Obviously, if I thought all was well in academic employment in the UK I wouldn’t be on strike right now for the fourth time since I got this job, and it is clear that despite what the vice-chancellors would have the world believe, the number of others who feel that way is growing, not shrinking, each time action is resorted to.
All the same, if there is an area of work in a worse state than UK academia for precarious and underpaid employment, it is surely the heritage and museums sector, a sector whose pay is already so poor that people can often only do it as the second job in a household, meaning that the majority of staff in it are female but somehow the majority of management is still male.1 I came from that sector to academia, twice, because of the precareity and low wage; I actually enjoyed the museum work more and might have stayed if there had been any prospect of permanence or progress.2 But I was fortunate enough to work in museums with some private funding, and even then, the job I held at the Fitzwilliam Museum for five years, on a rolling annual contract whose renewal was never certain, does not now exist. I left just in time to see the UK government utterly gut the sector, with national funding briefly being distributed through only four ‘hub’ museums in England, all in the Golden Triangle, before settling on steady money to 14 ‘national’ museums, 13 of which are based wholly or partly in London. Every other museum in England is either privately funded or paid for by the local councils which the same government also progressively defunded under austerity, leaving them surviving on volunteer labour, what grants they can scrounge, or a dripfeed of emergency funding that doesn’t allow the establishment of a stable staff base to carry on any work that gets started. (The situation in Scotland and Wales is a bit different, and I’m not really up to speed with it, so while I realise that this is to continue that Anglo-centric London-focused attitude, I’m not going to talk about the Home Nations in this post. Sorry. Comments that would educate me are very much welcomed, though!)
So, for all these reasons, whenever someone in academic history hits upon the idea that we could increase our graduates’ employment prospects by directing them at the heritage sector, my reaction is more or less this:
And thus you may imagine that when I learned that, on 14 May 2018, the Medieval Group in the Institute for Medieval Studies here at the University of Leeds were hosting a three-speaker workshop entitled “A Day in the Life of… Heritage Professionals”, I was initially a bit sceptical that we should really be doing this. But it was actually very good, and got a good discussion going, and maybe represents a perspective that is more realistic than the one I’ve just given above, so I thought that I should in fairness present it. Our three speakers were:
- Kathryn Baxter (Leeds Museums and Galleries), “A Day in the Life of… Heritage Professionals”
- Chris Tuckley (York Archaeological Trust), “The Jorvik Group”
- Eleanor Wilkinson-Keys (then Wakefield Council, but see below!), “A Day in the Life…”
I had already met Dr Baxter, because she is the Curator of Archaeology at the city museums, which among other things – many other things – puts her in charge of their coin collection, with which some day I hope to do some work. Her actual speciality is Neolithic stuff, but Leeds Discovery Centre houses 25,000 objects from the far end of then to the current end of now, and 15,000 coins (which does seem to be the magic number for underused coin collections I know about). Some of those objects are in drawers, some in cabinets, some in freezers and some are too big to be in anything except the building, and Dr Baxter is the only archaeologist on staff, so specialisation isn’t really an option. This was one of the questions that came up, about how to cope with such breadth, and Dr Baxter and Dr Tuckley gave different sides of the same answer: you can’t really do your thing any more, but you can acquire a lot of new things!
Dr Tuckley, then as now Head of Interpretaton and Engagement at his Trust, was more optimistic perhaps because of having slightly more spare staff resource; he works primarily at the famous Jorvik Viking Centre, and for what he’s doing, which is the most patron-facing aspect of the work, just has more staff than Dr Baxter does for her rôle, I guess. Still, the tale he told of getting to where he was, and getting Jorvik to where it was, twice over, was no less frantic and exhausting to hear. The trust of which he is part also had bases on several different constituencies, with heritage units at Steffield, Nottingham and Glasgow, all staffed by ex-commercial archaeologists. Of course, Sheffield’s is now gone and I don’t know how true any of this now is, but at that stage it sounded like a healthily-diversified portfolio. Of course, you would hope a public-sector body didn’t need a business survival strategy, but that’s not where we are these days.
Eleanor, meanwhile, was the most directly-connected of the speakers to the IMS, having lately been a doctoral student there, but was now coordinating the volunteer staff at Pontefract Castle, one of our locality’s lesser-known medieval sites but one where an awful lot has been done in recent years by volunteers, including several from the IMS. The scheme had been built from the ground up and at the time of the workshop was 4 roles being filled by 70 people, so coordinating it was itself a full-time job, though I don’t remember if Eleanor was actually being paid full-time. Of course, actually doing stuff with a site tends to draw people in to see, so they were still recruiting volunteers but also finding more stuff which they would ideally be doing. Quite how far this job could have been expanded, I don’t know, but since Eleanor is now a Curatorial Assistant at the Royal Armouries in Leeds I suppose that one might argue that it served at least one purpose, and Pontefract Castle still has its volunteers, so this, like Jorvik, was probably a success story in the making.
So where does this leave my gloomy prognosis about graduate employment in the heritage sector? Eleanor has clearly managed it, Kat was there doing it, and Chris Tuckley, as it turned out, was not only an IMS graduate himself but had two more of them on his staff. Nor is he alone in this: someone who was then one of my research postgraduate advisees has also gone to work in the sector and looks likely to stay there for now. One lesson from this might then be that, if you want a job in the heritage sector, come and do a doctorate at the Institute for Medieval Studies! But it was also, I think, a good and somewhat bracing clarification about what that heritage job would look like, and how what it was not was a chance to continue your research. One question that was asked was what each of the speakers would do with one day of fully-funded unconstrained time, and all the answers were ironic, but only one even featured research. At the moment, academia can still sometimes give you that unconstrained time, though one has to ignore a lot of electronic clamour to keep it that way. But as of 2018, at least, I had reasons to think better of the state of the heritage sector than I had been used to do, so this was worth it for that dose of realism and balance as well as for the interest of the various work the speakers had going on.
1. The best figures I can find for this are four to eight years old, in Equality and diversity within the arts and cultural sector in England: evidence and literature review, by Andy Parkinson and by Jamie Buttrick, Final Report (Newcastle-upon-Tyne 2017), online here, so it’s possible things have now changed, but with the pandemic as a factor, we might gloomily guess which way: see Megan Frederickson, “COVID-19’s gendered impact on academic productivity”, preprint in GitHub, 2020, online here, being the broadest-ranging study I’ve seen so far; all the published ones are hard-science-specific.
2. I didn’t necessarily realise this until my last day at the Fitzwilliam, actually, when, searching for something to say at my leaving do, I found myself saying that I’d never regretted having to come into work there. As far as I could remember, it was true. I’m not ragging on academia specifically when I say that I’ve not got that from any other job before or since.