Fishes and Ponds: The Pros and Cons of Working in Large/Small Museums for Emerging Professionals

By Daniel Stirland, Registrar at Canterbury Museum

A recent change of jobs got me thinking: what are the challenges facing emerging museum professionals in terms of career planning and development? What are the key questions that they need to answer to ensure continuing progression? And what possible barriers might stand in their way? Career planning in any profession can be uncertain, but in the museums sector there can be some particularly acute problems. A relatively small workforce, hugely oversubscribed vacancies, job roles requiring specialist skills and knowledge, and in many cases the dreaded “dead men’s shoes” phenomenon can lead to some very fraught decisions and even leaps of faith for emerging professionals.

PondsOne particularly fraught decision that I had to make in my early career was whether to work for a large institution or take a chance on a small one and I’m sure it’s something that many others will have thought about too. So is it better to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?

To begin answering this question, I looked at the pros and cons of each for emerging museum professionals. In my opinion, larger institutions can be seen as the safe option. They provide formal training, a reasonable wage, the chance to witness museum work in the round, and opportunities to soak up knowledge from more experienced colleagues. They’re also connected to the wider museum community, providing the chance Glass ceilingto make contacts in areas relevant to one’s chosen career path. These are generalisations of course and other factors clearly play a part. But in essence, what an emerging professional can hope to get from larger museums is steady progression. However, steady progression has its limits and even the largest museums have glass ceilings. Glass ceilings can lead to stagnation, which is a real problem for someone trying to develop.

Smaller museums generally offer none of the things that a large museum can. Their budgets are smaller, so wages are reduced and formal training is unaffordable. There are much fewer colleagues to learn from. And they can find it difficult to connect with the wider museum community, which is generally controlled by the larger institutions and can therefore be, let’s admit, a bit snobbish. The benefit of smaller museums is that they offer the chance to actually do museum work in the round. Curatorial, registration, visitor services, exhibitions, finance, media and marketing; all are the domain of the one-man-band.

TableAt first glance, this table makes the larger institutions appear as the better option. However, these criteria should not be considered equals when it comes to career development. With emphasis applied to the more important ones, the table changes quite significantly. Experience in the round is the type of thing that can look excellent on a CV. Being able to state truthfully at a job interview that you have first-hand experience of the various areas of museum work sounds far better than saying you have watched other people doing them. Thus, if they’ve calculated their risk effectively, an emerging professional’s career can skyrocket through working at a small museum. But of course, it carries significant risks. At a large museum, if you find yourself struggling you have colleagues to support you. At small museums, it’s sink or swim.

GraphSo which is the recommended course? Guaranteed to a point but possibly slow progression at a large institution, or potential for rapid development at a smaller museum but with much greater risks? Sadly, it is impossible to provide a blueprint for all emerging professionals, as the answer will be specific to individuals based on their personality, their ambitions, and the circumstances that they find themselves in. Personally, I would caution that there is a fine line between calculated risk and recklessness, never more so than when making career-shaping decisions. But also remember this: nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Daniel Stirland
Registrar at Canterbury Museum

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