In keeping with Issue 6’s theme, Reflections, Kulture Kid Digest caught up with one of our very first contributors – Laura Wiles. We chatted about what’s happened since we last heard from her and her reflections on working in GLAM.
Hi Laura, thanks for speaking with us! Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved in the GLAM world?
I’ve been working in the GLAM sector for around five years. I started off studying history and archaeology at university and went on to complete my Masters in Museums and Collections. I was lucky enough to intern at a major national cultural institution and that turned into an actual job. Since then, I’ve worked for another two institutions and I am currently an Assistant Curator based in Darwin.
What made you decide to swap in muddy archaeology boots for Museum work?
I loved archaeology but I always was planning on working in a museum if possible. I was really drawn to the research and interpretation aspect of museum work. Even when I was doing my final archaeology prac work overseas, I had already applied to study museology. I think the two compliment each other really well and it was a natural transition – that’s why there are so many archaeologists working in museums!
What were your first thoughts working in a museum?
“Omg what am I doing here?” I definitely had a bit of imposter syndrome. My first paying job came out of my time as an intern so it was a little less scary than starting from scratch. I already knew everyone, the collection management systems and had a fairly good grasp on the collection itself so the transition was easier and I was mainly excited to start my career. I was thrown into work straight away, there was definitely no adjustment period! I remember arriving on my first day and I already had a pile of collection documentation waiting for me on my desk, so I was probably a little overwhelmed as well.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about museums and particularly, working in museums?
I think it depends on the museum that you work in. I find that every museum seems to have its own misconceptions about it – say you tell someone you work at the AWM or the NGA or the NMA, the public seem to have preconceived ideas about each one which are rarely accurate. When I answered public enquiries at the AWM, I used to feel that the public were disappointed that I wasn’t a retired army colonel wearing tweed! But I think that sprung out of my own insecurities about being young and in a position of providing ‘expert’ information to the public.
In terms of the museum sector as a whole though, a lot of people seem to think it’s quite stuffy, intellectually superior, preachy and conservative. This is totally untrue! Museums are all about encouraging dialogue and different viewpoints, bringing people together and sharing knowledge. I recently read an article arguing that a museum should try to provide something for everyone. I agree with that, we should always aim to be as inclusive as possible.
You completed your Masters a couple of years ago, what are your thoughts on the seemingly ever-growing need for tertiary qualifications, particularly in the GLAM industry?
There’s definitely pressure within the industry to have multiple qualifications just to be competitive. I know people with PhDs that are in entry level positions and that always boggles my mind but goes to show the nature of employment in the GLAM sector. At my last place of employment, I did a professional development workshop with ten of my colleagues and we all had to stand in a circle facing each other. I remember looking around and realising that I was the only one without a PhD!
I definitely would not have a job now if I hadn’t completed a Masters degree but at the end of the day, experience is key to employment. The important thing is that you have to decide what is going to get you into the position that you want to be in and that might be a PhD or some other form of further study.
Mentorship, in any industry, can be a great and valuable experience. As a mid-career GLAM specialist have you had experience being a mentee and /or mentor?
Thank you for saying that I’m mid-career! I still feel like I’m just beginning.
I’ve never had a formal mentor/mentee relationship with any colleague but I’ve certainly been very fortunate to have bosses who have encouraged and supported me as well as given me opportunities. My last boss allowed me to head up a new program that supported Indigenous trainees in cultural institutions and I could not be more grateful for that experience – it was incredibly rewarding and genuinely made a difference to the cultural diversity of the institution.
I’ve also worked with many people who have had incredible careers and their experience is unbeatable. It’s been great to get feedback, encouragement and constructive criticism on my work from colleagues who have been in the industry for many years and worked across various institutions.
There’s this pervasive public view that curators are the superstars of the museum world – I’m thinking the stereotype of people dressed all in black with Avant Garde accessories being the main attraction, the centre of attention, at exhibition openings… What are your thoughts on this?
I literally wore all black to work today, but it was more a lack of clean clothes situation than Avant Garde self-expression.
I think that the GLAM industry itself elevates curators to a higher level, mainly because that’s what many (maybe most?) people get into the sector to do.
In terms of public perception, it would be great to be able to show the diversity of curators in order to break stereotypes plus highlight other roles within a GLAM institution. I wonder how many people know what a registrar does? Or a collections assistant? There are so many interesting jobs that are vital to a cultural institution. An exhibition wouldn’t be able to run without an entire team of people, of which the curator is a small part.
There’s the argument that you can never truly be objective in whatever you do and there’s certainly a large amount of personal investment (creatively, intellectually) that curators put into their work.
Do you think that curators reflect their own personal beliefs and experiences into the work they create and is this a positive or negative thing?
Curators (knowingly or unknowingly) are absolutely influenced by their personal belief systems and interests.
This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately and asking the questions – why do we think the way we do and how does this influence the items we collect and the exhibitions we create?
To be honest, I haven’t given these questions too much thought before this year and I’ve sort of existed in my own personal and professional bubble. But things have changed for me this year with a new job, new collections and new exhibitions.
I’ve noticed that my goals have also shifted in the past year. Rather than presenting a set of stories that tell a particular message that I am personally passionate about, I’m thinking more about how I can encourage dialogue and thought in the audience. To do so, I’ve had to step back emotionally from the content as I haven’t quite worked out how to balance belief and questioning yet. But I do know that if you want to truly be inclusive and diverse, you need to create a space where questioning is ok.
However, I do think that curators utilising their own beliefs and experiences can be positive and can actually bring new and varied interpretations to collections. For example, I’ve been really impressed to see so many cultural institutions employing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators in the last few years.
You wrote a great article for the very first issue of the Kulture Kid Digest. Looking back to when you wrote that article, how have your thoughts and curatorial approaches changed?
Even though that was only six months ago, I have a broader experience of museums now and with that comes different perspectives on curatorial approaches. The institution I work at now is quite different structurally to other places I’ve worked at and it’s been a fantastic experience as well as a steep learning curve. Also going from national institutions to state-based has been really interesting as the focus of my work has shifted dramatically. I’ve gone from a historical photographic specialisation to a much broader history department, so I love that I’m getting exposure to different objects and stories.
If there’s one thing you could change about the GLAM industry what would it be?
More funding! There are so many times I’ve thought “this could be amazing, if only we had more money”.
I hate the fact the GLAM sector is so underfunded and undervalued. We know that cultural institutions can make significant positive changes in the community, for example as a shared space or providing public programs for children and families, etc.
Looking forward, where do you hope to see yourself in the GLAM world?
I like where I’m at currently (I’m doing a lot of exhibition work) but I do want to build my museum research work and portfolio. I think I have a little bit of a confidence barrier in that area, particularly when it comes to sharing my ideas with others, but it’s really something that I would like to do more of moving forward.