The Cost of Working in Museums

The subject of Museum Studies MAs, volunteering and internships as entry routes into the sector has been buzzing again on my twitter feed and various email lists again lately. The wider subject of tuition fees and student debt has also been in the news. Meanwhile, this week I made the final payment on my own student loan. One of my student loans. Not the undergraduate one which I will likely never pay back. This was a Career Development Loan I took out to pay for (some of) my Museum Studies MA fees, with a hefty fixed monthly payment which started the month after I finished the course, regardless of how much I was earning. (I knew what I was getting into when I signed up to the loan of course, and I have been employed throughout the repayment period, although at times underemployed and not earning very much). 

Now that I’ve made that payment, and that one debt is no longer hanging over me, I’ve been reflecting on how much it costs to work in museums, specifically how much it has cost me. I’ve made some dodgy financial decisions in order to get where I am today and I want to talk about them, not because I would advise doing what I did, but to highlight the true costs of working in a sector that is overeducated and relies on free labour in the form of internships and volunteering in order to get a foot on the ladder. 

I set the groundwork for my creative accounting early, as circumstances forced me to move out of my family home young, and I wanted to keep up with my peers. I spent a lot of money on credit cards and overdrafts in my late teens and student years, treading water. At the time when I started my undergraduate degree, I had been working in a call centre for a year, and to me the student loan payments I would receive seemed like a way to ease the day to day burden of earning a living. Getting a degree was a bonus. (I also worked throughout my degree, usually three twelve hour shifts a week at the local cinema for minimum wage). I finished the degree, and I needed to earn money. I went back to work in the same building as the call centre (different department though – I got to do data entry and write letters from templates instead of answering the phone – progress! The data entry also helped me hone my collections documentation skills) I worked a lot of overtime and I paid off my overdraft and my credit card which I had been making the minimum payment on since I was 19. 

Eventually I realised I could not do data entry for a bank any longer, and I got a job doing ad hoc admin assignments for different departments in my local council. It was 2009. My first assignment was manning the reception desk at a Swine Flu clinic. This at least felt like I was doing something useful, and I had a secret hope. I knew that the museum was run by the council and that one day they might need some admin support, I just had to hang in there and make sure I got the assignment when it came. It came, and I did, and then my 2 day a week temp job became a full time temp job and then a fixed term contract. 

I loved my job and my team, but I was concerned I would be doing admin forever, just doing it adjacent to museums wasn’t enough. How could I get nearer to the collections, the exhibitions, the action? One of my jobs was maintaining the database of current volunteers, and I found it incredibly depressing. I was never in a position to dedicate any real time to volunteering (I did one afternoon a week, usually a weekend, for a few months invigilating at a gallery – that’s the extent of my volunteering) and to be honest I felt a bit jealous of the volunteers who got to learn about curating, to get close to the objects while I was stuck with my spreadsheets. This was the context in which I decided to apply for a part-time, distance learning MA in Museum Studies. How did I pay for it? With a credit card. (I immediately transferred the balance to an interest free deal – I’d learnt a few tricks in my years of creative accounting). That paid for the first year’s tuition fees. 

With this credibility boost I was able to get a promotion to project managing a large collections project at the museum I was working in. It was more money pro rata, and part-time, so I was able to dedicate more time to my course. I started my second year of studies and this time I applied for a career development loan – the one I have just paid off. When my project at work finished, I was without a job. I signed on. I applied for hundreds of jobs, and went to dozens of interviews. The job centre staff were always bemused when I went to sign on and reported that I had an upcoming interview at the V&A or the Science Museum. When I explained my previous roles in museum learning to one man, he asked if it was my job to tell the school kids where to put their coats. After nearly four months, just at the point when my housing benefit had changed from covering my actual rent to the local housing allowance (a shortfall of over £100 a month) I got my next museum job. It was in London and I didn’t want to move. I thought I could make it work. Within a month I was crying in my manager’s office because I knew it was unsustainable – my wages, my travel costs, my impending loan repayment, it just didn’t add up. 

I stayed in that job for 18 months, with my overdraft limit creeping up all the while. More applications, more interviews (and a very understanding manager – she knew I wanted the job and was good at it but I just couldn’t make it work financially). Eventually, with persistence, I found a job closer to home and am starting to sort my financial situation out. 

The point of sharing all of this is that working in this sector isn’t just a case of putting up with not earning as much as my peers (while it’s true I earn less than many of my friends) – it actually costs money to keep up with the expected requirements – the degrees, the work experience, the majority of opportunities (at least in the South East where I live) being in London where living costs are high and season tickets from the surrounding area are extortionate. I’ve paid off a student loan this week but I’m still in debt. I’ve accrued debts working in museums that I wouldn’t have done in other sectors. This creates a strain on me and affects my career choices, it affects my mental health and my ability to do good work. I don’t regret any of my decisions, and for me, it has worked out – I have a job doing what I love, and having worked in museums for several years, I am now earning a decent salary. 

I am participating in the Museums Association’s Transformers Diversify strand this year. One thing I have learnt so far is that we have to be prepared to talk about things which are difficult. We have to examine what it means for people when you have a sector reliant on postgrad qualifications and volunteering. Who does this exclude outright but also how does this culture impact on those who manage to scrape by? At times I have felt discouraged because certain attitudes are so widespread in the sector. It is easy to assume that everyone who has succeeded in museums fits the typical mould, and has followed the accepted career path with the relative ease which stability and privilege allow. But scratch the surface and many people are struggling, doubting their decisions and the sacrifices they have made to work in this sector. Change in museums, in the way we recruit and  in the workplace culture of the sector, is important not only to make museum careers accessible and sustainable for the next generation, but to retain those talented people who are already here and wondering if they can keep making it work.