Over the past six months I have been fortunate enough to have a role at National Museums Liverpool through the Kickstart scheme – working as an Editorial Assistant in the digital department. The scheme – aimed to assist 16-24 year olds at risk of long-term unemployment – came at a time when the UK’s arts and culture sector had become crippled by the economic downturn induced by the COVID-19 crisis. With government-funding through the Culture Recovery Fund and the Kickstart scheme, NML was in a position to appoint several Kickstarters across its organisation in a diverse range of areas. These included graphic design, marketing, archives, archaeology, learning and exhibitions.
As part of the Kickstart placement we were invited to the Museum’s Association conference at ACC Liverpool in November, where we attended a wide array of talks. One of these, entitled 'The Classless Museum', was hosted by the Museum as Muck organisation, which forms a support network for working-class people in the museum sector. The talk addressed socio-economic diversity within the cultural and creative sector and confronted numerous barriers for entry into the museum sector specifically.
Jess Hornby, who recently completed her Kickstart placement as a Community Archaeology Trainee at NML, reflects on this theme:
‘There’s an outdated expectation in our sector that voluntary experience is essential for paid roles - an expectation that’s classist and exclusionary. As a working-class woman, taking on multiple volunteer roles over the years has been financially and mentally challenging. I feel incredibly lucky to have had a paid placement in a museum and I’m so grateful for all the advice and support that my colleagues in the archaeology department have given me. As lucky as I am, how many working-class people in the museum sector have been forced to change career paths when faced with the expectation of mandatory voluntary experience? We must diversify and open the doors through paid placements, rather than making voluntary experiences a requirement.’
The talk also raised the idea of the culture and arts sector having a responsibility to nurture their own homegrown talent. The argument was that this could help to counteract the high prevalence of entry-level roles across such sectors, that consist of unpaid internships, voluntary, freelance, casual or short-term contracts. Ruben Doyle, another Kickstarter who has served as a Historic Photographs Assistant at the Maritime Museum, links the theme of homegrown talent with the Kickstart scheme:
‘I have mainly worked on the Stewart Bale collection and seeing the progress we have made has been really rewarding. The opportunity to work on a project like this has certainly boosted my CV, but beyond this, I think Kickstart has also been beneficial for museums - helping advance projects, which a lack of time has halted. In short, I gain experience, but museums gain momentum! True entry level positions in heritage have long been like gold dust, and in the wake of Covid-fuelled Kickstart, I hope that taking on young people like us has made museums think about changing this and growing their own talent.’
Most of the Kickstarters I have spoken to did not have prior paid experience in the arts and culture sector before undertaking their placement. Yet, many also belonged to a growing number of young people who find themselves in a position where their university qualifications do not offer secure employment – not least in a field even remotely resembling the one they studied in.
Therefore, the Kickstart scheme could alternatively serve as a positive model of a government retraining/reskilling scheme in the arts and culture sector - as opposed to the widely controversial government-issued ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’ poster from last year which was widely perceived as expressing indifference to the hardships facing the sector.
Natalie Sutcliffe, who worked as a Community Archaeology Trainee as part of Kickstart, explains how the scheme has helped her launch a career in museums:
‘Before starting in this six-month Kickstart position, I was unemployed for around a year, struggling to find work in the midst of the pandemic. This opportunity came as a lifeline to me. I have always had an interest in museums and to get the opportunity to work at the heart of the archaeology department has been a surreal experience. I had the chance to work for three months on an archaeological site, learn the ins and outs of recording the trenches and finds, worked with over 40 volunteers, and spoke to over 3000 members of the public. I am excited to move onto the next stage of my journey, which thanks to this role, is still within museums.’
Megan Ashworth, who worked as the Kickstart Archive Assistant at Maritime Museum, did not have paid experience in working with archives before the placement, but told me how rewarding the experience has been for her:
‘I have gained extensive practical experience in both collections management and running a public enquiry desk. I have learnt a lot about the world of archives from my colleagues, online courses and days spent visiting other archive and records management departments in the city. Aside from my everyday duties in the search room, I was given the opportunity to work on a project independently which involved curating a museum showcase with an attached blog post which I thoroughly enjoyed. During a short placement I have worked on a variety of tasks and have been able to develop essential knowledge and skills which are required before applying to a master’s course in Archives and Records Management.’
Overall, the Kickstart Scheme has been a mutually enriching experience for the Kickstarters themselves and the departments they’ve been working in across NML. Whilst not perfect, the Kickstart scheme can serve as a good stepping-stone for inclusive practice in the arts, culture and heritage sector. Through cultivating homegrown talent, the doors are opened to a diverse pool of people, which benefits everybody. To quote Museum as Muck’s manifesto: Without a representative workforce, how can your museum serve its community?