Ask the Expert: careers

Charlotte Holmes, 15.01.2015
Charlotte Holmes answers your questions
Q: With 17 years management experience, three years’ experience in the higher education sector and some volunteer experience in galleries and museums, what would make me more attractive to a museum to employ me?
Charlotte Holmes (CH): Rather than thinking about roles you could fulfil, I would recommend that you think about why you want to work in museums and what kind of roles could best fulfil your career values.

Larger museums often have specific HR roles, which you would be well qualified for.

But, if you want to work with visitors and/or objects, then you may want to focus your attention on other types of roles, perhaps undertaking some job shadowing with the museum where you volunteer in order to gain a better idea of what various roles involve.  

Once you have focused on the type of role you would like to undertake, you could look through personal specifications for this type of role and identify any gaps in your skills, knowledge or experience, and use voluntary work or independent study to fill these.  

One useful activity could be to undertake a museum specific award such as the Associateship of the Museums Association (AMA), an NVQ or a master’s in museum studies, while continuing to volunteer with museums.

Q: I work in a local council museum as a collections assistant. I really enjoy the job but the pay is quite low, and I wonder how my colleagues and I could try to get a pay rise?
CH: If you and your colleagues are not in a union, now may be the time to join, as it will be able to support you in pay negotiations.

The Museums Association (MA) has campaigned for better pay in museums. Our salary guidelines are due to be updated shortly, but they could provide a useful start for your decision-making process.

If you decide to request a pay increase, you will need to provide your employer with comparators from the sector and the council, as well as evidence of cost of living increases.

In any negotiation, it is important to understand the other party’s needs. If you are working for a local authority, it is likely to be dealing with funding cuts, so be mindful of this when making your case. In the current climate of cuts, you may also want to think more generally about how you advocate for your work and that of the museum.

If you are making an individual case for a pay rise or a regrade, you could draw attention to your individual performance, and how this relates to your organisation’s key objectives such as funds raised and partnerships developed.

Q: I have nearly 15 years’ experience working in museums but I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling. Beyond changing fields (I am considering this) is there something I can do to refocus my career and set myself some new challenges?
CH: The recently updated Fellowship of the Museums Association (FMA) and the Transformers programme could provide some inspiration and a potential focus for your future career development; both schemes highlight the importance of changing the way we work in order to bring about values-based change.

Bearing this in mind there are five questions I’d like to ask you:

1. What impact do you want your career to have, and what are your career values?  If you are considering a change of organisation or field, do consider if and how this change will support your career values and long-term career aspirations.

2. What could you do differently right now? Could you become a trustee of an organisation, work with new groups and networks, write more, organise conferences, change your approach to people management?  

3. Who can help you to bring about these changes? Is there a key person who could champion and help further the impact of your work? Is there someone whose approach you could learn from. Could you benefit from working with a mentor or coach?

4. What inspires, motivates and sustains you, and how could you increase this in your professional life? Whether it’s getting out and seeing exhibitions and practice beyond your organisation, forming a learning set in order to gain fresh perspectives, or developing networks outside your field of practice or region, this could be a good time to reenergise your practice.

5. Have you considered becoming a mentor for an individual or organisation in the sector?

Q: I have recently graduated from a master’s in museum studies and have two to three years’ experience in galleries. Positions I apply are always oversubscribed. What can I do to stand out from the crowd?
CH: At a recent AMA final assessment, one of our professional reviewers offered some great advice to a candidate: while others may have more experience, you can make sure that you have the right experience.

In a competitive job market, it is important to identify what skills, knowledge and experience you can develop in order to set you apart. Key qualities that can be hard to recruit for include digital skills, an entrepreneurial approach, an ability to raise funds and generate income, and some managerial competencies.

These are all transferable skills that could be developed outside the sector, so if you are struggling to make ends meet, it could be a good strategy for your development to take part-time paid employment outside the sector or establish your own business, while continuing to develop your collections-related skills through volunteering.

In addition, make sure you are seeking feedback from interviews, to ensure you are “selling yourself” and communicating how great you are.

Q: I have been considering becoming a freelance museum learning consultant. Should I take the leap or lower myself in slowly?
CH: This doesn’t have to be either/or; many practitioners combine part-time temporary or fixed-term roles in a museum with freelance consultancy work. If you are going to establish your own freelance practice then it’s really important to invest in your own continuing professional development (CPD) and to identify an approach that can sustain your development and business model while working for a range of organisations.

Most museums consultants who participate in our CPD schemes (the AMA, CPD Plus and the FMA) invest time and resources in keeping their skills up-to-date and use learning sets and/or coaching to support their development. Please note that the MA offers a range of benefits to sole trader members.

Q: As I am at the start of my career, I am wondering if I should try to get as broad a range of experience as possible or to focus on one area of museum work and become an expert in this?
CH: Roles in museums are changing rapidly; it is unlikely that you will take a linear route to becoming an “expert”, so it is important to be flexible and, where possible, to enjoy your career journey.

Spend some time thinking about why you chose a career in museums and what you will not compromise on when looking at a future vision of your career. When looking at potential roles, key questions to ask include: will this role fulfil my career values and will it help me to develop the skills I need to fulfil my career aspirations?

As part of the AMA programme, the MA supports participants to work with a mentor to explore their long-term career aspirations and develop the key competencies needed.

Whatever role you undertake, it is important that you have a good understanding of museum ethics, and are able to manage yourself and your time and resources effectively.

Charlotte Holmes is the Museums Association's museum development officer. She is speaking at the forthcoming seminar, Moving on up: Making an impact with your career


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Charlotte Holmes
MA Member
Museum Development Officer, Museums Association
08.02.2016, 17:23
Hi Joana,
I'm not sure which museums take Erasmus placements. Generally speaking, I would advise you to apply to museums where you have a particular interest in their approach, and/or collection, and make sure you communicate this when applying for a placement. Our MP archive might be a good place to start looking for interesting organisations to approach. You might also want to become a student member of the MA. Membership will help you find out more about the UK museums sector, and the membership card will get you into many museums for free. When applying to organisations try and do so some research to identify the appropriate person/project to contact; and take the time to make a personalised approach.
Best of luck
08.02.2016, 18:39

Thank you so much for your advice, I'll do that, focus on what I really want to work with and specify why I want to work in the museum I apply for.

03.02.2016, 21:23
Hi! First of all, thank you for doing this!

I'm a Portuguese student that graduated from the Arts and Humanities course with a Major in History and a Major in Archaeology. I'm currently writing my MA's thesis in Ancient History. I've worked as a volunteer in a museum for three months and I would love to work in a museum when I finish my MA. I'm applying to the Erasmus program for an internship in the UK for 9 months. I was wondering if you had any suggestions of museums that might be able to accept me?

And if you have any suggestions for what I should do after that I would love to hear them.

Thank you.
06.02.2015, 20:07
Hello, Charlotte

I studied History and now I am working at a museum in the Museology Department but I don't have real experience in this area, Can you recommend a book or some kind of bibliography I could use to learn more about this area? As a historian I am more used to researching and writing, etc. etc. I would thank you deeply if you could answer my question.
Charlotte Holmes
MA Member
Museum Development Officer, Museums Association
10.02.2015, 17:38

Please feel free to give me a call or email me directly 0207 566 7860 if you would like to talk more broadly about developing your skills and experience.

In the meantime, whilst I don't feel I can recommend a key text or reading list... as well as using the MP and MJ archive you may want to refer to online musicological resources such as those held by the Smithsonian or the reading lists of various museum studies courses which are available online.

I would also encourage your to seek opportunities to learn from colleagues involved in different areas of museum work.