This year the Association of Art Historians’ Careers Day, organised by the AAH student Committee, was held right here on campus at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 25 October 2014. This was a great opportunity to listen to the wise words of speakers from a range of arts and heritage institutions without having to travel across the country! The day was split into several talks with the opportunity for informal questions over tea breaks and lunch.
The speakers represented a really wide range of careers in the arts and heritage sector. This was refreshing to see as it is easy to assume that arts and heritage is limited to museums and galleries. Here, I felt that a wide range of interests had been taken into account. For example, the first speaker was Reyahn King, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund West Midlands – I found her talk particularly interesting as, recently, I have become more interested in pursuing a career in the protection of historic buildings. This is a sector that can appear quite confusing as organisations range from government funded bodies to charities and trusts. Also, there is a distinction between practical conservation and those who manage the strategy and policies. I found Reyahn’s talk very useful as she gave details on her first roles after graduation. Reyahn gave a very positive message to reassure undergraduates, explaining that she did not take the obvious route to work at HLF, but that this was completely fine as you can experience different areas of the sector and still be gaining skills that can be used elsewhere.
Alex Jolly, Learning and Access Assistant at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, gave us an insight into the roles involved in a museum’s education department. As well as giving a detailed view of the strategy behind making the collections accessible and enjoyable for a wide range of people, Alex gave some helpful general advice for job searching in the sector. I picked up some new websites for searching for job opportunities, for example Engage.org and National Museum Directors Council website. Alex also stressed that when applying for those first jobs after graduating you should not be afraid to apply for a role if you feel under qualified, as it is enthusiasm and ideas that count.
Hannah Carroll, a former History of Art student at the University of Birmingham, explained the day-to-day tasks involved in her role as a Marketing Officer at Birmingham Museums. Hannah encouraged students to volunteer as much as possible to gain a sense of what each role entails and what you would be most suited to. This was important to Hannah as she had never seen herself going into the marketing side of things until she gained that practical work experience.
For those looking ahead to a career as a curator, Dr Connie Wan discussed her role as Pop Art Curator at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. She gave us details about her career path, including her collaborative PhD, before explaining her role as a curator. Connie explained that, although the common belief is that a curator ‘points and chooses’, there is, in fact, a whole host of other activities involved in her role: for example, travelling around the world to carry out research in different archives and building relationships with contemporary artists. Connie started out studying graphic design and moved on to research nineteenth-century art before her role as Pop Art curator. She encouraged us to see our lack of knowledge in certain areas not as a hindrance but, rather, an opportunity to learn. I think these words were definitely a reassurance to all students in the audience!
The day also included a talk by Carly Hegenbarth, a History of Art PhD student at the University of Birmingham. She presented the academic side to careers in the arts and gave a detailed view of the work involved in further study. Carly’s talk emphasised the rewarding nature of doctoral research in discovering new knowledge, as well as the opportunities to get involved in activities outside of your own research. For example, Carly managed a HLF-funded oral histories project, Digbeth Speaks, in 2013.
The more practical side to museums was presented by Jane Thompson-Webb, Conservator at Birmingham Museums. Jane began by giving us a detailed account of the different types of work involved in caring for the collections and then gave examples of the projects that she had undertaken, showing the astonishing results with ‘before and after’ photos. Jane described the different career paths available for those interested in a future in conservation, from university postgraduate courses to apprenticeships. [To find out about the current volunteering opportunities at Birmingham Museums with the Conservation department, click here].
To close the day Chris Packham, Careers and Employability Consultant for the Careers Network in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham, gave us some tips on networking and keeping up to date with what is going on in our chosen fields via Twitter and LinkedIn.
I would like to thank all the speakers for a very informative day with lots of advice and tips for starting out with job searches and applications. I also really appreciated the positive outlook that all the speakers had for our prospects as History of Art graduates.