The emerging museum professionals
John Holt, Issue 119/02, 01.02.2019
In the run-up to the Museums Association’s Moving on Up event for those in the first five years of their careers, John Holt talks to five up-and-coming museum workers about why they chose to join the sector, their professional goals and the challenges they have overcome
Damien Arness-Dalton, explainer, Science Museum, education and engagement assistant, Houses of Parliament
Growing up in a huge Irish Catholic family, Damien Arness-Dalton had a burning ambition to join the priesthood, until he found out about the expected lifestyle choices.
“On reflection, as a child I obviously had a yearning to help people find answers to life’s big questions,” says the man who now spends his time explaining the workings of two great institutions and coordinating Queerseum, a grassroots LGBT+ history project.
“All the roles share a love for communicating with audiences to deepen self-realisation and positioning in the worlds of science, democratic access, cultural activism and queer history,” he says.
With no funding, Queerseum’s collection of activists, artists and educators are making the case for a permanent space in London to tell queer stories. “It’s a passion of mine to enrich our community and wider audiences with queer history, towards a future we can shape together in engaging and transformative ways.
“By walking and talking my own truth and authenticity, my work at parliament and the Science Museum reaches audiences who potentially see these organisations as places of diversity and inclusion, both in their staff and their collections.”
Instead of holy orders, the young Arness-Dalton enrolled in a youth theatre programme, which eventually led to a BA in dramatic arts, the perfect springboard from which to dive into museum education.
“For a while, I worked in retail until I saw an advert for explainers at the Science Museum,” he says. “I began to tell stories every day at work but struggled to see myself reflected in the objects and collections.
“After visiting museums in the year of the anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, I questioned the legacy and commitment of museum spaces once the temporary queer exhibitions disappeared. This led to the ‘queering the Science Museum’ visitor tour. I didn’t ask permission to do it; if you’re proactive and push for positive change, you can be that change.”
Abi Godfrey, visitor services assistant, Holburne Museum, Bath
As full-time front-of-house (FoH) at the Holburne, and a part-timer at the city’s Roman Baths, Abi Godfrey’s (below) tricks of the trade are a welcoming smile, a constantly growing knowledge base and the patience of a saint.
“I love talking about history all day,” says Godfrey. “It’s not the best-paid profession in the world but I have no negative feelings about my job. Some of my friends are teachers, others work in sales or finance, and they find their jobs stressful.”
Godfrey also acknowledges that her path into the sector has been an easier experience for her than for some of her contemporaries.
“There’s an unfortunate impression that you definitely need a master’s degree to move ahead, but I believe changes could be made to ensure equivalent experiences count just as much,” she says. “I had financial help to get through my degree, an opportunity based on my background, which many others, who are just as hard-working, do not have.”
Godfrey is also doing her bit to ensure her chosen field sees the support of the sector via the Front of House Museums network that she founded with her friend, William Tregaskes.
“We noticed that many colleagues didn’t have the same access to training and resources that we enjoyed, so we started a local social media group. It soon exploded and nationwide discussions broke out on all sorts of topics.
“We started entering other online museum conversations, adding an FoH perspective to chats about interpretation, collections and events. We spoke at conferences and career days; people were keen to involve us, and I think the increasing amount of work that FoH people do around museums is now much more appreciated.”
Most of that work, of course, is customer-facing, so people skills are absolutely essential, says Godfrey. “You should always treat people with empathy, no matter how many times you hear the same questions,” she says, revealing that there’s a knack to telling people not to touch anything without sounding like a sourpuss.
“A few weeks ago, I had a moment when a child ran straight towards a harp in a gallery and the mother became anxious,” she says. “Rather than admonish the child, I started a conversation with questions like ‘How old do you think this is?’ and ‘What do you think it is made of?’ It’s important to arm people with knowledge so they feel they have some sort of ownership of what they’re seeing and know that they have to look after it.”
Joel Fagan, research assistant, Paisley Museum Reimagined, Renfrewshire
It’s fair to say that Joel Fagan’s (above right) career got off to something of a flying start when his first paid job offer came from the Egypt collections at the British Museum, London.
“I’d always had a huge interest in Egyptology, but I was increasingly worried it might have been too specialist an area,” says Fagan. “That job reignited the spark and I also discovered just how important networks and friendships are in a museum context, particularly when you’re relying on colleagues not to let a three-ton statue fall on you!”
A year into the post, however, Fagan walked away from his “dream job”. “My partner was doing a PhD, finances were tight, and London was never really a place I enjoyed. I found myself having to arrive at work hours earlier than necessary just to avoid the crowds.”
Fagan finally found fulfilment and fresh air some 400 miles away in the World Cultures and Global Perspectives collection at Paisley Museum Reimagined, a £42m project which will result in the town becoming home to a truly inspirational visitor attraction in 2022.
“People probably just think of the psychedelic pattern when they hear the name Paisley, but the place is simply unreal. Having grown up in Manchester during a time when museum funding was being torn apart, it is inspiring to see this town pumping so much money into heritage.
