Another installment of the careers series is here! As I have just started a new role that is heavily involves the art and museum sector, I thought it would a good time to cover the sector in a range of interviews. Alex Flowers who is the Team Leader of Digital Programmes at The Victoria and Albert Museum, has been kind enough to share his advice about breaking into the museum sector.
How did you get your current job?
My current job is Team Leader for Digital Programmes which involves managing online projects and partnerships and delivering a range of public events and festivals around digital art and design. I am based in the Learning Department and our digital team consists of four people, all of whom have art backgrounds either as practicing artists, curators or researchers but also have curiosity and insight into digital . Since I was a kid I always enjoyed tinkering with electronics and I taught myself to code at a young age, creating silly games and hacking into software to see how it worked. I do this for a job now and work with artists who do the same!
I came into this role four years ago off the back of two jobs I was doing before. I studied at Institute of Education and once I had graduated was offered a lecturing position on a masters course. Alongside that I was also working at Museum of London in their digital learning team. So I had a nice background of the academic and theoretical side of the work as well as experience in putting that into practice.
My first steps in working in museums were as a gallery host, one of the people you see walking through the galleries, chatting to visitors and supervising the collections and long before that I worked in finance, manufacturing and teaching! All of those experiences add up and come in useful, for example, the work I did in finance gave me insight into how business operate and how people get paid and working in manufacturing gave me an appreciation of the work and processes that go into creating some of the things that we display at the V&A. None of it was wasted time and if anything, they gave me the advantage of having a really varied set of experiences I could bring up in interviews.
What have been the highlights so far?
When I saw the job advertised at the V&A, I leapt at the chance. It has always been one of my favourite galleries because it has such diverse collections and exhibitions. Highlights have been having the opportunity to meet some designers and artists I really admire and being able to work on projects with them. One particular highlight was working with a design company in Taiwan to create a room sized immersive installation that brought Chinese scroll paintings to life through interactive projections where you could wave and communicate with figures in them and blow wind through the trees of the landscapes and send ripples of waves across lakes.
It was a lot of hard work and I spent many late evenings in the museum fixing bugs, working with engineers and builders to get it all ready in time for opening. In the end we had nearly 20,000 people come and see it and I felt very proud watching people come to enjoy it. On a personal note, being able to go into the archives and pull out a box of Ansel Adams photographs and hold them was incredible. Never mind the fact that these original prints were worth thousands of pounds each, seeing the originals instead of prints in a book or images on a screen enabled me to look at them in a completely new way.
What is it like working at one of the most popular museums in the world?
It sounds like a cliché, but no two days are the same. My job involves a lot of technical work but at the same time I get to meet people, lead workshops and give lectures so I’m not always stuck behind a screen. I think that is pretty unique within a lot of digital work. It is exciting to watch how exhibitions develop and see newspaper articles, pictures on social media and shows on TV about the V&A. I feel proud to be part of it all and to see visitors enjoying their time with us. One of the unexpected pleasures of working in museums are the things you see in offices and studios around the building. You might walk past an office and see a curator with a box of your favourite photographers work or wander past the conservation labs and see a sculpture being worked on. The opportunity to get up close and personal with objects is always exciting.
What tips do you have for potential employees?
When we look for new employees it isn’t always about having the right qualifications but more about the kinds of experiences you have and how you present yourself in the interview. You may have degrees coming out of your ears but if you don’t appear as personable and friendly then it will never work in an environment where we have to collaborate to get things done.
That said, a degree can help catch someone’s attention. There are a number of museum studies courses available but you may be better placed to have a variety of career choices through looking at less narrow subjects. We tend to ask for qualifications in art and design, history or museum studies, but these are very diverse subjects. You may, for example, end up studying a new media course which could take you into working on digital projects and exhibitions. I have no formal qualifications in anything digital but I was able to focus my studies into areas I was interested in and build a portfolio of projects that put me in a position that ended with me working in the digital sector.
Volunteering is a great way of getting your foot in the door as is showing us your own self-initiated projects or work you have created with friends. It can be tough to get that first chance so don’t give up and get disheartened. I always knew that I wanted to work in the arts but ended up working in a hundred different jobs before that and applied for a thousand more that I didn’t hear back from or got rejected by. See each one as a chance to learn something new and use that to strengthen your applications. In professional practice, things like Twitter, Instagram and blogs are a way that we build networks and connect with other people in the sector so if you have an online presence then it is always a bonus.
Do you think the museum sector needs more young people?
Absolutely and although it may be that I am getting older, it does seem that everyone around me is getting younger! If museums are to stay relevant then we need young people to give us their insights into their interests and that means that they should have a voice in the organisation. In terms of digital work this can be very important. What platforms are people using? What products excite you? What kind of online behaviours do you have? This helps organisations reach people more effectively and ensures that our audiences are always growing.
The sector is pretty hard to crack, what skills would a newbie need to get their dream role?
The museum sector is notoriously hard to get into – people are often very well qualified, have heaps of paid or volunteering experience and are very passionate about what they do. We are always looking for people who are culturally aware but also business savvy. The sector is changing with funding decreasing and commercial activity growing, so being able to spot commercial opportunities and strategically deliver on them is a great skill to have. In terms of technical skills, an awareness of writing good content for the web, a good knowledge of a couple of CMS platforms, HTML and being able to at least do some simple work in the Adobe Creative Suite are necessary.
For personal skills, an openness to collaboration and a commitment to ensuring that our work reaches a diverse audience is essential. If you see a job and there are areas where you lack experience or the skills, don’t worry. If you are open to constantly learning and not being afraid that you aren’t an expert in every field then you will always find a way to skill up on the job or to use YouTube (the live saver!) to figure out how to do something.
We’d like to thank Alex for sharing his time and knowledge of the museum sector with us!
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