed by. Other groups such as Museum Association, Collections Trust and jiscmail have helped me to establish myself within the industry and taking the opportunities  made available have pushed me further. For example Over the past two years I have been treasurer for the UK Registrars Group, processing all memberships has meant building relationships with other registrars across the UK and internationally.

 I’ve always been driven to work in museums since I was little, grateful for parental trips to the local and free London museums I was able to dream of this career. I didn’t go to a good school, I had to work hard to get to university (gratefully helped by the means tested maintenance grants) and so I’ve had to push to get into this challenging industry. Museums have been hit hard by the cuts to the arts sector in the last ten years and so they are often understaffed or work is project based on short term contracts. Making yourself stand out from the crowd and working hard are key.

Many post grads looking for a career in museums while focus their attention on becoming a curator and miss out huge opportunities by overlooking other collections based roles. The role of the registrar may not seem as exciting as a curatorial position but as a registrar I get to build up an intimate relationship with the objects outside of their historical importance.  I understand their provenance, know every detail about their holidays to other museums and help the objects in their journey within the museum stores or on display. Getting into museum collections work may be a hard slog to begin with, it took alot of volunteering for me to start.

 However, once your in its so worth it, its incredibly rewarding to see an exhibition you have put your blood sweat and tears into open to the public.It’s exciting coming across an object in the stores that represents a huge impact to society, and its pretty damn satisfying getting to  hold onto a tangible piece of history be it the luna lander or a vial of opium.'

Museums are pretty awesome if you're trying to break in check out our links or ask us on twitter @curiositytweet for more advice!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Queer City

When the National Trust and National Archive’s collaborate you’d expect there usual crowd of Barbour wearing, cream tea eating over sixties to be huddle together over boxes of archives in a stately home wouldn’t you? Well the collab between the two powerhouses has been a bit of a shocker with their recent joint offer – Queer City. Using the photographs, court reports, police papers and witness statements The Caravan ‘London’s most bohemian rendezvous’ has reopened for March 2017 and best of all for an evening you can become a member and head back to the thirties.

Giving an insight into the clandestine queer clubs of the city in the 1930’s the project showcases the club culture of the 1930’s when being openly gay would lead to prosecution and imprisonment.  Heading into the club above Soho fave Frevd bar the recreation is a step back in time, passing your name to the door tender and moving behind draped fabrics into a smoke filled room or music, laughter and chat a number of immersive theatre performers adorn the space and waiters provide cocktails inspired by the era. Sexual innuendo features in all of the performances and references to the main participants of the day are noted in the decoration – the original owner of the club Jack Neaves was a strongman and escapologist and a sculpture of him holds up the ceiling whilst names of those noted in the court documents are names of the performers. It’s an exciting recreation of a historical moment in time.

Nonetheless the scary reality of the clandestine clubs are also recognised, the front of the bar is littered with quotes from the archives of the assumed ‘digusting and revolting’ club.  And an actor takes me into a backroom to berate me and write a police report on my decision to attend such a club. It’s a stark reminder that we are only fifty years from the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain and many prejudices remain today.
This project forms part of a larger one from the National Trust their prejudice and pride project explored how many of their properties have been ‘shaped by those who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality’ and follows an even larger movement in UK heritage organisations in 2017 to reflect on the legacy of those whose stories may not have been fully told fifty years since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
All great projects and great work from the institutions and especially from this collaboration I experienced a really innovative way to look at the history of a group through experience and this was an excellent way to bring archives to life.
It's only open until 26th March so get in there quick!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

A very personal relationship with Robots

You may have noticed that while we try to bring you an insiders guide into the life of museum workers we can be a bit reluctant here to shout about or review exhibitions we have been working on. While we champion the use of social media for museum staff it can be a conflicting relationship to review an exhibition you have put together yourself. So I tend to keeping any reference to that on my own personal accounts.

Nonetheless some of you will probably be aware that I recently moved jobs from Collections Registration Coordinator at the Science Museum to Registrar at the National Army Museum, leaving the Science Museum was an emotional decision especially as I had put over a year of my blood, sweat and tears into one of the best exhibitions ever (yep this is a totally biased review) Robots!

As the Collections Registration Coordinator on the exhibition I was responsible for negotiating the loans of all of the objects in the exhibition on display in London and the subsequent tour, so these objects in all of their humanoid form became my friends that I didn’t get to meet until the opening night – unfortunately I terminated my contract only a couple of months before install started – so my review is going to focus around the many many loans this exhibition offers.

An insight into the history of humanoid robotics the exhibition takes you from the early automata used in churches right up to the lab robots of today. Now, it would be impossible for me to write a short and snappy blog if I was to take a journey through the whole exhibition so a few of my favourites and highlights of the show are:

The Bowes Swan
I mean, a huge silver swan! That’s an automata! This object really is one of a kind, dating from around 1773 the swan is one of the earliest automata’s that is still operating today and its pretty flashy! Back in 1774 the swan was a crowd puller at the Mechanical Museum of James Cox  (a London based dealer) and now the Science Museum is well and truly blessed to get this object down to London for the exhibition so its only there for the first six weeks of the show!

