I have hardly ever (i.e. never) heard of anyone just falling into a job in the GLAM industry. It’s all about your hustle and often includes many many many donated unpayed man-hours to get your experience up.
My own personal journey as an emerging museum professional has involved a lot of hard work, tears, disappointments and triumphs.
Since I was 13, I have held every kind of job known to man. I have sold fish and chips, coats, wine and lingerie. I worked for a cheese-maker for about a year and my after school job was in a methadone clinic. But I have always known that my goal was to work with historical objects or history in general in some capacity, it’s really the only interest area I have ever had.
Just a bit of background on me – I completed a Bachelor of Arts (History and Archaeology) and undertook training digs over in England after I graduated. I loved archaeology, but it’s a bit of a tough lifestyle so I enrolled in a Master of Liberal Arts (Museums and Collections). From the first moment, I loved it. I was so excited for the internship component to test out the ‘real’ museum world.
Call me crazy, but in my naivety I assumed that museums would be jumping up and down to have a free worker on their hands for 3 months. However, it turned out that this was not the case. I circulated my CV and letters to every major institution in Canberra, but I didn’t receive a single response.
I can pinpoint this moment as the first of many when self-doubt started to creep in to my mind. My supervisor ended up calling in some favours and hooking me up with an opportunity at the Australian War Memorial.
Just prior beginning my internship, I ran into a guy I went to uni with who had just finished an amazing internship and was back to work in his old job making coffee (I have the utmost respect for our coffee making brothers and sisters, it’s just that I know that’s not what this guy wanted to do with his life). For some reason, this stuck with me and also struck the fear of god in my heart that I was making terrible life choices and pursuing an unattainable goal. I had never thought about what happens next, how to convert my internship into employment. All my energy had been directed into just getting that internship and I believed that it would somehow convert into a job.
Regardless of this dire warning, I pushed forward with my internship and found that it exceeded all of my expectations. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I basically functioned as an Assistant Curator for my entire internship.
However, as predicted, there was no museum job at the end of it and I made the choice to move home with my parents in Brisbane. My Dad, in an act of true nepotism and fear that he would be financially supporting his 25 year-old daughter forever, gave me a job as an “archivist” so I could put something on my resume.
Then, the call came! I had landed an interview for an Assistant Curator position. I can honestly say that I have never wanted anything so much in my entire life.
I prepared for days for the interview, running through practice questions and scenarios. I experienced a moment of glorious triumph when I landed a full time contract of just under 2 years. My first proper museum job was stressful and a very steep learning curve, sometimes I felt like a huge fraud trying to work alongside curators with 10+ years experience. However, it was also incredibly rewarding to have a job that I found engrossing and interesting. I got that shiver of pride whenever anyone asked me what I did for a living.
Around 6 months before my contract was up, we had a change of government and I ran into the term ‘employment freeze’ for the first time in my life.
There were many tears and sleepless nights wondering what I was going to do, how was I going to pay my rent? Museums are already a very specialised area – how do you even dream of getting a job when there is a major employment freeze sweeping the Australian Public Service – one of the major arts employers?
I applied for every job imaginable and then, in desperation, submitted my resume to a temp employment agency. A miracle occurred and the agency happened to have a collections job going at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).
This is where I will give the reader a bit of a tip – follow the funding. A museum lives and dies by its funding and that we’ve been in lean years for quite a while now. A colleague once told me she thinks of it as the government picking clean the bones of carcass. Graphic.
However, this isn’t true for every collecting institution – look at institutions that sit outside of the Department of Communication and the Arts. Do some research and find out who has money and make contact. Volunteer and put your name on the temporary employment register. Find out which temporary employment agency they use and register. You’d be surprised how a one month temporary contract can blow out to years (I’ve seen it happen).
I realise this article has exclusively been about the difficulty of getting a foot in the door, but in my experience, this is 75% of the battle. The employment aspect is also where 90% of my stress goes. Is it worth it? The uncertainty can be daunting and I have thought about pursing a different career many times (my parents wanted me to be a teacher). But then I always remember how much I enjoy working for museums, the people you meet, stories you hear and the responsibility for keeping these alive for future generations. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else or finding a job in a different industry as rewarding. If you’ve decided that this is what you want to do, this is the industry you must be in – don’t give up. Keep hustling and take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way, even if it doesn’t seem like much at the time. Volunteer, intern, do whatever you can to get yourself out there and show off what you can do. A lot of people start as information assistants on the floor of a museum and transition into back of house, just get your foot through that door. If you wait for an opportunity to come to you, it never will.
So as I leave my story, I currently find myself job seeking once again. Just to add another layer of pressure, I fell in love with a man whose job involves moving to a new place every 2 years (no regrets, he is awesome). So, having just moved, I am taking my own advice and contacting museums and volunteering.
I’ve accepted that the employment insecurity will never leave, but I’ve learned to focus on the end result – a fulfilling museum role that makes me happy.