I am an accidental curator. No crystal ball foretold my career path. A colleague recently said to me that I’m probably one of the only people who planned on being a High School History teacher and ended up working in a museum – usually it’s the other way around. She’s probably right. I have always loved history and telling the stories of the past, but I thought I would be sharing that passion in a classroom.
I arrived into my current role without a Museums and Collections qualification, or any hands-on experience with collection items. Truth be told, I had never even held a medal until I started my role in the Heraldry and Technology (MHT) section at the War Memorial. I had worked front-of-house in the galleries and in the History Section, but never directly with National Collection items. I came to MHT as a PhD candidate with an Honours degree in History, so while I knew my military history, I didn’t know a Beaufort from a Beaufighter (they’re both aircraft, just FYI).
In an environment that increasingly promotes tertiary education and in particular post-graduate qualifications as a baseline requirement for a job in GLAM, it’s quite funny – while I may have the ‘highest level of qualification’ in the section, I don’t consider myself the most ‘qualified’. And I’m certainly not the most experienced – not when there are people who have worked in the section for longer than I have been alive! However, I do worry when I hear the phrase “because it’s always been done that way”. The ‘old way’ is not always the ‘right way’, or there may just be a ‘different/new way’ available now. If cultural institutions want more staff with PhDs and Masters degrees, they need to actively encourage and support graduates bringing fresh ideas and new approaches into the sector. Let them (us) put what they’ve (we’ve) learnt into practise.
The Memorial means a great deal to me, and I’ve worked there in different roles for over 12 years now. But sometimes, just sometimes, there is a part of me that would like a change. Not a permanent one, but something short-term that extends my skills and knowledge base – all things I can bring back to my regular role. It is very easy to feel ‘lucky’ getting an ongoing job in the sector – I bounced from contract to contract for 9 years until securing one. For a lot of GLAM workers, this career is vocational for us and about following personal passions, so we tend to hang on for dear life when we do get our foot in the door. I know I have.
However, this can mean that people stay in the same role for too long and become ‘stale’. As much as I don’t always want to embrace change, one of my biggest fears for the future of GLAM is that we don’t allow change. The world around us is constantly changing, and so cultural institutions and those of us who work in them, need to evolve also if we are to represent our world. This might be scary without a crystal ball to tell us we are moving in the right direction, but getting left behind and becoming ‘dusty old museums’ is even scarier.
Having said that, fear can also drive hope – hope that we can make changes and drive things in a positive direction, knowing what we want to avoid. Our fears can be hopes once they are addressed. As a friend and fellow GLAM worker recently told me – “Don’t be afraid to rock the boat – you have the opportunity to take the helm if you do. And if you fall overboard, remember this: you know how to swim.”