March 2020

Back on 9th March I gave a talk about Margot Eates at the Society of Antiquaries London. It was one of the last ‘pre-pandemic’ things I did: I quite clearly remember being a little unsure whether I ought to be shaking people’s hands or not.

“with the museum building [closed], almost all its clerical staff elsewhere and the collection stored out of sight the controlling and ordering processes of the museum were disrupted”

I was talking about the London Museum in 1942 and had no inkling that two days later I would clear my own desk, that I’d be furloughed for a couple of months, or that the museum would close.

In April the talk went online and I wasn’t in quite the right mental space to review it. With everything going on it sort of slipped my mind. The video popped up today as I researched for a ‘Women at Work’ wikipedia editathon.

It being nearly the end of the year I found myself thinking a bit about what I’ve achieved in 2020. Having experienced a (very different) moment of systems disruption to the ‘controlling and ordering’ processes of museums I don’t think I’ve managed anything comparable to the exhibition Margot and Hartley produced. I’ve done my best this year to do good work, to act kindly, to support colleagues and work from a place of compassion. Next year I’ll do the same, and I’ll do better.

Any other museum workers engaged in contemporary collecting and reflecting on the year please save the date: 3pm on the 8th December 2020.

Parental leave

How does shared parental work? What pay and benefits am I entitled to when I’m on leave? How long should I take off? What are keeping in touch days? What are my rights to request flexible working on my return? What if my fixed-term contract expires during my leave? What if my employer restructures while I’m on my leave?

I spent quite a bit of my maternity leave discussing these questions with other new mothers at various baby groups – and thank goodness I did! It never hurts to be clued-up about your employment rights, especially if you’re taking parental leave. Even major national museums sometimes get this wrong, so don’t assume you will just be ok. As well as Nikki’s courageous case, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about parental leave – from the relatively minor and awkward through to¬†employers trying to act against the law and dismiss employees. I thought I’d note down some things I learned along the way – tho of course I don’t have experience working freelance, so these are all for people who aren’t self-employed.

My first bit of advice to anyone looking to start or add to their family would be: join a union (if you haven’t already). Your union will be able to advise you on your rights, and if worst comes to worst, they’ll be able to represent you and take your case on, on your behalf. My union had lawyers on hand to advise in tricky circumstances.

My second bit of advice would be to have a chat with someone at work who has recently returned from parental leave, and see if they have any tips for managing this time in your career, especially with reference to your employer. I had a great chat with someone at work before going on leave which was brilliant at helping me to set my expectations and intentions in the context of my workplace. I did wonder whether it might be useful for the Museums Association to set up a kind of parental leave-mentor system, to put people in touch with one another as they navigate this, but informal networks are fantastic.

My third would be read the acas website, and the government website. These explain the law and your rights – and your manager may not necessarily have read them. With museum work there are often fixed-term contracts and temporary projects and restructures so it’s not always obvious where you stand, legally. Read up on this and sites like Maternity Action, to know what you’re entitled to. If you’re still unsure, ask your union rep if they can help clarify, and then speak to HR. One thing to be aware of (if you’re not already) is your employer’s legal obligation to offer ‘suitable alternative employment’ if your job role is made redundant.

My fourth bit of advice would be print off all your company policies before you go on leave. It will be helpful to have hard copies to refer to when you can’t login. It’s an obvious one, but very handy to have, for example, the flexible working policy in black and white, should you need it.

There’s plenty more good advice out there, and I’d love to hear about more ideas and experiences, if you have some to share.

2018 reflections

This year’s been a big one for me as I started a new job and recommitted to my work and values. It’s been a whirlwind and I’m proud of lots of what I’ve achieved:

I wrote myself a little manifesto back in July, I’ll copy it here:

The approaches and systems that I’ve been using to collect aren’t producing inclusive and representative collections, so it’s time to change how I collect and curate. I’m going to be working on this with lots of people over the next few years and I’m going to get better about sharing what works and what doesn’t. So give me a yell and let me know if I’m getting something wrong, (or right!), if you can help, if I can help you, if there’s anything I ought to be writing about or reading, or if you want to talk.

I’m pretty confident that I’m making progress with all this and some of the areas I’m most excited about next year are:

  • Mentoring! I’ve got two formal mentees lined up for next year and I’m looking forward to meeting them and getting to know their work a bit better
  • I still really want to do more reading and interviewing and publish about two 20th century curators I’ve been researching: Margot Eates and Hartley Ramsden
  • Building up trust in LTM, building up the collections that LTM needs, and working with more people to do it
  • Learning more! There is so much I’m excited to discover about mobilities, urban change, queer history (the subject of ‘pink depots’ is one I want to find out more about next year), decolonizing museums, digital preservation, participatory collecting projects, contemporary collecting, shared collections… I am so excited to learn more about all this
  • Getting more displays updated, and turning all the learning and collecting to changes that our visitors see
  • Something I found rewarding and thought-provoking last year was nominating colleagues and other figures for awards. I am going to keep this up next year and make sure that I’m helping the work I value get the recognition that I think it deserves

Specifically I want to:

  • Get more confident in front of the camera and record some videos
  • Do more talks, radio and podcasts. Maybe start a museum podcast?
  • Deliver outstanding collecting projects for London Transport Museum
  • Go to conferences! They are so fun
  • Improve BAME representation in the museum’s collections and the museum, support my BAME colleagues better
  • Learn to be a good mentor
  • Visit more exhibitions next year

Where are all the women?