“Everything slotted into place and I don’t see it as a step down at all. I’m very ambitious and the project is fantastic; there’s nothing like it in the UK at the moment.”
Fagan’s job is to uncover hidden stories within the museum’s collection of more than 1,500 objects from Australasia, Asia, North America, South America and the Pacific Islands.
“Believe me, there are some show-stopping pieces,” says Fagan, who acknowledges that his British Museum experience stood him in good stead for this new role.
“The day-to-day work with experts was invaluable. Everywhere you go in a museum career, you should keep those networks open. Recently, I attended the Archaeological Colloquium, where I caught up with old friends and had the chance to meet some people that I had only known previously on social media.
“I’m becoming more confident and picking up new skills all the time. I’ve done talks and made a film about the Egyptology collections in Scotland,” says Fagan, who, at one time, had harboured dreams of being the new Indiana Jones.
“The trouble is, the more you learn about Indiana Jones, the more you realise what an awful archaeologist he is. And I don’t suit hats – which was not helpful when I was a young, ginger-haired, archaeology student under a burning sun in Italy.”
Fagan, however, recommends that young museum wannabes should follow his example and keep all their options open.
“Volunteer wherever you can, but don’t go in thinking that you are going to be a curator. I did that at first but then I discovered new passions. With the economy as it is, you’ve got to be adaptable with general skills across the board.”
Elliot Goodger, manager, Nantwich Museum, Cheshire
Finding that his former job in the wine industry was not to his taste, Elliot Goodger is now using a multisensory museum approach to improve the lives of people at home and abroad.
He believes all the senses should be incorporated into exhibition design and education sessions to make museums more accessible and enjoyable for the widest possible audience.
“Research shows we learn quicker, retain more information and have a more enjoyable museum experience when we learn through the five senses,” he says. Goodger is also an advocate of how green strategies can save – and make – money for museums, such as providing vegan options in the cafe.
“A vegan main only has one-fifth of the environmental footprint of a meat option; it is healthier, and it has been proven to attract a new and more diverse customer base.
“We have a duty in our museums, and at events and conferences, to help address these issues in a simple way,” says Goodger, who is proud the museum continues to offer a free service to some 27,000 visitors a year despite a tightening budget.
Events include the twice-monthly dementia friendship group where visitors share memories, tea and cakes with poets, musicians and speakers.
“For some of them, it’s one of the few times they leave their homes, and that makes me realise how important the museum is for some people in our community. Similarly, hearing back from parents about how excited their children were to attend our education sessions shows that we make an impact through our experiential learning and tours of the town.”
Education is a key theme for Goodger, who regularly takes in students keen on museum careers and gives them meaningful work.
“Although experience largely trumps qualifications, it’s essential to get as much education as possible because it takes years to get experience,” he says. “A degree is just a line in a CV unless you know how to apply it to what you do.
“Large amounts of MA research should be focused on your future career ambitions,” says Goodger, who was talent-spotted during his studies when a British Council representative caught one of his presentations and offered him a place on the Transforming Future Museums course in Greece.
“I have since worked on a project assessing Unesco sites in Lithuania and have spoken at three more conferences to get my name out there a bit more. The secret is to be bold, have something valuable to say and to ask to apeak.”
Emma McAleer, youth engagement officer, Ulster Museum
When she started her new job, Emma McAleer’s number one priority was to find out what made young people believe that museums weren’t for them.
“The common barriers and themes are how we programme and our interpretation,” she says. “With that in mind, for our first showcase event, I was keen that the young people took full control of social media and how we displayed their work in the gallery space.
“I have found that exploring the museum’s odd curiosities has struck a positive chord with young audiences, who appear to have been pleasantly surprised by the array of objects they could see and handle outside of glass cases.”
The latest development in McAleer’s armoury is the long-term Reimagine, Remake, Replay project. It was designed to encourage some 4,000 people aged between 16 and 25 from across Northern Ireland to use digital technologies to enhance museum collections and create their own exhibitions.
Free programmes have introduced them to areas such as virtual reality film-making, 3D scanning and printing, event management, digital design and much more, says McAleer.
“The young people have recently taken over a gallery at Ulster Museum displaying content they created over a 10-week Digital Maker Club. They created their own virtual, curated museum, exhibited a photographic installation that explored young people’s views on Northern Ireland today and displayed their own documentary on the project so far,” she says.
“The Digital Maker Club told us that all museums need to listen more to their audiences and it’s clear that we all need to involve young people more in key decision making.
“A recent group had positive feedback on the Ulster Museum, but also criticised it in diplomatic ways which helped me understand what their frustrations were.
“As a sector, we need to become more relevant in the lives of our future audiences,” says McAleer, a former textile historian who has herself been learning new skills.
“I now know how to use a laser-cutting machine and software to create lovely floor coverings for our events.”
All interviews by John Holt. Moving On Up – an event designed to help museum professionals achieve their ambitions and have a greater impact in their work and communities – takes place at Nottingham Contemporary on 27 February