Does a museum studies degree help you get a job in museums?
By Jack Ashby, on 16 October 2014
Despite the levels of pay and instability of the jobs at the lower rungs (at least) of this particular career ladder, working in the museum sector is incredibly competitive.
As a result, aspiring museum workers often face the question of how to position themselves as the strongest candidate in the pool. Should they take the plunge and stump up thousands of pounds to do a Museum Studies masters degree? It’s worth taking a second to consider that even being able to ask that question is a non-starter for the majority of people, who can’t afford it. Those people shouldn’t be excluded for the museum sector.
The Grant Museum Curator Mark Carnall (who has a Museum Studies degree) gave his opinion on this last year, and I thought I should offer my own personal perspective, as someone in a reasonably senior museum role who doesn’t have this degree.
For me, there are very few circumstances when I would recommend someone did a Museum Studies degree. Obviously I am biased by own own experience, and so this is my own personal take on things.
Employers often ask for one
As Mark pointed out, whether we like it or not (I absolutely do not) many museum employers list it as an essential requirement on person specifications. So the simplest question is: is it worth getting a Museum Studies degree simply to fulfill that requirement? I think that would be pretty terrible motivation.
By definition, employers can reject a candidate simply for not having one of the essential requirements. But some essential requirements are more essential than others. Personally, I doubt that many employers would reject an otherwise attractive candidate simply because they didn’t have a Museum Studies degree.
Why do employers ask for a Museum Studies degree?
The argument goes that a Museum Studies degree gives candidates an understanding of the bigger picture of the sector – What IS a museum? What are museums FOR? How should museums be governed? As well as the nitty gritty of things like how objects should in an ideal world be labelled, documented and stored, for example.
Certainly, you could get a better handle on this kind of thing in a year on a Museum Studies degree than a year in most entry level museum jobs. But with the right questioning, interested mindset (in an environment where senior colleagues explain rather than instruct), it shouldn’t take too much longer.
Do you need a Museum Studies degree?
For me, there should never be a point in someone’s career when they “need” a Museum Studies degree. I work with a lot of highly capable people who are influencing and shaping the museum world, in ways that require critical reflections and understanding of practice and theory. Some of these people have Museum Studies masters, some don’t. I see no correlation between who has the degree and who understands and influences the sector.
The real game is getting the experience in museums, and the sector regularly acknowledges the Catch 22 that it often demands experience for even unpaid volunteer positions. The reason is obvious: as there is competition for even unpaid roles, museums can take their pick from a pool which includes desperate people who’ve already been volunteering or working for years, but still can’t get enough paid work (there really isn’t enough to go around). This is absurdly unfair and something that has to change.
For what it’s worth, at the Grant Museum we work pretty hard to give volunteering roles to the people with the passion and potential for the task, not depending on how much experience they’ve got.
What to do instead
When I look at candidates for jobs, what I’m excited by is someone’s understanding of what museums are about, and why any given strategy is in place. I strongly believe this is best achieved by working/volunteering in museums rather than in the seminar room.
For someone to progress from Assistant Curator to Curator, for example, the key thing that they have to demonstrate is that they know exactly why we have chosen to document this part of the collection before that part; or why we have declined a donation of world-class taxidermy, for example. They need to know how to make those kinds of decisions themselves. That kind of learning can be done easily on the job, but it’s the sort of thing employers think they are getting when they ask for a Museum Studies masters.
Question everything. Go everywhere
Good prospective senior museum folk are integrated into the museum sector – trying to change things for the better. Museum work is hard and never ending – it’s easy to keep your head down and just get on with your job, but I look for a bit more when I’m recruiting.
I’ve been at UCL Museums for 10 of my 32 years, with a few different roles that have happily been progressing up the ladder. For all of that time I’ve been engaging with colleagues across different areas outside UCL to gain an insight to stop me being blinkered by the environment particular to my one museum service. I go to conferences to share and learn (and more importantly debate the issues in the pubs and corridors after), I publish and read, I’m a trustee of the Natural Sciences Collections Association. I suspect it’s this kind of wider interest in how museums work that has allowed me to get to managing a museum despite only having a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology. It’s a wider interest like this that I look for when I’m recruiting at any level, which starts out by simply questioning why a museum is doing what it does, and talking it over with others.
To end with a plea to any recruiter out there (and I don’t say this because I’m looking for a new job; I’m not). Please please please scrap that Essential Requirement for Museum Studies – I can’t see how it helps you find the best candidate, and it will exclude many candidates with excellent potential who have gained the same knowledge and understanding in a different way.
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology