Emerging into the T-Shape
The journey into the heritage sector was never going to be plain sailing. Employers anticipate workers that can exhibit a multitude of skills, as well as workers with an enormity of experience. The benefit of completing my MA in Museum and Heritage Development at Nottingham Trent University this past year has been in providing me with the knowledge and grounding for a career in heritage. As this brief spell has passed, I now face the future as an emerging museum professional, which is exciting but also very daunting.
Skilled (and counting)
Whilst I was studying I picked up some freelance work as a Heritage Assistant for Culture Syndicates. Since starting, I have worked on and contributed towards five projects both within and outside of the East Midlands. These projects were diverse in nature, thus enabling me to broaden my skills. With the British Homeopathic Association (BHA) I had an active role in cleaning, documenting and handling their collection. Then again in June, I even had the exciting opportunity to visit the BHA again, this time in Luton to photograph and digitise their collection.
Even though I aspire to gain a job in collections and exhibitions, I recognise the need to fulfil experience and skills in different areas. Other projects helped me with this. Two projects focused on audience evaluation, including survey work at the Canalside Heritage Centre in Beeston, Nottinghamshire and with Big Local near Creswell, Derbyshire. Visitors are central to museums and it is their feedback which contributes to their very organisational development and resilience.
The most recent Culture Syndicates venture I was involved in was Rutland on Film. Working with Rutland Museum in Oakham, the project looked at safeguarding agricultural heritage by updating the interpretation of machinery within the museum. Vital to this was recording the oral traditions of those who worked on them. I had the chance to interview one of the volunteers, which provided the museum with an oral record of farming techniques. As I am interested in intangible heritage, this was valuable experience to gain.
The ‘Character Matters’ report, released in 2016 by Arts Council England and others, stressed, amongst other things, the need for T-shaped workers. These are workers that are “more multi-skilled with an emphasis on generalist skills complementing an individual expertise or specialism”*1. Becoming T-shaped is attributed to broadening skills overtime. The report further suggests that gaining these skills can be symbiotic with short-term contracts within the sector. Playing musical chairs within your career may be irritating, but allows us to diversify our experience, making us more resilient, sustainable and T-shaped.
I recently took over the Administration for the Resilience Syndicate project at Culture Syndicates. Whilst this is a short-term role, it is an opportune moment for me to enrich my skills in areas that are understated yet so central to development within the sector. I provide support for the running of the project which includes working with budgets, finance and human resources. In addition, I am developing my marketing skills through the use of websites and social media. I was taught on my MA that increasingly, museums must be run like businesses in order to survive the current economic climate. They require workers that have the business skills to do so, workers that are T-shaped.
Help! Disciplines wanted!
As part of the T-shape demand, the sector is looking for workers with an individual specialism. We all have an area that we prefer or feel more competent in. Furthermore, those with a background outside of heritage or with specific experience in another sector, can bring diversity and fresh ideas. Coming into heritage from a geographical background, at first I felt like an outsider amongst the line of history graduates. Yet, I soon came to realise that I could work this to my advantage, bringing my own interests and angle. I recently undertook a joint placement with Nottinghamshire County Council and the Gardens Trust, where I researched and surveyed historical landscapes and gardens. The natural environment and heritage are intrinsically linked both tangibly and intangibly. Big players, like the National Trust, have committed themselves to preserving not only traditional heritage, but also the wider landscape in which it exists.
The term ’emerging museum professional’ (EMP) was coined fairly recently. It can describe any individual that is aiming to ’emerge’ into the sector. Quite often it is those, like myself, whom have undertaken an MA or others who have switched careers. Qualified or not, if you want a career in heritage then you will be labelled as an EMP. As such there is no time limit – as long as you wish to continually learn and grow then you’ll be emerging. The fact that a separate term has been introduced speaks for itself. EMP’s all over the UK are facing the same concerns and questions. 20 years ago, the sector demanded specialist workers. Now it desires multi-skilled ones, so go forth and get T-shaped.
By Jake Epton, Culture Syndicates’ Administration Assistant. Jake graduated from Nottingham Trent University’s Masters in Museum and Heritage Development in 2017 and is developing his experience and skills in collections management, exhibitions and interpretation.
*1 Arts Council England (2016) Character Matters: Attitudes, Behaviour and Skills in the UK Museum Workforce, Commissioned by Arts Council England, Museum Galleries Scotland, Museums Association and Association of Independent Museums.