Name: Katy Swift, 27
Degree: BA in History of Art at the University of Sussex and MA in Museology at the University of East Anglia.
CAN YOU GIVE YOUR WORK TITLE AND WHAT IT IS YOU ACTUALLY DO?
My title is Project Researcher for Great Yarmouth Museums, part of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service. I am lucky that my job title is broad enough to allow me to become involved with a variety of different and interesting projects. I am based at the award winning Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life, where I am currently working on a redisplay of ethnographic collections and a selection of ‘curiosities’ collected by local mariners in the nineteenth century. I am bringing together further research that has been done for these objects, writing text panels, and working with designers on the case redisplays.
Another major project I am coordinating is the Maritime Heritage East Website, which will bring together information and digital archives from museums and organisations that promote and interpret maritime heritage in the East of England. I am currently working with website designers on the design and layout of the site, and with the 34 contributing museums to train them to create online exhibitions, write text for the internet, and upload collection information to the website. It is an innovative and ambitious joint project which, when complete, will produce an evocative, informative and creative website.
WERE YOU ALWAYS INTERESTED IN THIS CAREER?
During my undergraduate degree in the History of Art I had always envisioned myself working in a museum or gallery but never specifically in a particular job or type of institution. But after I graduated I found it impossible to get my first job in a museum and I ended up falling into a career as a jeweller, which I subsequently left to go travelling. Whilst travelling I made up my mind that on my return to Britain I would apply for the MA in Museology at the University of East Anglia.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN WHEN YOU WERE AN UNDERGRADUATE?
I don’t think I appreciated how difficult it was to get your first job in the cultural sector. I wish I had been able to get relevant voluntary experience within a museum or heritage site during my undergraduate studies. But like many students, necessity decreed that I had to earn money whilst studying – although in retrospect, even one day a week would have been beneficial. I think universities should much more readily promote the benefits of ‘hands-on experience’ alongside academic study.
HOW HAS YOUR POSTGRADUATE QUALIFICATION HELPED YOUR CAREER?
I am convinced that a combination of my postgraduate qualification and the voluntary experience I gained during this time finally opened the door to a career in museums.
I was lucky that the Masters in Museology at the University of East Anglia recognises the importance of giving its students the benefit of work placements as well as academic study. Alongside our studies we were also required to volunteer two days a week at our placement museums and spend our Easter break working in another museum. By the end of my postgraduate study I had a good balance of theory and practice, and had built up a useful contacts list.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT YOUR JOB?
I am fortunate to be part of a museum service and team which encourage and enhance my professional development. I also enjoy the fact that I come into contact with all sorts of people and all sorts of objects. For example, this week my work has involved researching objects collected from nineteenth century British Columbian Indians, writing text for a gallery, working with conservation on the display of a mummified hand, and developing online exhibitions for the Maritime Heritage East Website. What other job can offer variety like that?!
ARE THERE ANY DOWNSIDES TO WHAT YOU DO?
Generally, I consider it a privilege to be doing this job, and working in museums can offer a high level of job satisfaction, but good entry-level jobs are relatively scarce which means you face a lot of competition. As a result, at the beginning of your career the pay tends to be low.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT SKILLS/STRENGTHS YOU NEED TO MAKE A SUCCESS OF WHAT YOU DO?
It is necessary to have a strong vocational commitment if you want to work in museums. You need to be enthusiastic and tenacious to secure a job and then to gain as much experience as you possibly can whilst in that post.
With regard to my post, it is important to have good people skills and to be an effective communicator and motivator as museums are not just about objects, they are about people, too.
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR BEST PIECE OF ADVICE FOR GRADUATES WISHING TO COME INTO THIS SECTOR?
Get as much relevant work experience as you can if your course has not already provided it. Voluntary work in museums and galleries can be hard to acquire so you will need to be persistent; don’t be afraid to phone around. When you get your opportunity, get involved with as much as possible to improve your C.V. and build up a contacts list.
There is a lot of talk at the moment about diversifying the museum workforce and making it easier for people who do not have postgraduate qualifications. The Museums Association has useful information on their website and offer bursaries and trainee schemes to Black and ethnic minority groups as part of their ‘Diversify’ Scheme. The expense of postgraduate study can be off-putting, but I was lucky enough to receive a bursary to part-fund my studies, and it is worth researching what financial help is out there. I found that paid work was not forthcoming until I had my Masters.