Student Nannies’ Career College: Ten tips to making it in museums!

Written by Student Nannies

This week we’ve chatted to Briony Hudson, 42,  a freelance museum curator…
1.Tell us a bit about your job, what the average day looks like and what’s involved…
I’ve been a freelance curator and historian for about 7 years and no longer have an average day!  At the moment, I’m researching and writing an online “digital story” for the Wellcome Collection that explores graphic design and pharmacy in history, arranging an event for the School of Pharmacy in Cardiff to present a retired pharmacy lecturer with a prestigious medal for his contribution to pharmacy history, and working up a proposal for an exhibition about women and medicine to be held at the Royal College of Physicians in Autumn 2018.
Before I was freelance, I ran the museum at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (think lots of old medicines, bottles, jars, etc), and still had a very varied working week.  It revolved around looking after a collection of 40,000 historical artefacts, making them accessible to researchers, creating exhibitions to show them off, developing lectures, workshops and publications to promote them – and managing a team of paid staff and volunteers to make all of that happen.

2. How did you get your first job in this industry and what tips would you give to students for routes in?
I did a history degree followed by a masters in Museum Studies and my first roles were voluntary – at Hereford Cider Museum, the Forest of Dean Heritage Centre and the Victoria & Albert Museum. They all gave me both experience and CV points.  My first paid job was as Assistant Keeper of Social History at Wakefield Museum service.  It was a competitive field then, but it’s even more competitive now, so take any work experience or voluntary placements going as it will demonstrate you’re keen to an employer, but also allow you to find out if the work is right for you.

3. What one piece of advice would you give to someone/a student wishing to forge a career in museums?
Make sure that you really want to work in museums as it’s not easy to get your foot on the ladder and with so many cuts to local council funding, the number of jobs is getting smaller and more competitive!

4. Who was the one person who had the most influence on your career to date?
I was really inspired by a colleague in my first job because of his passion for his local community, expressed through the collection that he had built up and the way that he worked with local people and groups to share it with them.

5. Considering all the people you’ve met in your field, what personal attributes are essential for success?
Being an excellent communicator – in person, in publications, via exhibitions – is vital.  Working in museums is all about making collections mean something for other people.  They could be children, professors, tourists or specialist researchers, so you need to be someone who can put messages across, but also listen carefully to what different people already know and what they are looking for.

6. What do you wish you’d known (but didn’t) when you first contemplated this career as a student?
I wish that I’d known that museum jobs are always badly paid and overworked (although worth it as far as I’m concerned).

7. What is the best bit of career advice you ever received?
You don’t have to do a PhD to work in museums.  People perceive them as academic institutions and you certainly need to be keen on research, but engaging with people is probably more important.

8. What is your career highlight to date?
If I was being worthy it would be the four books I’ve written come into fruition, but if I’m honest my highlight has been providing a one-to-one briefing with Helena Bonham Carter for her role as a pharmacist in the film Suffragette.

9. What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best thing in my freelance role is the variety of interesting projects that I’ve been able to work on.  The worst thing is the logistics of balancing different deadlines and clients’ needs with childcare.  Before I was freelance, I’d say that the best thing was working with a fabulous collection of historical artefacts, and the worse thing was all of the HR/finance management that comes with leading a team.

10. What do you think the industry will look like in the next ten years and what skills do you think graduates will need to stay ahead of the game?
In the next 10 years, I guess that museums will still be going through challenges to justify their funding and so being agile and flexible in your work/skills will be just as important as it is now to respond to job opportunities as they change.  Museums are more and more embracing digital ways to engage with their users and this is an exciting field that I’m sure will develop further.

Briony’s mini CV:
Cambridge University, history degree 1993-1996
Gap year 1996-97 (including 2 months voluntary experience at the V&A and 2 months travelling in New Zealand)
Leicester University, masters degree in Museum Studies 1997-1998
Wakefield Museums & Arts 1998-2002 (Assistant Keeper of Social History)
Royal Pharmaceutical Society 2002-2010 (Keeper of the Museum Collections, went part-time in 2009)
Freelance museum curator, historian and lecturer (2009-present)