Have you ever considered how your skillset and experiences could translate into heritage or museum work?
Everyone who works in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives & Museums) sector has a unique career pathway. However, with the ongoing incredible financial pressures on this industry, and seeing fellow organizations we know and love in Victoria recently closing, we recognize that it can be difficult to see yourself beginning a heritage or museum career.
There is no blueprint for a career, but in this #MeetMMBC series of blog posts, staff at the Maritime Museum of BC want to share how they got into their field of museum work, and what industries, skills, and contacts helped them along the way.
What is your name and what do you?
I’m Heather and I’m the Collections and Exhibits Manager at the Maritime Museum of BC.
What was your first museum role?
Museums got me early. In my last year of high school, I knew that I wanted to do something related to the arts but I had no idea what that might be. It was through a co-op class that I ended up stumbling on my future career. I got a position at a small museum in an even smaller town. Castle Kilbride was where I met my first museum mentors and where I found the path that I had been looking for. It took several more bumpy years to refine that path but I couldn’t have asked for a better start.
Did you find any degree or diploma programs useful for museum work?
After my undergraduate degree in Art History, I applied for the Museum Management and Curatorship program at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario. Being a college program, it was light on theory and heavy on practical skills, something I was ready for at the time. I also admit that I appreciated that the whole thing only lasted a year. By that time in my life, I was ready to be done with school and get out in the world to start doing. The program itself was quite comprehensive, touching on almost every aspect of museum work, some parts I use everyday, some come up every once in a while, and some I’ve yet to tap back into although I’m sure they’ll resurface eventually.
Have you worked outside the GLAM sector, and how has that contributed to your museum work?
Getting started in museums isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Either you get really lucky and you get a job right away through connections, or you’re stuck grinding. Between contracts, I would often end up back in retail to pay the bills. I think the thing that experience contributed the most was to keep me motivated to not give up on finding a job in the field I enjoyed. I liked a lot of my coworkers in retail but I dreaded going to work everyday.
Have you completed co-op or intern terms of work? Were they paid or unpaid?
I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone working in museums who hasn’t. Part of my college program was to complete an unpaid internship at a museum. After that, I had a year long internship at an art gallery in northern Ontario. That one was paid, sort of. I could mostly pay my rent but do remember coming home after it was over with a smaller bank account balance than when I started.
In the GLAM sector, what has been your breakdown of full-time vs. part-time or casual work, and permanent vs. temporary contract work?
All of my jobs in the sector have been full-time, for which I’m grateful. On the other hand, most of them have been contract based. Jumping from one contract to the next, especially when they’re short, is a stressful way to live. About six years ago, I landed a job, that while technically contract, was about as permanent as anything I had seen so far. It did involve uprooting my life and moving to a province I had never set foot in before. My husband was game and a week after our wedding we packed up our car, loading in our 75 pound dog, and hit the road. When I was ready to move on from that job, I had enough work experience under my belt that I wasn’t willing to apply for anything that wasn’t permanent.
Have you been mentored?
That high school co-op introduced me to two of the best mentors out there. I worked with them at a couple different museums and the exhibits they could put together with no staff and a $100 budget were inspiring. They taught me resourcefulness and that a close knit team of people you like and respect can pull off much more than anyone anticipates.
Why do you do museum and heritage work?
That’s sort of an interesting question. The first answer that comes to mind is that I’ve never found anything else I wanted to do more.
When I was starting out, I imagined the stereotypical curator role. That wasn’t what I got. At the time that I was applying for my first jobs, there was a big push in the sector for collections work and I ended up in that. For most of my career so far, I’ve been in collections or all types, local history, art, dinosaurs, you name it, I’ve probably catalogued it.
The Maritime Museum was the place that let me get back to my initial vision what I wanted from museum work. Getting to step out from behind the database and tell stories has reignited my love for what I do.
Do you have any advice for your future colleagues in the GLAM sector?
Be prepared to move. It may seem like a bigger city is the way to go but from experience, finding a job at a smaller museum will give you more flexibility to build your skill set. Plus the rent will be cheaper!
Try not to get frustrated with how long it sometimes takes to get your foot in the door. And when you do, remember that most of us have been there too and are willing to lend a sympathetic ear. It may take a while but someone will take a chance on you. In the meantime, keep volunteering, if you can, keep getting out there because people are paying attention.