Working In A Museum
Working in a museum
Museums are exciting and vibrant places to work in and can be very rewarding.
Staff tend to be passionate about their work, whether it be in research or front of house and - with museums increasingly expanding their functions - there are many roles within the organisation that require a wide range of skills.
While there is a reliance on unpaid staff and most salaries compare unfavourably to similar skilled roles in other sectors, competition for paid roles is high. Despite this, interesting working environments, an abundance of learning opportunities, and the opportunity to contribute to civic life and engage with many different people, make museums attractive places to work in.
What roles are specific to museums?
Along with departments or personnel that support the work of the organisation - such as general administration, marketing, finance, IT, communications, and development – museums offer a variety of specialised roles:
Director or Museum Manager
This is the most senior executive role within the museum and holds responsibility for the smooth running of the organisation. The Director or Museum Manager ensures that the vision of the museum is realised and is the principal decision-maker on programming and collections. They holds overarching responsibility for developing and implementing business strategies, ensuring financial, legal and organisational health, and major stakeholders management. The Director or Museum Manager typically works with a board of directors or trustees and may delegate to senior staff and/or a specialist team.
Curators and collections management
These roles are responsible for managing, caring for, and developing collections; including acquisitions, research, documentation and registrar duties, managing and preparing exhibitions, digitisation, and interpretation. Senior positions may have responsibility for staff, resources and services. Responsibilities may also include front of house activities, working with the public, answering enquiries, and providing access to the collections.
Conservators - Restorers
These roles are responsible for the conservation and restoration of collections. They are responsible for practical conservation work; hands-on restoration activities, organise and carry out environmental and pest control monitoring, regular cleaning and maintenance of collections, and provide research. Responsibilities may include providing advice and training in collection care matters to curatorial and technical staff and assisting with exhibitions.
Learning and Engagement staff
Museum educators are involved in finding ways to use the collections to inspire people. They are responsible for developing and delivering the museum's education and community engagement activities. They provide learning resources, on-site and off-site programmes of events and activities, and/or outreach and community programmes designed to engage with primary and secondary schools, third-level educational institutions and other life-long or informal learners. They liaise with external organisations on opportunities for new learning partnerships; and have an input into exhibitions, audience engagement and other museum activities.
Museum technicians and building management
These roles are responsible for technical, IT and building management; including hanging works; resolving technical issues; liaising with curatorial and conservation staff in the design and management of museum space and facilities; and managing audiovisual and interactive displays.
Museum attendant, front-of-house or security staff
These roles are responsible for a variety of duties which ensure the smooth running of the museum, staff may have responsibilities for the security of the museum, preventing loss or damage to collections and displays and monitoring public areas; and undertaking simple technical tasks to do with the building; and/or dealing with visitors, providing general information, acting as sales assistants and using cash handling machines in the museum shop or cafe.
While staff in larger museums have more defined roles, in smaller museums you may find you have a wider range of responsibilities and carry out a number of the above functions.
What qualifications do I need to work in a museum?
Most people starting out in a paid role will be educated to degree level, as well as having some prior experience - whether paid or unpaid. In more recent years, specialised roles will attract candidates educated to postgraduate level. You may also be required to have a track record of published research.
Primary degrees in areas that relate to museum collections are often good starting points from which to build a museum career. Subjects such as history, art history, archaeology, natural sciences, and anthropology are typical of many employees working in museums.There are graduate and post graduate programmes available both in Ireland and abroad, combining both campus based and distance learning options. A few of the many programmes specialising in museum studies include:
- Queen's University Belfast: MA in Arts Management
- Trinity College Dublin: M.Phil. / P.Grad.Dip. in Public History and Cultural Heritage
- University College Cork: Museum Studies Management
- University College Dublin: MA in Cultural Policy & Arts Management, MA in Art History, Collections and Curating.
- University of East Anglia, Norwich: MA in Museum Studies, MPhil or PhD by research
- University of Leicester: MA, MSc, PhD in Museum Studies
- University of Limerick: MA (online) Public History and Cultural Heritage
- University of Maynooth: Certificate in Irish Cultural History
- University of Ulster: MA Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies
- Waterford Institute of Technology: MA in Arts & Heritage management
Student placements and Internships
Many museums offer student placements or internships to people wishing to start a career in museums, either as part of a graduate/postgraduate programme or as a stand-alone learning opportunity.
These tend to last between three months and a year and cover many different roles within the museum. They are aimed at gaining hand-on experience and skills and can allow people the opportunity to gauge whether they wish to pursue a career in museums.
It is very important that work placements and internships are not exploitative, that these be viewed as a learning experience and be supported as such, and that reasonable work-related expenses be paid.
Each internship should provide the organisation with a short term resource to deliver meaningful work which is of value to the organisation and at the same time provide the intern with a satisfying learning experience. The IMA recommends that internships offered for a period longer than 16 weeks should be paid.
An excellent way to gain experience in the museum environment or simply to support a museum with your expertise is to volunteer your time. Some institutions have formal programmes through which you may volunteer as a museum docent, visitor services assistant, or other roles. Others accept informal enquiries as to volunteer opportunities.
Also consider sharing your knowledge and giving back to the sector as a trustee or board director. While many board vacancies will be advertised, you can also sign up as a candidate with a service such as Board Match Ireland or approach the museum directly.