Student story: Work experience in the heritage sector

jessJess Weeks, 3rd year History student

Every professional I have ever spoken to in the museum and heritage sector has told me experience is key. Unfortunately, it took me until my third year to understand how serious they were and how many resources were available to me at Queen Mary. One day I finally went to the careers office as I was struggling with making the decision between applying for an MA or just going straight into the world of work. They very clearly told me that work experience should be my top priority during my studies; my CV was limited and needed more to it, and the work experience would highlight the different fields and different jobs available within the sector.

I started looking at all the different companies and museums in the sector, paying particular attention to the Historic Royal Palaces because I love the Tower of London and Hampton Court. I noticed on their website they recruited volunteers and had apprenticeship and internship opportunities. Although none of these opportunities were advertised at the time I wanted to make a start and therefore I emailed all the people listed on the ‘contact us’ page because I was taught that there’s no harm in trying. I received a reply pretty quickly saying that there weren’t any opportunities. However, after a few weeks I received an email asking whether I would like to come in for an interview for the Learning and Engagement team of volunteers.

The interview was not what I had expected at all. It was much more informal and was primarily the team discussing their individual roles, what is expected of us as volunteers and what events we will be assisting with. We had to introduce the person sitting next to us and that was pretty much our talking done! We were then asked to select which palace was our preferred choice of work, I chose Kensington Palace and the Tower of London, and then that was it- we were officially HRP volunteers.

I primarily volunteer at the Tower of London and help with all the Learning and Engagement events. These vary from adult learning activities, such as Nightwatchers (if you want to see the Tower at night time and do a ‘secret mission’, I would recommend signing up to this!) or Drawn at the Tower, to children half-term activities, such as Story Scramble. Story Scramble is a lot of fun as part of our role can include being stationed at the Object Handling Table, which, as the title suggests, means we get to hold and explain historic items relating to the story, such as coins, chainmail or weapons! We can also be positioned at the Welcome centre or the prize table at the end.

I really enjoy my volunteering at the Tower but wanted to do something else to really make me stand out. I emailed my events co-ordinator and asked if there was any extra work around the office that I could do. Now I also input evaluation forms into a spreadsheet as often as I can. To me it is all about getting yourself known and trying to make yourself stand out. I also find that doing this extra work allows me to talk to lots of the team, finding out how they entered the sector and what route they took to get to where they are now. It really is enlightening to hear all the different stories, plus through this I’m making my own connections.

However, I knew if I really wanted to make my CV stand out I was going to have to do something else, and that is when I applied for the Collections Project Leader at the Royal Academy of Arts through QProjects. I got invited for an interview, in which I prepared a lot for (looking at the job spec and writing examples of how where and how I demonstrated what they were after), and luckily got the position. I go to the Royal Academy once a week and my tasks vary from cataloguing, to organising the filing system, filling in spreadsheets, to writing up their ‘Artist of the month’ posts or doing research for future exhibitions. Sometimes it can be challenging, but I do really enjoy it. Plus, this position has again allowed me to make crucial connections and find out more about the museum sector and all the different routes people take to get to the position they want, or didn’t want but fell into and ending up loving it.

It can be difficult balancing volunteering, university work and my placement, however if you stay organised and keep on top of everything then they never get in the way of each other. My advice would be don’t wait until your third year to start looking for experience like I did, put yourself out there and make connections. Stay organised and explore all the different areas of whatever sector you want to work in. For me I’ve realised I don’t want to be a curator but would enjoy something more in the educational departments of museums and heritage. Make yourself known and ultimately enjoy whatever it is you’re doing!

Don’t forget to check out our ‘Getting into the Arts’ handout for further information about working in a museum, plus some helpful links.


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