New profile on the Young Cultural Heritage Professionals series:
What was your motivation to enter the cultural heritage field? Was it your first option?
At school I used to volunteer fortnightly at a National Trust heritage property in the UK. I loved studying history, but I didn’t want to pursue it further as an academic after my undergraduate degree. I tried tutoring, undertook a consultancy placement, participated in law vacation schemes and completed a law masters before entering the cultural heritage sector indirectly, working at the intersection of law and cultural heritage. I didn’t know what I was looking for. But I was deeply excited when I first saw jobs in the cultural heritage sector.
How was/is your transition from studying to working?
Bumpy. I didn’t know what I was looking for. After years of education and having structured progression, it was hard to go to interviews and try to sell my ‘transferrable skills’ to jobs that often had pretty different requirements to the demands of academia.
How are you looking/looked for a job in heritage? And how do you experience/experienced the phase of search and application?
Finding work in the heritage sector is hard. I was lucky – a friend sent me an advert 2 days after I finished my law masters and my application was successful. I initially undertook a (paid) internship, which became a research position. I couldn’t see a way to progress my career/meet my career ambitions within the heritage sector, which is why I now do my cultural heritage work around my day job.
What skills and competences do you notice are demanded the most in job offers?
I think it’s very hard to find entry-level positions. Job offers tend to want quite substantial experience first. In most of the jobs I’ve seen, I feel the implication was that you need to build a professional skillset in a field/sector, then transition that across into cultural heritage (i.e become an architect, then work on CH; become a project manager then work on CH; etc.).
Based on the profiles of job positions, do you notice skills or competences that your education didn’t provide you with?
I feel my education gave me some pretty useful general skills and good approaches for learning new things, adapting, and meeting deadlines etc. I don’t think it built specialist knowledge and I think there was a disconnect between the very enjoyable, quite theoretical things I studied and the practical realities of the job market.
How do you think young people can be attracted to work in heritage? Do you have proposals?
I think some of the strengths of heritage lie in its capacity to bring people together. I think significant weaknesses in the sector relate to finance, including jobs for young people. This creates uncertainty and leaves people having to choose between their finances and their passions (which, given economic reality, is not even a meaningful choice for many).
I think there are many underlying structural themes that need discussion. In the long-term there also need to be real efforts to engage people (outside of those interested in CH or policymakers) in why cultural engagement is important and to convince people how it can benefit their lives materially. I think this is essential for the societies we live in to truly value cultural heritage/culture. To some extent, I think the struggles that young people face in finding work in the sector are a reflection that our societies maybe take cultural heritage for granted, or do not value it very highly.
BUT I have one slightly more concrete proposal that has been on my mind (I don’t know how feasible it would be). I would like to see heritage organisations (big and small) join together (potentially in groups of 4) and create a ‘graduate scheme’ type offer. I would envisage the scheme running over 2 years, with 4 6-month placements. I think each placement within the scheme should build a different skill set that the sector needs – as an example, perhaps one placement could focus on management of cultural heritage sites; a second could focus on research; a third could focus on communications/marketing; a fourth could focus on project management etc.
Different groups of organisations could create different offers according to their specialisms. I would want the organisations involved to work on different types of cultural heritage/relate to cultural heritage differently, in different geographical spaces. By bringing multiple organisations together, I see an opportunity to pool financial resources to fund a young professional over a 2-year period.
I also see this as a way to target the skills gap for young people between leaving education and getting a foot on the job ladder. Young people would get opportunities to build professional networks within the organisations where they work.
Additionally, if multiple groups of organisations created this offer, I also think it would be possible to create a network of young professionals participating in the scheme, further strengthening the bonding power of heritage. The participating organisations would get young workers who, liberated of the need to balance multiple jobs, would be more able to bring their full creativity, skillset and energies to the sector and the challenges it faces.
How do you see the future of the cultural heritage field?
I think the ‘big’, famous cultural heritage sites, and the people working in/around them will prosper. I worry about how to preserve meaningful cultural diversity and cultural meaning. I worry about how to ascertain boundaries – for example, in which contexts is commercialisation beneficial to heritage and when it may be harmful.
I want to see fair wages (especially for entry-level workers) and I do believe this is possible, even if it may be a long and continuous struggle. I want to see effective safeguards and attribution for traditional knowledge. I want us to ensure that heritage brings us together in a sense of common, yet diverse, humanity (I think heritage can be used to erect barriers and polarize).
Ultimately, I think the cultural heritage field needs to continue to fully understand its own worth (both in itself, but also how it ‘adds value’ to other spheres of human activity) and to articulate that worth, that value, throughout our societies.