Six previous trainees share their experiences of being part of a British Museum training programme for young people across the UK, and how it's helped them in their careers.
The British Museum's first 'Skills for the Future' traineeships started over a decade ago in 2011. Since then, we have managed four unique paid training programmes for young people and collaborated with over 30 partner museums across the UK to host a total of 70 trainees.
The schemes have helped young heritage professionals develop skills and acquire knowledge from working across different museums and galleries around the UK. With every year, the legacy of these traineeships has grown.
The programmes themselves have changed to address unique needs of the sector and workforce. For example, Future Curators, the first traineeship launched in 2011, addressed the gap in collections-specific knowledge and expertise. The latest traineeship, Museum Futures, launched in 2019 and was focused on building digital skills related to museum collections.
With the recent graduation of the final cohort of Museum Futures trainees, we asked some of our former trainees how they have used the skills gained through their museum placements – from launching careers in academia to video production. Each entry in this post is written by someone who took part in one of our traineeships: they reflect on their experiences of being a museum trainee, how it has shaped their career journeys, and what their hopes are for the future of museums.
– 2021 Museum Futures Trainee at Museum of East Anglian Life
Currently a Digitisation Operative at Ancestry
Until December 2021, I was the trainee at Museum of East Anglian Life. I was primarily working on a project called 'Shooting Stars' to photograph and document collections. I worked with volunteers as well as Kickstart trainees to transfer data from old paper record cards to online collections management system. This makes browsing the collection possible for everyone.
The biggest impact of the traineeship was on my confidence, which has positively affected my working and personal life. At the Museum of East Anglian Life, myself and a fellow Trainee were supported by our supervisors Kate Knowlden (Curator) and Lisa Harris (Collection and Interpretation Manager) to carry out tasks or projects whether together or individually, or with volunteers. It was a work style and ethic that I admired, learned from and which also allowed me to learn. I’m so grateful to them for their trust and support, as well as encouragement from the Museum Futures Programme Manager Naomi Salinas-Burton, and opportunity to grow while practically delivering projects.
What surprised me most was how much the small museum team was able to accomplish. So many of them, if not all of them, worked in more of just their main sphere of knowledge and were often managing multiple big projects at once. But they were a team, and everyone was always so keen to help, brainstorm, plan things out together when they could. It was lovely to see and was wonderful to work in such a friendly environment! I feel honoured to have had the chance to work among them.
My hope for the future is for museums to be more interactive – whether that be through digital (like AR and VR) or through engaging our senses in other ways. The best experiences are ones that allow you to get involved or that move you emotionally. Traditional museum interpretation is still important, but it would be great if museums could harness more digital technology to engage people and use the channels where audiences are.
– 2020 Museum Futures Trainee at Bristol Culture & Creative Industries
Currently a Documentation Assistant at Bristol Culture & Creative Industries
I am now employed at the organisation where I was a trainee – I'm in the early stages of a career and I know that wouldn't have happened without the traineeship. I am grateful for the opportunity because there are not a lot of paid training placements in museums- I also feel incredibly lucky to be placed in the great digital team at Bristol Culture.
What I learned from my placement with the digital team is that there are a lot of roles and a vast range of skills that people can bring to working in a museum, besides the curatorial skills that I had originally assumed were necessary. I learned that you don’t need an art history or Museums Studies degree – there are different routes in with transferable skills like research or community participation or digital.
I have always been focused on visual arts, so I didn’t see myself working in digital, but I am glad I did. As a Documentation Assistant, I still work in a digital capacity but also with collections, and I have learned a lot of skills that I can apply elsewhere.
During my traineeship, I had some experiences that I think could only have happened while working in a museum. For example, in my first week I helped someone move a stuffed otter up three flights of stairs!
Unfortunately, COVID-19 was the biggest surprise in my traineeship. As my cohort started in early 2020, the pandemic completely changed what the traineeship would mean for our placement year, and it impacted the entire museum sector that we were just getting into. I hope the sector can recover from the pandemic but also that it will embrace change in many areas. I hope that the sector finds more sustainable ways of recruiting and retaining staff, and I'd like to see more opportunities for people who have gone through traineeships, apprenticeships or internships.
– 2019 Museum Futures Trainee at the British Museum
Currently a Production Runner at Minnow Films
This was my first office job, and I was able to learn while I worked, ask questions in a non-judgmental environment, and get honest feedback from colleagues. I learned a lot of lessons during my time as a trainee that helped me as a young professional. My main projects were working on the British Museum podcast and digital preservation of video content. I was also able to use different cameras and practice film production. I was even given freedom to run with my own ideas for online video content – something that not a lot of places would have given to someone my age. My team encouraged me to pursue my career interests in film and television, even if that meant working outside of museums.
One highlight from my time as a trainee was filming the Sutton Hoo helmet with Dr Sue Brunning, the Curator of European Early Medieval Collections. We got to remove the delicate helmet out of its display case for the first time in 10 years, and I felt incredibly lucky to be right in front of an object with a curator that knew everything about it and could answer any question.
