the museum labour market: it doesn’t get any better, and it wasn’t good to begin with

Posted: 05/09/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , , , , ,

Following on from the past two posts, here, I want to highlight how difficult the situation was (or could be) before the crisis. Still, in this post, I also want to consider how the industry is coping now and how established cultural heritage workers advise new (would-be) entrants to the profession.

It doesn’t get any better

Yet another anonymous commenter, “Too Young to Be Put Out to Pasture”, pleaded, ‘[g]ive the old a chance, too’.

I’m 46 with three MA degrees and over 20 years experience in the Heritage “industry” in the US, UK and EU. I can tell you that after being unemployed for the last 4 years, I feel that I will never have full-time employment again not just in the heritage sector. It is extremely demoralising not to mention financially disastrous.

They have spent ‘thousands’ to attend ‘countless’ interviews for junior jobs; they have repeatedly been told, off-the-record, that they are ‘too old, too experienced and simply over-qualified’; and they have been offered… ‘unpaid volunteer’ “work”. As they ask, ‘[w]hat is the future for all of us if none of us can find gainful employment?’

Still another anonymous commenter, who was ‘lucky enough to have a job’, explained the future for those who do find gainful employment in a sector ‘drastically’ cutting budgets, jobs and hours:

The remaining staff are stressed and demoralised. The job I do now was three full-time jobs ten years ago. I’m acutely aware that, while I rush around trying to keep up with everything, two other people have been deprived of the chance to do those jobs. The situation is ironic, ridiculous but ultimately heart-breaking.

Some colleagues don’t even have the luxury of only fitting 105 hours’ work into 35…

It wasn’t good to begin with

(Again, especially because they were brave enough to put their name to their comment, I want to make it very clear that any and all of my comments address the situation, not the person in that situation; but I’ve reduced their names to initials in order not to pollute their presence in search results.)

… Or, do not think of the Four Yorkshiremen

A. R. detailed her Herculean struggle: before the recession, ‘with a degree, postgraduate qualification, nvq and phd’, she undertook ‘5 years of unpaid voluntary work and internships‘ (‘usually 2-3 volunteer roles at the same time’ on top of retail work), then finally got paid work as a museum assistant.

I am now the curator of a collection and in three years have seen my role develop from one as curator of archaeology to curator of collections (three to be precise, previously manage by three people) and am also covering work from a currently vacant post.

So A. R. must fit 140 hours’ work into 35.

I am not suggesting that these senior museum workers are not working hard. I am not even suggesting that they are not working more than full-time. (And these two are not the only examples of cultural heritage workers who have “inherited” redundant colleagues’ responsibilities.) But I find it difficult to believe that they are working fifteen hours a day, or twenty hours a day, seven days a week. If the one with four jobs is working five days a week, they’re working 28 hours a day…

Either none of them did much before (which I do not believe); or most of the work is not being done anymore (which I do not believe); or the survivors of the staff cuts are getting other people to do most of “their” work.

‘increasingly disillusioned’ volunteers ‘abused to fulfil… salaried role[s]’

A. R. manages and trains ‘increasingly disillusioned’ volunteers.

I think out [of] necessity due to harsh cuts and reductions in experienced staff, volunteers are ultimately being abused to fulfil roles that on[c]e constituted a salaried role.

A scroll through Leicester university’s jobs page shows you that more and more museums are advertising for ‘volunteer’ documentation assistants, exhibitions assistants and even – ironically – volunteer volunteer coordinators!….

Yet A. R., who is fervently concerned for volunteers’ well-being and worried about their exploitation, still reassures them that, ‘[i]f you want it badly enough your perseverance will pay off‘. No, it will not. That’s bullshit. It’s meant to be kind, but it’s bullshit.

And, worse, it doesn’t even succeed in being kind, because it implies that 99 out of 100 applicants to Museums Galleries Scotland, 299 out of 300 applicants to the British Museum, didn’t want it badly enough, didn’t try hard enough, didn’t sacrifice enough; it implies that they deserved to fail. Bullshit.

[Y]ou are facing a struggle that other industries are equally experiencing. I know that doesn’t help when you need to earn and have already invested significantly in your development, but take some comfort in the fact that every dip will grow back [i]nto a peak.

No, it will not. 99 out of 100 would-be Scottish museum trainees’ dips, 299 out of 300 would-be British Museum trainees’ dips, will not grow back into peaks; they will dip and they will plummet. I realise that these statements are a bit relentless, but so is the bad news.

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