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Dismantling Barriers in the Heritage Sector Through Workplace Development

In 2020 James began an SVQ in Museums and Galleries Practice whilst working at The Scottish Maritime Museum. In this blog he describes his route into the heritage sector, the barriers he has faced, and how undertaking an SVQ has supported him to work in the sector he is passionate about.

Deciding to undertake an SVQ through Museum Galleries Scotland amid such uncertain times has definitely been challenging, but it has afforded me an opportunity that I used to think was beyond my reach. Before deciding to pursue my interest in the Heritage sector I was a factory worker for six years. I have always had a passion for social history but for various reasons could not go to university after leaving school, so had to find employment wherever I could. I had convinced myself that it was silly to believe I could have a career in museums.

Historically, museums have always had a remarkably high barrier to entry with many competitive positions having at least a university degree requirement. Alongside this is the fact that many contracts tend to be temporary or part time, both of which only really suit people that are financially comfortable with a good safety net. Being from a poor, working class background I certainly didn’t have either of those things.

Despite this, and against my better judgement, with the small amount of savings I had I decided to leave my secure job to try and pursue a career in something I was passionate about. This led me to the Scottish Maritime Museum, and after a year of volunteering I was offered a position in the Visitor Services team. My plan was to get my foot in the door while studying with the Open University to get my degree and move on to a role in collections. Not the most orthodox route but I had bills to pay so leaving employment again to attend university wasn’t an option at this point. This plan went well for a while; I was gaining experience of working in museums, helping the curators with collections work whenever I could and working towards a degree in Arts and Humanities. Then the pandemic happened.

I should preface this by saying that I have been incredibly lucky. I didn’t lose my job and was put on furlough with full pay which is a lot more than many of my fellow workers. The problem for me came when the funding for my Open University course was stopped so I couldn’t afford to continue my studies. This, along with the fact that I was stuck at home, meant that my hopes for career progression had to be put on the back burner for a while.

It was after the first lockdown that I was offered a place in the SVQ program, and I jumped at the opportunity. I have been incredibly well supported through the process by Museum Galleries Scotland, the Scottish Maritime Museum team and my SVQ assessor Elliot.

Through completing the SVQ I have gained an incredible amount of experience in all aspects of museum work. Most significantly, at the start of the program, I was able to work with the museums Exhibitions and Events officer in setting up the “Into the Maelstrom” exhibition that will be ending at the museum soon. This exhibition explores the 1980 Scottish kayak expedition to Northwest Norway in which they passed through the maelstrom whirlpool area. Just as we finished work on this exhibition is when the second national lockdown was announced.

Trying to complete a vocational qualification without access to your vocation is tricky. Without access to the museum, I couldn’t gather any of the evidence needed for my qualification. Again, we were supported and even had the SVQ extended by another six months to ensure we had enough time to get back on our feet.

Since returning to work I have been able to work more closely with the museum curators and have been involved in all aspects of collections work. This includes an ongoing schedule of preventative conservation work on our larger pieces of industrial machinery as well as cataloguing, accessioning, and working on moving the museum photo store. The store move has been a great way for me to get used to the work involved in being a curator in a small independent museum setting. These experiences have cemented my desire to work with museum collections and while progressing through this SVQ I have been asked to take on the role of Collections Assistant at the Scottish Maritime Museum, an opportunity that I don’t believe I would’ve gained had I not done the SVQ.

An adult wearing a face mask and plastic gloves is placing a painting of sea and boats onto a plastic covered table.
James pictured, undertaking preventative conservation on some of the museum's collection

At a time when museums are trying to become more socially engaged, diverse alternative routes into museums such as this SVQ will be essential. I never went to university or completed a postgraduate, but I do have extensive experience in an industrial setting that has given me a unique perspective on Scotland’s industrial collections. Learning on the job in a small independent museum has not only shown me the proper way of working in museums but also the unique difficulties faced by smaller organisations in the sector. Now that this SVQ will be provided as a modern apprenticeship I sincerely hope that more working-class people find their way in to working in museums and lend their voice on to the interpretation of our shared history.