To work in a museum you need the right academic qualifications and the resources to volunteer, but new initiatives in Scotland are starting to open up the sector to young people from more diverse backgrounds, says Catherine Cartmell.
Jon Savage Photography
The museum sector likes to categorise and label. We do it with objects and collections and we do it with our workforce too. These labels and categorisations have been used to structure the way we understand the world and how we share its stories. But all too often they have also reinforced barriers, supported inequality, and contributed to the under-representation both in the workforce and in the way we interpret our collections.
Unconscious bias, inflexible recruitment procedures and a lack of entry and progression routes are explicitly linked to a lack of workforce diversity
In the past two decades, commentators, policy-makers and researchers have identified the moral, political and financial impacts that a lack of diversity has on our museums. Despite this recognition, progress has been painfully slow.
New entrants to the museum sector face a frustrating process. The findings of the Character Matters: Attitudes, Behaviours, Values and Skills in the UK Workforce report published last year showed that 88% of the museums sector workforce has a first degree and 59% has a postgraduate qualification on top of that.
It is well known in the museum sector that to get your break you need to have the right academic background or have spent considerable time volunteering – and usually both. This culture immediately discriminates against those who don’t have a degree or the financial resources to volunteer. The same research showed that 92% of the workforce is white and only 5% identified as having disabilities.
At the same time, we are seeing huge skills gaps in our sector. Business skills and leadership skills are critically needed, especially at a time of squeezed budgets and political and social instability.
It is against this backdrop that Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS), funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has been developing ‘entry to the workforce’ programmes since 2011. MGS recognises that unconscious bias, inflexible recruitment procedures and a lack of entry and progression routes are explicitly linked to a lack of workforce diversity.
The MGS Interns Programme and Heritage Horizon’s traineeships were developed to tackle these issues. The programmes sought to create robust structures and develop the skills and confidence of host museums to deliver high-quality learning experiences to those who would usually be excluded from the sector workforce. MGS has built on the successes and learned from the mistakes of each programme, striving with each iteration to become more inclusive and accessible.
Since 2011, 57 new entrants have undertaken a one-year, work-based placement in 35 host museums across Scotland. 87% have gone on to find employment, with roles including museum managers, curators, collections assistants and learning managers. Some of our original learners have become supervisors, mentors and assessors for learners in subsequent programmes.
Filling the skills gap
A vocational qualification in Museums & Galleries Practice (SVQ3) has been created in consultation with the museums sector in Scotland. It supports the development of the skills and competencies needed for a broad range of museum sector roles and provides an alternative to traditional academic qualifications.
These programmes have had a significant impact on the host organisations. Previous hosts have said that having a learner brought a new dynamic to their organisation and introduced new and fresh ideas. It also encouraged current staff to reflect on their own practice, and increased organisational capacity.
Starting this August, Skills for Success is the biggest learning programme to date with £535,000 funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Building on the successes of the previous programmes, this national learning programme will provide 18 entry level and four management level non-graduates from diverse backgrounds with one-year paid placements in 16 museums across Scotland. The management strand is new to Skills for Success and will create an entry route at decision-maker level to challenge existing organisational norms.
Learners will undertake roles vital to the sustainability of the sector, including collections care and management, digitisation, fundraising and marketing, learning and engagement, and volunteer management. Meanwhile, they will have access to a bespoke training programme and a mentor and will work towards the SVQ3 in Museums and Galleries Practice.
Our 16 host museums have all gone through a rigorous application process to host a trainee. We were looking for museums that were passionate about diversity, passing on skills and developing a learning culture in their organisation and the wider sector. They were assessed based on this and the quality of the learning plan on offer. Host museums span the length and breadth of Scotland including the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney, Aberdeen City Council, Live Borders, Scottish Maritime Museum, Scottish Fisheries Museum, National Museums Scotland and Glasgow Life.
Skills for Success is focussed on attracting individuals from BAME communities, those who have a disability, as well as those from a lower socio-economical background. To ensure we are engaging with our target audience, MGS is working closely with several community partners on learner recruitment.
Using the findings of the Character Matters report in relation to the skills, values and behaviours needed in the museum sector in the next ten years, we have designed our recruitment process around the personal qualities the sector has identified as being important.
Instead of the traditional recruitment process, we are asking applicants to submit a video. Short-listed candidates will then participate in an assessment event where they will go through the process of setting up a museum as part of a team, during which their personal qualities will be assessed by trained MGS and host museum staff.
This is not just a learning programme for trainees. It has to be a learning programme for everyone involved, including MGS and our host museums. Only then will we see the change we are looking for.
Catherine Cartmell is Skills Development Manager at Museums Galleries Scotland.
For more information on the current Skills for Success programme click here.