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.


Museums and visitor photography

I was very pleased to see this book arrive on my desk this week. It’s got my first ever book chapter in it! Plus it looks really smart. You can buy copies from the publisher, here.


I used visitor tracking data from the British Museum to look at how visitor photography and dwell time are related, and how this relationship differed before and after a mega gallery redisplay. I’m sure there is much more research to do in this area.

A version of the draft text is available here, without the figures or images in the book. Drop a line if you want to know more, I would love for you to read it.


Miles, E., (2016) “Visitor Photography in the British Museum’s Sutton Hoo and Europe Gallery”, in Stylianou-Lambert, T. (ed.), Museums and Visitor Photography: Redefining the Visitor Experience, MuseumsEtc.

New year

September seems like the start of the year to me, I’m a total sucker for the new-term feeling the French call la rentrée, and this year it’s stronger than most.

I’ve been thinking back and forth lately. Looking back, I was interviewed for a series of videos about the Transforming Thresholds project – you can find them all here. Looking forward, the little essay I co-wrote about the future of museums is online, with a group of interesting essays about how museum staff think things will change.

Tomorrow is my birthday, and I’ll be starting a new decade in a new home, with new ideas and challenges ahead. I’ll talk about that more another day. The years go so fast these days.

Curator of the Future conference

The conference, organised by colleagues at the British Museum, saw hundreds of delegates discussing the role of the curator. Lots of these debates tapped into discourse about collections knowledge and public engagement, and at times it seemed as though these were presented as mutually exclusive sets of skills. Different models of the good curator were put forward: personifications of the ideal museum.

The future curator, as far as I can see, needs to be a team player. Museums need subject specialism knowledge, storytelling abilities, and collections care skills, but every curatorial role will need a different balance of these skills, depending on the colleagues that they work with. Much museum work is now project-based and funded. Different museums and projects will set up different teams, requiring distinctive balances of these three areas of expertise. A project with an interpretation officer allocated will not necessarily require a curator to have in-depth knowledge of how to engage an audience, for example. It is the ability to collaborate, share and adapt that will be crucial to the curator of the future.

I often think of two things that two accomplished curators told me about their work.

Cathy Ross told me that curating is the skill of judging what can be left out.

Dora Thornton said it is about the set of questions that you ask of an object.

These approaches reflect the balance of the teams that the curators work in within their organisations – one is arguably led by the question of storytelling, the other approach is perhaps more collections-focussed. Sometimes at the conference yesterday it seemed like knowledge was referred to as a possession, rather than as an activity. I think that both Cathy and Dora’s ideas about the work of the curator are valuable because they articulate a process of enquiry, rather than an expression of expertise. Knowledge needs to be maintained to be meaningful. Museums must keep researching their collections, evaluating their displays, fundraising, managing their staff and maintaining discussions – but curators will not be the only museum workers to do these things.

A good curator is a huge asset to a museum, but I think for too long the curator has been treated as the embodiment of the museum. In my PhD case study I was based in a curatorial department, but the museum was remade through work carried out by curators, designers, learning, technicians, photographers, managers, collections management database specialists, conservators, collections care officers, volunteers, academic consultants and even nonhuman forces.

There is a huge amount of diversity in the sector. Rachel Souhami argued that we should stop talking about the ‘museum sector’ as it misleadingly suggests something homogenous and cohesive. Perhaps it is more meaningful to talk about the curators of the future.

Digital Collaborations: Students Working with Museums

Recently I’ve written a number of shorter pieces for newsletters and guides, including this advice for students who want to collaborate with museums on digital projects. It comes out of the Research on Display seminars, so the publication has advice for students looking to collaborate with museums in lots of different ways. I think Kristin Hussey’s introduction to collections information for exhibitions will be especially useful – I wish I’d read it when I started out.

You can access the pdf of the whole publication here:

Research on Display: A Guide to Collaborative Exhibitions for Academics, Edited by Laura Humphreys

After my thesis

I was in two minds about posting this, as it’s basically about being fed up. But I wish I’d read something like this last year.

In the midst of my PhD I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like when it was done. But I had this sensation of hope. That my days would be full of the sunshine I had shut myself away from so many times. I thought finishing my PhD would take away some pressure, and make my relationships easier. I thought that I would feel a strong sense of achievement, and it would sustain me – knock that imposter syndrome on the head once and for all.

When I passed my viva the whole episode of the PhD felt diminished. As I rang my parents to tell them the good news, I already felt that if someone like me could get a PhD then it wasn’t all that big of a deal.

Between submitting my thesis and having my viva I left the Museum of London. I was lucky enough to start two exciting new part-time jobs right away, but starting again felt hard. I found the novelty difficult. I missed spending work days amongst my old friends. Many of my friends were facing a great deal of uncertainty and loss. One in particular suffered an utterly devastating loss.

With the new year I kept looking forward. I started swimming regularly. I was applying for jobs, travelling to interviews, thinking of opportunities that might suit me. After a rapid series of rejections I started to feel crushed. Negative thoughts started churning through my mind. A friend died, and the world lost all its shine. I took up learning French and learning to drive. I spent time with friends and family. I lost a couple of stone, started running and did a short charity triathlon. I started working full time at the BM. I read goop. I baked bread, made granola, ate well. I gave keynotes and talks. Whatever I did, the negative thoughts kept coming. I was anxious and couldn’t sleep properly. I was crying in the shower in the mornings, fearful of facing the day and at a loss as to why I felt unable to cope. I found supermarkets completely overwhelming. I kept mishearing things people were saying, and thinking they were swearing at me, or telling me I was stupid.

I took a holiday.

I felt better.

It’s almost a year since I submitted my thesis. I didn’t expect it to be a hard year, but I’m hopeful again. Maybe this time next year I’ll be able to speak French. Perhaps I’ll be able to drive, or to run faster and further. Perhaps I’ll find another challenge that I’ll love and hate as much as my PhD. But my world’s a bit bigger than the book I wrote, and I need to find my way in it again.


I read Kirsty Rolfe‘s list of things to avoid in your viva. I thought I’d pass on some more positive news from experience.

Three things you can do during your viva and it be totally fine:

  1. At the outset of your viva, when asked how you came to study the topic you can say “well it all comes down to Jon Bon Jovi”, prompting your supervisor to silently put his head in his hands.
  2. You can pause the Viva to point out a school group wearing Santa Hats walking past.
  3. Your phone can ring loudly several times because your dad wants to know how you got on and you didn’t manage to put your phone on silent.

I think it would have been reassuring to know this in advance, please add more in the comments!