Ever walked through a museum and wondered where all the women are? Why they’re missing from history? Ever tried to improve representation of women a museum and found the collection lacking information, stories and objects?

With the support of Arts Council England we are working to change that. I’ve put a request out to ask the public to submit their stories of women in transport, to enrich the collection and hopefully the museum’s displays.

If you’ve got someone to nominate (and don’t be shy, it can be yourself) then please let us know!

It’s a basic idea, just to ask where the women are, but it’s shown me how women get excluded from the historical record, how our systems are set up to exclude women, how our interpretation is designed in ways which don’t embrace the history of women’s work. And so I can’t wait to change it.

Half a history is just not enough.

So you want to be a curator

I thought I’d share a few tips that have come my way with the caveat that they aren’t the opinions of my employers, I’m not a careers adviser, I have a whole hunch of privilege and the game has changed significantly in the last 10-15 years. I’ll add funding opps and other bits as I find them.

Traineeships, mentoring, networks

Arts Emergency – the ‘alternative old boys’ network’ is growing in London, Kent and Manchester. It includes lots of creative roles and includes museums and galleries so definitely worth a look.

Create Jobs – keep an eye on the New Museum School (applications now open tho the application page gives a 404?!) and see if it’s something you might be interested in.

Museums Galleries Scotland have a skills for success programme, with placements across Scotland.

A bunch of museums run their own paid traineeships which you can keep an eye out for. These can be pretty competitive but worth a shot. Plus the more excellent applications museums see, the more likely they are to realize it’s a good way to get great people into museums. This British Museum-led scheme is open at the moment and has eight traineeships across England.

Unofficial mentors can be very handy – if there’s anyone you know who is helpful, has a bit of experience and knows you ask them for advice and insight. It might not always be something you can do (a number of times I’ve been told to work in another country for a spell) but sometimes the conversation is worth having.

Networks like MuseumDetox and Museum as Muck are great ways to make friends, find support and opportunities.

It’t not a formal network but I did a talk once at Museums Showoff and that did wonders for my confidence and if you can do something like that somewhere friendly and that suits your vibe and will work for you then go for it.

Doing a Masters and paying for it

A lot has been written about whether a master’s degree will get you a job – you might have read this and this. Anecdotally there’s a move away from listing an MA in the ‘essentials’ criteria of jobs (tho it’s still used). Sometimes the ‘essentials’ criteria includes studious commitment to the sector and the AMA is included. This is cheaper than an MA and might be a better option if you’re already working or volunteering somewhere.

If you decide a Masters is a route that you would like to take then you’re going to need a lot of money to pay for the course.

You might be able to find money to study through this website.

Some people I know took up Career Development Loans to pay for uni fees – you can find out more here (tho the scheme is closing in Jan 2019).

There are Master’s loans available, with extra support if you have a disability. (Thanks Alex for telling me!)

Max out your chances of being lucky

Being in the right place at the right time helped me – tho I still did the application and selection process – but I still didn’t get the first job I applied for at the museum I was working with. (My brilliant friend Sarah did and she’s amazing). This was lucky, but I’d maximized my chances of being in the right place at the right time by doing a funded PhD, and using it as an excuse to kick around the office a lot. Some people are able to find ways to live at home/off their parents money or something and volunteer for ages, but there are other ways to kick around until someone employs you. A PhD was my thing but you’ve got something of your own you can offer. If you can, find a way to network, and participate while getting paid then take it.

A friend of mine was office manager for a big museum for an ‘in’ and that was a fantastic way to meet everyone and learn about the jobs they did and how they got to do them. Plus, and this shouldn’t be understated, it’s a pretty sweet job in its own right.

Make your job more like the job you want

Museums and curator jobs are changing. My job title didn’t exist six months ago and I expect my next job hasn’t been thought up yet. But you can help drive that change. Get good at what you value and what you think a museum you want to work for values – get creative, or just copy what other people do that works. Our collections online team was meant to clean records and manage new images for the website, but we set up a series of public talks about our work (inspired by another team who helped us), blogged about it, and researched and published too. Is there anything from job ads you like that you can build into what you’re doing? Blogging and organising talks, tours and events can be really effective.

Your cover letter needs to cover the essential criteria point by point

This is a mistake that still comes up and if you make it, you won’t get shortlisted. If you write ‘please consider my CV’ it’s just not going to happen. It’s a pain and a pity and no-one likes it but you have to re-write every time. Mark’s written some more advice from a recruiter’s perspective here.

Ask a critical friend to look over your application

Buddy up with your friends and check over each other’s applications. It helps pick up any mistakes, your friends are super proud of you so they’ll add in all the words you feel like a tosser writing about yourself, and you learn from each other. Find friends who believe in you and look after them. You’re going to have to grow a thick skin if you don’t have one already, and you don’t have to do it alone.

Rejection and redundancy (can) hurt

It can really hurt when you get that email saying you’ve not got the job, or the meeting invite that says you’re off. And it’s ok that it hurts and it’s ok that you’re hurting FOR A SHORT TIME. Remember you don’t have to keep doing this. Remember you have transferable skills, and you can walk away and do something else. One of my mates worked in an archive for a year or so then got into regulation and now she’s earning a six figure salary and fair play to her. Every few years I think really seriously about leaving the sector and I’m sure that one day I will. And I think it’s ok not to be resigned to being kicked around by funding cuts, low wages, short term contracts and being overstretched. There’s no shame in walking away and doing something else.