A student’s guide to a career in museums and galleries

  • 18 June 2018

Fancy yourself as the next blockbuster exhibition curator, or a museum marketer? We speak to those in the know about how you can use the summer months to work towards a career in cultural institutions.

Bold Tendencies trainee Courtesy Bold Tendencies

If you find yourself transfixed by visits to Tate and bowled over by the British Museum, working in museums and galleries could be the ideal path for you. Careers in museums are in high demand, but we’ve asked the experts about the best ways to get ahead.

Lend a hand

Volunteering at museums and galleries is a great way to find out more about how institutions are run, and work out what area you’re most interested in.

Many museums advertise for volunteers, so you might want to consider spending a couple of hours a week alongside a part-time job lending a hand at your local museum over the summer.

Jonathan Sleigh, learning officer for Birmingham Museums, emphasises the importance of volunteering even if you don’t know where your strengths lie yet. ‘Volunteer with an open mind,’ he advises. ‘If you aren’t quite sure what you would like to do, speak to a volunteer coordinator about what area of the museum or gallery might be best for you.’

Almost all museums and galleries have a volunteering programme, so speak to your local venue about opportunities over the summer, when they will be looking for more help with the larger crowds during the holidays.

Talk with curator of fashion and textiles, National Museums Scotland, Glasgow School of Art, 2017 © Chris Close 2017

Network, network, network

The museums and galleries sector is small and competitive, so being able to establish meaningful connections with professionals who are already in the industry could give you that crucial step up.

‘The most important thing you can do is network,’ Jonathan says. ‘Attend arts events, talk to people and ask questions.’

Although it may seem intimidating at first to speak to someone you don’t know, Rachel Craddock, young people’s programmer at the National Gallery, reassures us that people in the industry are always happy to help. ‘People really are super generous with their time,’ she says. ‘Don’t be afraid to ask for more than you think you should – offer to take them for a cup of coffee in exchange for hearing more about what they do.’

Students attend the IRL to URL workshops at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 24-25 November 2017

Join a museum’s outreach programme for young people

Many cultural institutions run outreach programmes offering opportunities, talks, workshops and networking events to help young people engage with and access the creative industries. Rachel, who runs the Young Producers programme at the National Gallery, says: ‘These programmes are super hands-on and can give you a huge amount of skills and knowledge which will look great on your CV.’

Just a few examples of young people’s programmes are Young Barbican and the Creative Careers series at the Barbican Centre, Tate Collective at Tate and CreateVoice at the V&A.

Outside London, there’s ArtMix at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, the Ikon Youth Programme at Ikon in Birmingham and the Creative Consultants programme at Manchester Art Gallery, among many others.

Students attend the IRL to URL workshops

Get some work experience

Many museums and galleries offer internship programmes throughout the year, and you can sign up to receive updates of opportunities on their websites or use search engines such as Arts Jobs, Creative Choices, Target Jobs, Prospects or Creative Access, as well as your universities’ job search board.

There are also many traineeships offering entry-level internships in the creative industries. These include the Creative Opportunity Programme, Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries and the Year of Young People Creative Traineeships from Creative Scotland.

Art Fund currently supports two programmes, a curatorial traineeship at the National Gallery and an art trainee programme at the South London-based creative enterprise and arts organisation Bold Tendencies.

In terms of applying for opportunities, it’s important to tailor your CV and cover letter to the specific job you’re applying for. Rachel advises: ‘Get a friend or someone who works in the same industry to look over your application. Make sure to outline what your interests are, and respond to the language the employer uses in the job advert.’

To stand out from other applicants, make sure you show your passion and your knowledge of that specific museum or gallery and its collection. Jonathan says: ‘Do your homework on the institution, read up about their collection and the exhibitions they’ve held recently. And don’t be afraid to bring a personal reflection to your application, for instance if you went there as a child or have a personal response to one of their objects.’

Bloomberg New Contemporaries, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 2017 © Andy Smith

See as much art as you can

While having the right skills for the role is crucial, you need to show passion for museums and galleries too. Employers will be looking for a wider understanding of the sector and an enthusiasm for art and museums, and it’s common to be asked in interviews about an exhibition you visited recently or a certain artist you like.

You should be taking in as much art as you can, visiting exhibitions and forming your own artistic interests as well as learning more about how museums work. With a Student Art Pass, you can access free or reduced entry to over 240 venues across the UK, giving you the opportunity to explore as much culture as you can manage over the summer.

And of course, alongside seeking out opportunities like those mentioned above, or if they're not right for you, you might want to consider starting your own project – or contributing to one – to showcase your commitment to your subject. From founding an arts collective to running a blog, there are lots of ways to demonstrate your skills while doing what you love.

Tags: Student Art Pass