Recently an older friend of mine complained on Facebook about her bad experience at the British Museum. The staff on the information desk had not known what she was asking for, she said, and sent her to the wrong gallery (especially difficult for her as she is disabled and the extra walking increased the pain she was in). ‘This is the BM for heavens’ sake,’ she wrote. ‘There must be unemployed history and archaeology graduates who would not sneer at a job on an info desk here’.
Of course my hackles went right up. Still, eight months after leaving the British Museum, the suggestion that the staff are incompetent makes me shake with rage. But I stopped and had a think about it, and came to the conclusion that she is probably right. Some of the staff are incompetent. They are not necessarily stupid or lazy or even ignorant, but they are certainly unable to deliver what visitors expect of a world-class museum, and this is not even slightly surprising, given the current system. I’m writing about the BM because I know it best, but the problems in its Visitor Operations department are surely present in other big museums and galleries, because they are a symptom of a far larger problem. I am not writing this piece out of spite or anger – I feel neither – but because I still love this country’s wealth of museums, I still admire the British Museum, and I want it to thrive.
When I applied for my job in Visitor Ops, there were seven vacancies and seven hundred applicants. It was August 2010, a bad time to work in museums: the coalition government hadn’t been in long, but significant spending cuts were already being made. Many of my university cohort had struggled to find any employment at all, so I was delighted to have paid museum work of any kind. It wasn’t my dream job, but I believed that if I worked hard this could be a stepping-stone to better things. The managers who interviewed me gave the impression that they were looking for people with ambition, who wanted to spend their career in museums, and all seven new employees fitted that profile. We were educated, interested and interesting. We were there because we desperately wanted to be, and I’ve never forgotten the exhilaration and pride I felt as we walked into the Great Court on our first day. Continue reading