Museums, galleries and heritage management
Experience is key to securing a role in the cultural heritage sector - see our suggestions.
There are approximately 2,500 museums in the UK, made up of national, university, local authority and independent museums. Heritage sites (buildings and areas of historic interest, often with collections) are often managed by public bodies (Historic Environment Scotland, English Heritage, Cadw). These public bodies also identify and record nationally important sites, provide advice and guidance on the impact of planning and development on the historic environment, and research and promote the value of the built heritage for society and the economy. Heritage roles are also found with charities, notably the National Trust and National Trust for Scotland, but there also many smaller ones.
The sector has seen job losses and recruitment freezes resulting from loss of income due to the massive drop in visitor numbers during Covid-19. Smaller organisations have been particularly badly hit. However the adjustment to digital engagement accelerated by lockdown is engaging new audiences and winning new supporters. The sector’s reliance on large numbers of volunteers – many of them elderly – could be an issue if increased caution reduces their numbers as tourism picks up and visits to museums and heritage sites start to recover.
Conservation officer posts with local authorities, independent heritage consultants, and in-house heritage consultant roles with, for example, large civil engineering companies all combine an understanding of the built heritage with a knowledge of planning legislation.
What’s it like?
These profiles include outlines of typical responsibilities and working environments for key roles in this sector:
Hear from museum professionals at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum:
Industry insights: Museums and galleries (University of Edinburgh login required)
This guide produced by the University’s Library and University Collections includes accounts of the career paths of staff working in museum-related roles at the University:
Hear from three alumni discussing their route into the heritage careers at our PhD Horizons event:
PhD Horizons: Heritage Panel (University of Edinburgh login required)
Find out about key trends in the museum sector – aspects of service delivery which are growing in significance:
The changing face of the museum sector (Museums Association)
How to get in
Getting into this sector is competitive. Experience is crucial for entry - and there are many ways to develop this. Depending on the role you are applying for, it may or may not be essential to have postgraduate qualifications. For example, curators tend to have specialist knowledge in a particular area which they are likely to have developed through doctoral research (doing a PhD). Make sure that you fully research the roles you are interested in to understand what the entry requirements are. Do this by looking at vacancies, using the resources provided by professional bodies and talking to people who work in the sector.
If you want to work in this sector you should spend time building experience. Use these suggestions as a starting point.
You can build experience in different ways but the reality is that most people will be volunteering rather than completing paid internships.
- The Centre for Research Collections (CRC) at the University of Edinburgh offers volunteering and internship opportunities in areas such as conservation, rare books, archives, exhibitions and museums.
The Talbot Rice Gallery in Old College offer opportunities for exhibition volunteers. They also sometimes offer work placements.
The National Galleries Scotland recruit volunteers and advertise a range of positions within the Edinburgh-based galleries.
The Institute of Conservation (ICON) offers an internship programme in a range of conservation areas
Edinburgh Arts and Heritage Society (follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) organise events and related activities and provide a great opportunity for you to network with like-minded people.
As well as considering well known organisations and institutions, be sure to investigate smaller or less well-known museums, galleries and charities.
Speculative applications can be a successful way to find opportunities. Larger organisations tend to have formal processes for volunteer recruitment but a more proactive approach can work with smaller organisations.
Getting a graduate job
Entry is competitive, even with relevant qualifications and experience. A realistic approach may be to start in a role which provides you with an initial foot in the door even if it isn’t your “dream job”. The key to developing your career within this sector is to be flexible.
This sector doesn’t offer traditional graduate schemes. You may not see jobs advertised as “entry level”, but as a general guide it’s useful to look for vacancies which have ‘assistant’, ‘officer’ or ‘administrator’ in the title.
Temporary or seasonal work can be the first step and can sometimes lead to a permanent role. Working during busy summer periods or at festivals gives you great exposure both to the sector and roles within it, and to a range of contacts who may be able to useful as you search for more permanent positions. Short-term project roles or maternity cover can also be good first entry points.
Look for vacancies on the following sites, but also check the websites of individual museums, galleries and heritage and arts organisations:
Here are just a few examples. Use them to build your understanding of the sector.