Would you like to work in a museum?
By UCL Careers, on 14 November 2017
Danielle Thom – Curator of Making at the Museum of London
It was never my original plan to be a curator. As an undergraduate at Oxford University, I’d spent much of my history degree faffing around with journalism internships and trying to make it in magazines. As it turned out, I was a terrible journalist, and thus spent my first year post-graduation trying to stay afloat in the Sea of What Do I Do Now. I signed up for an MPhil, trying to recapture the bits of university that had appealed to me – research, 18th century history, material culture – and was persuaded to switch to History of Art for the visual training it would offer. Lacking savings, a scholarship, or family funds, I spent the rest of the year working in a cold-calling office, saving up the commission I earned to pay my way through an MPhil.
My master’s degree, at the University of Birmingham, was invaluable for several reasons. It allowed me the opportunity to confirm, once and for all, where my interests lay. It gave me the chance to do in-depth research, at a level beyond that expected of undergraduates. And, crucially, there was an element of work experience embedded in the programme, which allowed me to work on a small exhibition in a voluntary capacity, co-curating a display of prints at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. At the end of the year, that experience turned out to be vital in getting me my next job, as a junior Curator with the National Army Museum, in Chelsea. I had wanted to stay on and do a PhD, but – again – funds were lacking. I figured that working in a museum was the best thing to do, and this job allowed me to live at home with my parents, save up money, and gain additional, important, experience in the field.
And that’s how I ended up at UCL, in part because my PhD supervisor there, Tom Gretton, was recommended to me by my MPhil tutor; and in part because I still needed to live at home to make ends meet. I worked part-time retail for the first year, squeezing in shifts around time in the library and archives. This isn’t intended to be a tale of woe – I’ve been extremely lucky – but it’s important to realise that the entry route into museum careers isn’t always plain sailing for those who lack economic and other forms of privilege. Finally, however, I managed to secure AHRC funding, which covered me for the remaining two years of the programme, and freed up my time so that I could take on additional volunteering, one afternoon per week.
Six months after finishing my doctoral thesis, in 18th century British print culture, I managed to secure a job on the Assistant Curator Development Programme at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was a bit of a culture shock, fresh from a PhD, full of self-importance and used to autonomous research – to suddenly be responsible for fairly mundane, even menial tasks, such as counting dead beetles (for pest control purposes) and shunting objects around on trollies – but it was as essential a part of my education as the PhD had been. I was assigned to the Sculpture department, which wasn’t then my area of expertise, but I figured that it was an opportunity to develop a new body of knowledge, and took advantage of the resources available to me. I’ve been working on a book manuscript, about an 18th century British sculptor, and was able to do a month-long curatorial fellowship at Yale University while researching that. I co-curated a pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as well as curating several smaller displays, and travelled all over Europe and the US as a courier for artworks. I also applied to, and was accepted for, the New Generation Thinker scheme, which is run jointly between the AHRC and BBC Radio 3, giving me the opportunity to make radio documentaries and appearances. I took advantage of every opportunity presented to me, although not all of those were easy projects, and sought things out rather than waiting for them to come looking for me. I’ve learned that in the museum world you can’t be shy about singing your own praises, as odd and obnoxious as it may feel to do so, because it’s rare that someone else will do it for you.
The assorted experiences which I’d gathered while working at the V&A enabled me to get my current job, as Curator of Making at the Museum of London. I’ve been in post for the last six months, and here I’m responsible for the historic decorative arts collections (such as jewellery, ceramics and sculpture), and also for developing collections and displays that reflect contemporary making in London today. I’m involved in the exciting redevelopment of the Museum of London, which is building an entire new museum at West Smithfield. I’m also still (!) working on my book manuscript, and occasionally make an appearance on the radio, continuing my 18th century researches while forming new networks in a less familiar field.