Routes of Entry into the Museums Sector

entry routes into the museums sector

The subject of entry routes raised its head again recently when a National Trust internship advert caused controversy.

Alistair Brown from the Museums Association responded in a blog about unpaid internships after a recent study stated that these are increasing, particularly in the arts. And why is this a problem? Because it reinforces and exacerbates the lack of diversity that already exists in our workforce. It means we lose out on talent because of inaccessible entry routes, it exploits people wanting to join the sector and demotivates existing staff and it makes it more difficult for us to serve our communities in a meaningful way. Just as our politicians should broadly reflect communities, the custodians of their cultural heritage and stories should also.

The problem with entry routes

Fourteen years ago, on my first day in the museum sector, I had a meeting about establishing positive action traineeships and the need to create alternative entry routes into the sector. Why, fourteen years on, have we still not got this right? Or why are we not at least on the road to getting this right? Over those fourteen years I have participated in conferences and round tables discussing this subject. I’ve been involved in volunteer programmes, positive action programmes, creative apprenticeships, paid interns and traineeship programmes, each achieving its objectives. Each one producing great success stories. But even this collective effort has seen slow progress.

Entry routes are explicitly linked to a lack of workforce diversity. The issues this creates have been well documented: skills gaps and difficulties demonstrating relevance to huge sections of society are just two of them. We take great effort to engage people with our programmes, but that effort does not extend to the back offices.

Diversity: agent of change?

Diversity and entry routes has been at the forefront of my mind lately even before the National Trust controversy. I’m chairing a session at MGS’ October conference, Inequalities: Bridging the Gap, called Dismantling the Barriers to Equality. We have a great panel: Paul Kahn (National Museums Liverpool), Lynsday McKay (Glasgow Life) and Beltus Etchu-Ojong (Next Step Initiative). The session was inspired by a couple of thought-provoking articles I have read recently. Shane Thomas, in his article on ‘media diversified’, described diversity “instead of being an agent of change – is the dominant culture’s favourite remix; adding a couple of new instruments to give the false impression of a new song”.

I have found myself pondering if that is what we are doing. Are we creating initiatives to tackle diversity, that while successful for individuals, do not create real change by not tackling the culture creating inequality in the first place? Is it a round-peg-square-hole solution? While these programmes do achieve their outcomes, does our unconscious bias, lack of flexibility in recruitment processes, lack of learning, development and progression routes for staff hinder this? Is even the language we use unhelpful?

What does the future hold?

Shane Thomas says “diversity should be a remedy, but it’s often little more than a nostrum, because the dominant culture is only willing to tweak an approach that ostensibly works.” But we know in our case the system doesn’t work. Of course this is a huge generalisation, and there are some organisations doing fantastic work in this area. As a sector can we all say this? Is our inaction simply that we do not have the solutions? Or do we just not care enough? Jimmy Carter said in his Ted Talk about the discrimination of women that the majority of men agree this is a bad thing, but don’t care enough to do anything because the system suits them. They could and we could.

I’m currently working on MGS’s fourth HLF-funded programme Skills for Success and these questions are at the forefront of my mind. For this programme we’ll partner with the Princes Trust and Fife ETC to turn traditional recruitment processes on their heads. We’ll recruit based on personal qualities rather than tertiary qualifications or how financially able they have been to undertake unpaid internships. We’re not experts in this area, and because of this we’re partnering with organisations that live and breathe diversity. These organisations can provide pastoral support to the 22 trainees and their host organisations throughout the process.

The Skills for Success programme follows on from the MGS Interns and Heritage Horizons traineeship programmes, during which we worked with some fantastic host museums. It will continue the work in developing this type of paid work placement as a credible, accessible, alternative entry route. Our original interns have been in the sector for five years now and are in a variety of roles including museum manager, curator and education manager. I hope that they will take their positive experience of work-based entry routes forward with them.  Perhaps then a truly accessible sector won’t be so unobtainable and fourteen years from now we won’t be having the same discussions.

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