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Getting into museums

One of the questions we get asked the most as museum bloggers is, 'How can I get your job?' It's true that working in museums still seems somewhat mysterious and perhaps its that intrigue that makes so many people want to give it a go. When we were trying to get into museums, we read a lot of articles on this subject. The almost universal response is: do a lot of voluntary work, followed almost immediately by some facts about how badly paid the sector is, how few and far between jobs are, how limited your career trajectory will be. But none of this will stem the tide of the number of people keen to work in museums. Why? Because working in museums may be underpaid and frustrating but it is absolutely brilliant.

So now we’ve given you the realistic down to earth warning about working in museums. Are you still there? Still think you have what it takes to make it in museums? Then listen up for the Ministry’s 10 top tips for young people trying to get a museum/art gallery job.

1) Volunteer, a lot. Yep, it’s exactly what everyone else has to say. But there is absolutely no avoiding it. Museum work is, and will remain, essentially a skills-based occupation. You have very little hope of every finding any kind of employment if you don’t know how to catalogue an object, write a grant proposal, plan an exhibition, build a learning activity, administer a loan, or use a collections database. This is not to say that you need to be able to do absolutely all of these things first, but you can get experience in a few of them. Taking the experience of ourselves and our friends, you can expect to do on average 2 years of unpaid work before getting a proper job.

2) Think about what kind of position you’d eventually like to get in a museum, and tailor your volunteering around that. If you would like to work in documentation, your 2 years working as an events or a learning officer is probably not going to be particularly helpful. If you’d like to work in fundraising, your extensive collections database experience isn’t going to be applicable. Don’t forget, there are a huge variety of jobs that museum people do: figure out where you fit best and pursue the skills you need for that. It’s also worth keeping in mind that skills you gain for other sectors can still be helpful in a museum environment (like customer service or administration).

3) Really seriously think about doing something other than being a curator. We couldn’t tell you the number of times we ask people, ‘so what kind of museum job do you want?’ and people reply, ‘curator’. Now, we think curatorial work is amazing too, but you are aware there are other things you can do, right? What about social media specialist? Engagement officer? Exhibitions development? Registry work? Conservator?* Besides the fact that people don’t generally understand exactly what curators do. Research, attend conferences and plan exiting blockbuster exhibitions? Ha. Try paperwork, grant proposals, public tours, stores audits, and endless endless emails.

4) ‘No but I really really want to be a curator! Why do I never get interviews for curatorial jobs?’ Be realistic with you applications. The reason why you never get interviews if because full curatorial jobs are few and far between. Please, please don’t try and get into the museum sector, apply only for curatorial jobs, and then become discouraged. That would be like finishing uni with a BA in acting, and then giving up when you aren’t cast as the next Doctor Who. (Ok no it’s not quite that dramatic, but you know what we mean). Curator is a further down the line career goal, so instead think about the skills you need to become a curator: documentation, registry, exhibitions, social engagement. Be realistic about the kinds of jobs you are qualified to do.

5) Beware of career funneling. As much as it pains us to say this, it is very easy in the museum world to become stuck in one career or another. Once you have spent a few years in fundraising, it becomes very difficult to move to learning and visa versa. That is not to say this is necessarily a bad thing, and I’ve known plenty of people who’ve started off doing something they hadn’t planned on and now absolutely love it. However, please don’t expect to start working as a learning officer and end up in exhibition planning. Not saying this doesn’t happen, but it can make it more difficult. If you are sure of what you’d like to do, it may even be worthwhile to work part time and continue to volunteer until you wait for an appropriate job to come up.

6) Get a second degree. There is no denying that the vast majority of people who work in museums have at least a master’s degree. What we don’t want to tell you is exactly what you need to get it in. Some people think that having a specialism (in materials technology, industrial heritage, archeological pathology, zooarchaeology and basically anything else you can think of) will set you up in a better position for a curatorial or subject-specialist job. Others stand staunchly behind a generalist museums studies degree to prepare you for the market place. It depends very much on what kind of museum job you are after. As a caveat, an MA isn’t necessary for a museums job, but you are going to need more work experience to make up for it.

7) Make yourself known in the sector. As with any other profession, working in museums is very reliant on networking. Get volunteer experience in a number of museums, and make sure people know your name. Go to exhibition openings and museum related events. Try and give a talk, write an article or run a blog, go to Museums Showoff, join groups like the Museums Association. Basically just meet as many people as you can and tell them what you are passionate about.

8) Sign up for any skills training you can get your hands on (many museums offer courses and training opportunities to their volunteers). Pest management, auditing, collections hazards, oral history, basic preventative conservation, object packing- it doesn’t really matter what it is, learn as much as you can! It will make you a better all around candidate.

9)  Learn to use one or several collections databases. It’s hard to overstate the importance of being able to use a collections database: this is the software that a museum uses to record all of the information it has on its collection. If you want any sort of collections job, you’ll need to be able to use one. Major databases used by museums include MIMSY XG, Adlib, KeEMU, CALM and MODES (although some museums have their own custom made version). Even fundraisers and business development departments have their own databases like Raiser’s Edge. Database skills look very sexy and persuasive on the CV (but don’t lie, you’ll get yourself into a very bad situation!)

10)  Keep calm and carry on. If you are just leaving university and trying to get a job, it wouldn’t matter what sector you were trying to get into, it’s going to take a while. Apply to any job that you think might fit your career path. And then when you get rejected from all of those, keep trying. Take any interview experience you can –even an interview is a win and it gets your name out there (see step 7). Get creative with the kinds of roles you are going out for, considering moving to get a better job. We know it’s hard, but a museum career is a labour of love, and if you don’t have the enthusiasm to push through the miserable job hunt…well…maybe consider looking elsewhere.

11) We said we’d give you 10, but here is a bonus number 11! Find a mentor. Having a career mentor is great no matter what you are working on. Find someone who you look up to, someone who has the kind of career you want one day, someone you can give you advice, show you the ropes and who can answer your questions. The best way to find a mentor is…to volunteer. And here we are back again at step 1. See how it all comes together?

These tips are just from our own experiences and in no way represent the only way you can get a museum job. But we wanted to come up with something hopefully more practical than join than volunteer til you drop. Getting into the museum sector is no mean feat- it takes passion, determination and a lot of enthusiasm. But if you think you have what it takes, then we know you can do it!

Don’t forget to check out our handy page of links and resources for even more details on what you need to make it in museums. 

The Ministry is always happy to advice and help in any way we can. Get in touch with us at:

*Please note that it takes very special training to be a conservator. You will not be able to get a conservation job if you haven’t completed a specialist conservation degree. The Institute of Conservation (ICON) provides more details on how to get into conservation.  

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