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Museum Documentation Assistant

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      22.10.2006 17:03
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      A way to break into museum work if you can afford the low pay

      I think it is fair to say that museums are a very popular field for people to want to work in. They attract individuals with interests in history, art or archaeology, who want to work with rare and interesting objects and share their interest with a wider audience, either through traditional roles in the curatorial side of museum work, or through interpretation, education and exhibition design. The work can be varied, stimulating and rewarding, and very satisfying, and it is easy to appreciate why so many people want to get involved in it.

      However, there are downsides; the work is very low paid (even by public sector standards), and there is huge competition for jobs, which drives the demand for highly qualified staff and makes it a difficult field to break into. If you were to scan through current adverts for pretty much any museum post, an MA in Museum Studies (a professionally recognised training course covering both theoretical concerns and practical skills) will be listed as essential or desirable for virtually every one, even the entry level posts. This has led to an explosion not only in the number of these courses offered, but also in the number of people doing them. In the current year of the Museum Studies course at Newcastle University, for example, there are over 80 students. While some of these will be international students who will return to their home country after the course ends, you can appreciate the huge number of equally well qualified candidates entering the job market each year and fighting for the few entry level openings that exist. This also makes volunteering an essential prerequisite for entry into museum work – on top of the two month full time work placement I completed as part of my MA, I have also been part of a long-term volunteering scheme with the National Trust, and had done a stint at the small museum in my home town, meaning I had built up several months of experience out of my own expense before I had finished my MA. I am in no way unusual in this. There is, in fact, quite a debate going on in the museum community about this situation, as the need to fund large amounts of voluntary work and an MA before you are considered worthy to enter the museum profession is effectively excluding people from poorer backgrounds from joining the field. Despite attempts at diversifying the museum workforce, it is still very much a “nice, middle class” area of employment.

      One of the most common entry routes for people looking for their first museum job is to do a stint as a museum documentation assistant. Documentation jobs are pretty commonplace in museums, as they involve doing some of the most basic and essential tasks in museum work. The Museums Association describes documentation work as: “keeping accurate information about the objects in their care - their function and provenance…you could be inputting data about new acquisitions, researching images for catalogues or developing on-line guides. Good IT and multimedia skills are a must”. Documentation work is often viewed as being one of the more boring areas of museum work, something you have to serve time in before you can graduate into other aspects of the field. It is often noted that documentation assistants don’t last long in their posts (my predecessor lasted less than four months), as many people find it dull, repetitive and financially unrewarding. It is, however, increasingly being recognised as a profession in its own right within museum work, a view that is championed by the Museums Documentation Association, who work to develop and maintain a series of professional standards for documentation workers at all levels. The value of documentation work, the MDA argues, lies in the fact that museums are nothing without their collections: and if you don’t know what is in your collections, where individual items are stored or anything about their history and background, then there is little point in having them.

      I have been doing documentation work for nearly six months now; this means I am far from an expert, but I feel I have experienced this work enough to offer my opinions on it. The basic purpose of my job is to work with museum collections. Collections are at the heart of museums, and even a small museum can hold thousands of different objects, far more than what is put on display (which is only ever the tip of the iceberg). In theory, each museum object should be given an accession number (a unique number identifying that object), which should be clearly labelled on the object or object packaging, and also used on any records, with both paper and digital copies being kept of all information associated with that object. The information about an object will vary, but as I work with an archaeology collection, it is important to know which site and where on that site it came from, when it was found, what it has been identified as, the material it is made from, any conservation procedures that have been carried out on the object, and where it has been stored. Often however, there are mistakes in assigning accession numbers, there are pieces of information missing from records or records missing altogether, which can make the work quite challenging! I spend quite a lot of time accessioning objects (assigning them a unique number and creating records for those objects), and updating or improving records (such as photographing objects to add images to records).

      While this might make me sound like a glorified data entry clerk, there is much more to my post – and to many other documentation posts – than just the documentation work. I also carry out basic conservation procedures in the object stores. Early on in my post, I worked for several days with a conservator who was doing an evaluation of the condition of objects in our stores, and this gave me the opportunity to learn about the best way to store delicate and often unstable archaeological material, so that irreplaceable objects do not get damaged or decay away. An important part of my post from then on was to source packaging and conservation materials within a budget I was given, and to work on improving the storage conditions for the collection. I also am responsible for using the environmental monitoring system to make sure that no major problems (huge temperature fluctuations or high relative humidity for example) are occurring anywhere that the objects are stored or displayed. Repacking collections within a budget and space constraints is very practical work, and I enjoy the variation and challenge of it as a break from the days when I am entering data into our computer collections database. While admittedly some part of the work may be a bit dull and repetitive, I’m sure this is the case for many jobs, and how many people can say that they get to handle archaeological material of international significance on a daily basis? I have learned a lot in my first six months, and I am improving my practical skills all the time. Hopefully this will one day lead me into the curatorial work I want to do.

      I have hinted so far that pay is a big issue in museums work, so I think it is time to actually bring some figures into the picture. Let us start by considering graduate earnings. According to this Saturday’s copy of the Times, the average starting salary for a UK graduate is £13,860, whereas the graduate career website prospects.ac.uk puts it at around £18,000. In a recent publication by the Museums Association advising museums on appropriate pay scales for jobs, it recommended that documentation assistants be paid £14,000 to £16,000. (Any museum professionals reading this may want to pause for a moment to recover from their hysterical laughter). In reality, the posts that I have seen advertised vary between £11,000 and £13,000 – occasionally, £14,000 is mentioned at the top end of a pay scale, but this is unusual, and you are unlikely to achieve this level as it is almost by definition an entry level job. This is poorly paid work for a graduate, but how about for a graduate with an MA and several months of unpaid work experience and volunteering behind them? I think it is clear that you are not going to get rich in museum work, and it is something you do for the love of the job rather than the pay cheque.

      Ultimately, I do enjoy this work, and I would like to use my current job as a platform to get into curatorial or collections management work in the future. Whether I manage this will depend as much on whether I can afford to continue doing this work as on how committed I am to my career development. To anybody out there thinking of going into this area, I would strongly advise you to do a variety of volunteering work at different organisations before committing yourself to an intensive and expensive year getting your MA in Museum Studies, to make sure it is the right choice for you. If it is, then being a documentation assistant is a great platform for breaking into the museum profession.


      Useful Websites:
      The Museums Association: www.museumsassociation.org
      The Museum Documentation Association: www.mda.org.uk

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