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What is it like working with history?

We spoke to curators, archivists, researchers and art historians about their careers.

Harriet Reed is Curator of Theatre and Performance at the V&A Museum.

Lily Crowther is a Historical researcher.

Lucy Bonner is an Archivist.

Fiona Williams is an Art Historian.

Chloe Bowerbank is a Curator at the Imperial War Museum

1. What did you study at college and university?

Harriet: BA History at Queen Mary University of London then an MA in Decorative Arts & Historic Interiors.

Lily: I studied Philosophy and Psychology. I hadn’t decided what kind of career I wanted to go into, so I was aiming to keep my options open. Then I did an MA in Gallery Studies. Now that my children are both at school I’ve just started a part-time PhD in history.

Lucy: I took History at A-Level and I studied a BA in English with American Studies. I later took an MA in Archives and Records Management.

Fiona: I studied Art History.

Chloe: I studied History at Lancaster University for my undergraduate degree. I found their course to be very flexible and got a lot of career support there. I then did an MA in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester.

2. What made you decide to go into your field?

Harriet: A love of history, storytelling, material culture and exhibitions. Also a deep love of museums from an early age!

Lily: I always loved visiting museums and galleries, and I wanted a career where I could be creative and hands-on as well as doing research and writing.

Lucy: When I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree I needed to select somewhere to go for a work experience module in the third year. I didn't know what I wanted to do so I took an online career quiz and one of the suggestions was archives. I looked it up in more detail (because like most people I didn't know what an archive or an archivist was) and liked the sound of what working with records offered; interaction with people, some historical research, supporting accountability. I then volunteered at an archive as part of that third year module to see if my expectations met real life and they did.

Fiona: There is a mixture of opportunities for career progression and a chance to directly use my research skills and interests. It’s a great job where I get to write specifically about what makes buildings interesting.

Chloe: I am very lucky that both my parents are very passionate about history, and visited lots of museums when I was young. I have always loved history because of this and wanted to share this passion with as many other people as possible.

3. What advice would you give a young person who wanted to do a job like yours?

Harriet: Curation is extremely competitive and modestly paid – think carefully before setting your mind on it. If you are interested in working in museums, get work experience in different departments to find out which might interest you, as many aspects of curation overlap with interpretation, exhibition management, learning programmes etc. Smaller museums are more likely to need help and will offer you a range of experience (as opposed to national museums where staff work on one aspect of the running of the institution). Stay in contact with those who can give you references or perhaps future working opportunities. Go and see as many exhibitions as possible!

Lily: Try to get a range of experience in museums. It’s worth trying to get your foot in the door with a weekend or holiday job. Volunteering is great too if you can afford to commit a few hours a week. And go to as many exhibitions as possible! You can join the Museums Association for £4.50 a month, and then you’ll get into almost everything for free.

Lucy: The advice that I would give is to visit or volunteer at an archive and remain open minded as archives can vary a lot depending on who their parent body is. Speak with those who work in archives. Look at what different archives are doing (social media is a good way to achieve this) and look at what archives are not doing.

Fiona: Meet as many professionals in the industry as possible - go for coffee and ask about their career entry routes.

Chloe: I have worked in front of house roles, collections management roles, social media, stakeholder engagement and curation. Some of this was employed work, some internships, some work experience and some volunteering. The more experience you have of the industry as a whole the greater your understanding of the multiple roles that keep a museum running. This knowledge has helped me in all the roles I have had, and made me better at my job.

4. What is one thing people might not guess about your job?

Harriet: It is not as glamorous as it might appear in films and television! A regular task curators perform are ‘bug checks’, where we go around all of our stores, galleries and work spaces checking bug traps and recording statistics on a spreadsheet – often discovering some gruesome creepy crawlies. If we find any moths, carpet beetles or booklice we have to report them as soon as possible, as they can eat away at our objects!

Lily: It’s really practical and surprisingly physical - I’m often in the stores carrying boxes up and down ladders, or installing a heavy object in a tricky case.

Lucy: I don't wear white gloves for one thing! The other notable aspect of my job is the sheer two days are ever the same and I have the opportunity to develop skills in a number of different areas.

Fiona: It pays well! Associate consultants can earn £50k and partners £60-100k which is rare in the field of research / the arts.

Chloe: The role of curator is as varied as the museums we work for. Some curators do exhibition work, others collections management and others have a more research focussed role.