Cygan quite definitely is my favourite object in this exhibition, he was my first loan in for the show and holds a very very dear place in my heart.  He has a bad boy past, having spend some time as a showman in strip clubs and has found love in recent years with his owner in the USA, an 8 foot high gentle giant he can walk, talk and dance with the ladies as showcased in this great film. The perfect example of a fifties robot ready to help around the home and be an aluminium beast.

The fourth section of the exhibition has some incredible pieces from current roboticists – who are an absolute joy to work with. There’s some robotic legs – saved by curator Ben Russell from underneath a staircase in north London, ROSA a highly intelligent 3D printed skeletal robot and in it and my favourite interactive – the ultimate machine for an exhibition so high tech its so simple. Nexi is a beautiful disproportionate and creepy looking expressive robot developed to work with humans in uncertain environments. Gizmodo call this one an emo robot 


Icub robots are incredible, you can catch them on youtube dancing to the Arctic monkeys and again this is a personal favourite because it was an interesting one to negotiate and it felt really emotional seeing it on exhibition as the exit piece in the exhibition its placed to make you consider what the future of robotics is  because its so innovative its an open sourced robot and develops in a similar way to a four year old child.

Robots is open at the Science Museum until 3rd September then heading on a UK and international tour - be sure to catch it!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

More than a pretty woman: Emma Hamilton at the NMM

We have been wanting to make it down to Greenwich to see the National Maritime Museum's Emma Hamilton exhibition for aaaages. I mean, the Guardian gave it a five star review, and we hear some of its text panels are being used as best practice examples at MA workshops. This is besides the fact that its an exhibition about a woman, a rare beast for a museum, and certainly for a maritime museum at that. That the NMM took up the cause of a woman who is famous for being Nelson's mistress is interesting, and one imagines a concerted move on their part to be a bit more innovative with their maritime history remit. Well, it worked. Emma is engaging and intimate, drawing you through the museum's beautiful new exhibition space with ease. Her journey through the political turbulence of the late eighteenth century is fascinating, you certainly leave having a better appreciation for the life of an extraordinary woman.

The exhibition opens with a quote from Lady Hamilton herself, 'I wish to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool'. That Emma was beautiful is abundantly clear throughout the exhibition. Indeed, her beauty was the source of her fame and meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the society. It was her nymph-like face which led her to become the muse of George Romney and ultimately a household name in Georgian Britain. Her beauty also got her into much of the trouble in her life. An affair with a gentleman which began in a brothel ended in her being pregnant. She struck a bargain with another aristocrat, Charles Greville, to look after herself and her child. When Greville tired of her, he literally passed her over to his uncle (if you were here I'd murder you and myself both- she wrote to Greville in a rage). Emma spent much of her life being treated as a commodity. But there is absolutely no doubt that she was a woman making the best of her circumstances. 

The exhibition has to toe a rather fine line as it tried to exonerate the historic impression that Emma was nothing more than a harlot who seduced Admiral Nelson into an adulterous relationship. While it is abundantly clear that Emma was charismatic and artistically challenging, late eighteenth century women simply didn't have the independence to be the kind of kick ass feminist hero museum-goers might like to hear about. Emma didn't really have a choice but to be 'looked after' by wealthy men, to give up her illegitimate children, to turn to prostitution when times were hard. The extent to which Emma had genuine feelings for some of the men in her life is a bit confusing- did she truly fall head over heels each time? Or was she more interested in looking after her position? The exhibition seems to suggest she was a passionate woman who truly did love her conquests. Her love letters with Nelson are particularly touching and sincere. 

Personally I was the most interested in the part of the exhibition related to Emma's time in the Neapolitan court during the Napoleonic wars. Having married the British Envoy to Naples, Emma became a close confident of the Royal Family, and in particular Queen Maria Carolina, who was also sister to Marie Antoinette. Emma's role as an intermediary between the Neapolitan Queen and the British Navy was crucial to the success of Nelson's battle of the Nile. Emma's political acumen is more difficult to communicate in an exhibition and its perhaps less enticing than her home making with Nelson, or her portraits by Romney. But to me, this is really the heart of the exhibition. Emma was beautiful yes, but she was also courageous and wanted to prove her worth to the highest levels of society. As Amanda Vickery comments in the exhibition, Emma was a woman who refused to be defined by class. 

The exhibition design I also have to say was flawless. Throughout it is full of thoughtful touches which recall the importance of the theatre to Emma's career. Indeed, it feels like walking through a luxurious theatre-set of Emma's life, and in one instance literally becomes that. I absolutely loved the rooms made to evoke her 'Paradise Merton', her home with Nelson, complete with flickering candle effects. Emma becomes much more than just an artistic muse, but a really living breathing person who was looking for love and some sense of stability. The display of Romney paintings is equally awe inspiring. 

The NMM's exhibition is nuanced and empathetic, and will leave you even more intrigued by the life and times of Emma Hamilton. While this isn't really the focus of the exhibition, I think Emma provides a fascinating sense of late eighteenth century society, weaving quack medicine, salon society, music halls, and political turbulence. She might not be quite a feminist icon by 21st century standards, but the exhibition certainly does her justice as an ambitious and determined woman in a complex world. This is Emma on Emma's terms. 

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity is on at the National Maritime Museum until the 17th of April.