I would love to see more accessibility in museum careers. Traineeships can really help with this, for example by helping to bring people from different backgrounds into the sector. Groups like Museum as Muck, a network of working-class museum people, has also helped more people feel welcome. Before I started my traineeship, I thought you had to go to Oxbridge and wear tweed to work at the British Museum. More can be done to break down this stereotype.
As for the British Museum, I'd love to see it engage in more public conversations about controversial topics like repatriation of contested objects or where it gets funding. As a trainee, I remember having nuanced conversations with people about these things – both inside and outside the museum.
Traineeship schemes like Museum Futures are incredibly worthwhile and have changed a load of people's lives and made the museums better for it.
Susan Joy Lu
– 2016 Learning Museum Trainee at National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI)
Currently a freelance illustrator
In 2016 I was a Collections Access Trainee, looking at how to engage a wider audience with NMNI's Museum collections. The British Museum traineeship gave me the opportunity to get into the museum sector, exploring the wide spectrum of avenues within it. This allowed me to develop my interests in specific areas and discover what I enjoyed most throughout my training.
After completing the traineeship, I moved to Perth, Western Australia. My experience and qualifications allowed me to apply for job opportunities I would not have previously considered. In 2017, I began working as the Volunteer and Office Manager for a local museum, The Fremantle Round House. We began implementing a new interpretation plan which is due for completion this year.
Due to COVID-19, I am now taking care of my son full-time but know that my Learning Museum Traineeship will be an invaluable point of reference upon re-entering the sector.
Our first week of training at the British Museum took us behind the scenes to the storage and care of an overwhelming number of objects, collections, and future exhibits. Getting to view the various controlled environments and the objects stored within them was fascinating and something we explored at each partner museum throughout the UK.
Looking into how we bring these unseen collections to our local communities and engage a wider variety of individuals was something that became a focus of my traineeship.
The museum sector should be widely accessible, relatable and valued by people from all walks of life. Touring exhibitions were a wonderful way of exploring this during my traineeship. We brought a small number of objects of interest to various community groups and libraries throughout Northern Ireland, engaging locals in a unique and personal way.
Many locals to the museum had not visited since childhood, which appeared to be a continued pattern. Museums and galleries are visited when travelling or exploring somewhere new, but often forgotten by their own local community past the days of school visits. By bringing our collections into these communities, we found that participants were excited by the personal connection this unique approach brought and looked forward to revisiting the museum with a new perspective.
– 2016 Museum Pathways Trainee
Currently the Learning and Development Manager for Ambassador Theatre Group
I joined the traineeship at an important stage of my life. I had not gone to university and didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to do as a career. Spending 18 months immersed in the contrasting environments of a local art gallery and The British Museum gave me such a breadth of experience and skills that it opened the doorways to a range of career options. I focused on using the transferrable skills provided by the Pathways scheme to move initially into collection care, and then into Learning and Development. After about 5 years within museums, I have now moved into the theatre industry (not quite museums, but still very much arts and culture).
A particularly memorable part of my traineeship was the privilege I had being part of the team that moved one of the Museum's largest objects into the new World Conservation and Exhibition Centre (WCEC) building at Bloomsbury. This 10 metre-long birchbark canoe took the best part a day to move a few miles across London, from its previous home to the new stores of the WCEC . With a lot of careful manoeuvring, and grateful use of the newly installed truck-lift, we deposited the object safe and accessible for the next few decades.
Museums are at an important junction of purpose. In a global society which is more aware and sensitive to the injustices of the past, injustices which in many cases have not yet been corrected, museums that fail to take bold steps towards re-interpretation and repatriation will lose the unique position they hold in educating enquiring minds of all ages. We must embrace and reflect the changes happening in museums and society. I hope that the future of the museum sector will be bold, internationally democratic, and have re-found its essence: that of the excitement of discovery.
– 2013 Future Curator Trainee
Currently a Curator, Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology at UCL
My 'Future Curators' traineeship genuinely changed my life! It gave me the chance to step up from voluntary and project placement roles to paid opportunities in the sector, which ultimately led me to my current permanent curatorial post. With the combination of a recognized qualification and meaningful on-the-job training with specialist colleagues, my traineeship made my CV much stronger and I'm sure I'd be in a very different place now without this unique opportunity. Future Curators also helped me to clearly see that a good curator knows how to work across all aspects of a museum – to know how to apply a subject specialism to many different museum contexts. What surprised me most about Future Curators was working closely with other trainees who had quite different subject specialisms – my cohort always helped me to see things differently, not only through the eyes of an Egyptologist, who were the main type of people I'd been working with for many years! I learned very quickly that much of the specialist language that I took for granted as an Egyptology graduate needed to be made more accessible if I were to succeed in interpreting stories for visitors. Even after 10 years, I still remember their feedback now every time I write a museum label.
It is an optimistic (and probably naïve) hope – but I hope that all the distinct roles in a museum can learn to respect other people's skills and knowledge, no matter what their job title is. For me, there is no room for hierarchies in museums, which only really serve to hinder and demean staff. If everyone genuinely had equal respect for all roles and job stages of their colleagues, then museum working environments would vastly improve. Let's break down barriers within our workforces and respect others in every decision we make.