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.

Me, in Visitor Operations. Alexander Kell took this picture as part of a series of gallery assistants. Click the picture to see more on his website.

Me, in Visitor Operations. Alexander Kell took this picture as part of a series of gallery assistants. Click the picture to see more on his website.

Lots of great people worked in Visitor Ops back then. Some saw it as a way into museums; others used it to support themselves while they made art of one kind or another, or studied for MAs or PhDs. Most of them had discovered – as I soon did – that it was pretty hard to get out of Visitor Ops. A rolling rota meant our days off always changed, so it was hard to commit to voluntary opportunities. Then there was the fact that we were not credited with any particular value or intelligence. Partly, I think, this was to do with the museum’s huge international status: if we took the initiative to do something outside of our remit, and it went wrong, the legal repercussions might be huge. ‘Not my job’ was a phrase thrown about quite a lot, with varying levels of irony. There was no group identity, no sense of belonging to something bigger: people from other departments – the proper museum workers – seemed to think we were the most ghastly sort of bottom-feeders, and I was verbally abused on several occasions. Can you imagine wanting to volunteer with somebody who’d called you a ‘fucking moron’ to your face? Mind you, they were probably just as insecure as we were: if I were to be charitable, I’d say they crapped on the people beneath them because they were absolutely terrified.

I’d come from a front-of-house museum job where we were encouraged to be independent, put forward for voluntary projects, and reminded over and over that the museum could not open without us. I arrived bursting with confidence, but the same attitude was not taken at the British Museum: with little managerial support, most people coped with the incessant rudeness from visitors, the overwhelming crowds, the lack of autonomy, by simply switching off. It’s not a job that gives you a great sense of value, and a lot of people found it better for their mental health to just stop caring. The treatment of long-term agency temps was a source of great resentment. Every now and then, when their contracts came up for renewal, there would be a period of excruciating tension as they waited to know whether they were going to keep their jobs. They were encouraged to apply for permanent positions but rarely got them; they were passed over in favour of new blood (like me) and yet retained via the agency, as if they were good enough to work at the BM but not good enough to be given any security. They were justifiably stressed, humiliated, and angry.

In 2012, the museum received a 15% cut to its grant-in-aid budget. The Paul Hamlyn Library closed, there were lots of redundancies, and I suppose all the departments had to prove that they were squeezing every penny: I know that from this point Visitor Ops became increasingly dependent on agency temps. This coincided with a change in the law that meant that if their contract ran for over three months these temps would be entitled to sick pay, living wages, and other exciting perks. Expensive! The solution? Get new temps every three months.

The job isn’t rocket science, but it’s also not something you can pick up in an afternoon. It takes months to develop a current and full knowledge of upwards of 90 galleries, changing exhibitions, the museum’s 250-year history, where all the toilets are, why this angry Italian can’t find the Nike of Samothrace, and what he might like to look at instead. Is it any wonder that these temps do their jobs badly? They haven’t been hand-picked for their interest in museum work, or because of their desire to act as ambassadors for the BM. They’ve just been sent by the agency. Their ignorance is further compounded by the fact that gallery assistant and information desk support are now completely separate roles. Info desk staff have only an academic knowledge of the galleries; warders don’t know much about events, membership and bookings. The two teams have little understanding of one another’s jobs, rarely interact, and therefore communicate poorly. This inability to work together makes for disappointed visitors, and as a result the staff feel ashamed and lose confidence. They’re new, so they haven’t bonded with their team; they’ll be gone soon, so there’s no point in trying. They work long hours on minimum wage, and they are regularly reminded that they can be fired with no notice. Why continue to strive in a situation like this?blackmail-1929-007-british-museum-egyptian-statue-chain-climbing_590

Using short-term temps looks like a cheap solution to a problem that is out of the museum’s hands, but – as I hope you’ve gathered by now – to my mind it’s the most destructive kind of false economy. A generation of young graduates were once upon a time so struck by the wonderful museums they were taken to as kids that they thought, ‘this is what I want to do with my life!’ – and the British Museum is not nurturing them. Instead they are cultivating a workforce whose knowledge is sketchy, who are tired and demoralised, who do not take pride in their work or the museum they represent. How can they, when the museum takes no pride in them?

Pretty much the only way to get a career in museums nowadays is to work for free – for months or even years – and actually even those fortunate enough to have this choice don’t necessarily want to take it. Even if you have parents who live in London and who will put you up rent-free for as long as it takes, living at home when you don’t want to feels like arrested development. It takes away a bit of your autonomy, your pride in yourself. But if you try to get a job – an actual paid job – in front-of-house, because that’s what’s available, you will be treated as if you have a brain the size of a pea. Goodbye autonomy. Goodbye pride.

If the only young people able to work in museums are those for whom earning a wage is not of pressing importance, what does this mean for the future? Museums strive to be accessible to everybody, and yet their direction is decided by individuals from a privileged and narrow strata of society. I’ve no problem with wealthy upper-class people specifically, I’m sure they are very intelligent and have excellent ideas, but it is very, very wrong that a resource that is designated as belonging to the nation can be run by so few.

I am not suggesting for a moment that the British Museum starts creating new jobs, only that it makes better use of its existing staff. The jobs exist! This is what riles me! Hundreds of people are employed by the Visitor Operations department, and they are vital to the museum’s survival. The department has already been cut right back to the bone: the ‘golden age’ of two warders to a gallery and a break in the afternoon is long gone, and now galleries stay closed for days or months or years for lack of staff. It seems bizarre, this compartmentalisation: however much the museum seems to want to be discrete from them, these front-of-house agency workers are the first and often only point of human contact for visitors. In the eyes of the casual public, they are the museum. The visitor experience is already compromised on a practical level: why not alleviate this by at least making sure the remaining staff are happy, knowledgeable, and proud of their job? This world-class museum should be a welcoming, stimulating and impressive place to visit: in times of terrible cuts, when so much is lost, its remaining workforce is its greatest resource. It breaks my heart to see this go unrecognised.

For myself? I was immobilised for a long time. I’d ‘followed the signs into the paper bag’, as an ex-colleague of mine described it in her beautifully accurate blog post, Teach Us to Sit Still, and I simply couldn’t go any further. I stopped applying for other jobs – couldn’t believe they would want me – and eventually threw myself back into writing because I did not know what would happen if I couldn’t find something about myself to take pride in. It seems very sad that I and many talented others were creative in defiance of our workplace rather than in partnership with it: this energy of ours, when we could sustain it, went away from the museum when it could have gone back into it.

All I propose is that the big museums in this country cease to see their their front-of-house staff as expendable automata. They are an asset. Hire young people for their enthusiasm and knowledge – they are not too proud to do this job, believe me – and cultivate them rather than alienate them, make them feel that they are part of their museum’s community rather than trapped in a departmental bubble. Help them forge connections with back-of-house departments so they can demonstrate the fact that they are not morons. Make it easier for them to volunteer and they will volunteer, they have paid tens of thousands for their education and they are desperate to learn and to help. My generation accepts working for free as a fact of life, but there’s little motivation to do this when our sense of self-worth is systematically ground down every day. The future of the British Museum depends on a dedicated, confident workforce who truly believe in its aims and who want to help make it even better – and yet every day that very workforce becomes more and more disenfranchised. I simply don’t believe that this is the way forward. We deserve better and we can do better.

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