4 tips for heritage education

 18 February 2013

What is it like to work in a museum, planning the programme of activities, talks and educational events? Julia Kirby, Learning Manager for Birmingham Museums Trust, shared four pieces of advice for getting into heritage education.

Julia's work as Learning Manager helps Birmingham Museums deliver a programme of learning activities for a range of ages.
Julia's work as Learning Manager helps Birmingham Museums deliver a programme of learning activities for a range of ages.

Getting into heritage education

Julia started out working part-time as a temporary ‘front of house enabler’ at the Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry.

Learning managers need to see the potential of a collection to inspire and teach others.

"I had no museum experience. I just saw a job I liked the look of and applied for it!

"Over time I progressed through the organisation, which is now called the Birmingham Museums Trust."

Birmingham Museums is now the largest museums trust in the country, consisting of a range of sites, including the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Thinktank Science Museum.

Working as a Learning Manager

A Learning Manager, otherwise known as an Education Manager, works within a museum, gallery, or heritage site, to open up their collections as a resource for learning.

They need to see the potential of their collections to inspire and teach others, and they should deliver programmes designed to encourage participation and interest.

This often includes putting together workshops, talks or classes. These can be aimed at regular visitors to the collections, and at those who might not normally engage with the museum or gallery, such as young people on a school trip.

The role may involve liaising with schools and colleges to promote the use of the gallery's collections and resources in a learning environment.

"Learning Managers also have an active part in marketing activity. I always have to make sure that my events programmes align with the museum’s overall development strategy and budgets."

Delivering an activity programme

Julia leads the team responsible for schools engagement programmes across eight of the Trust’s sites. She also manages all of the public programmes at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and a team of education staff.

“A typical day might start with a management update with one of my formal learning team – we talk about how school bookings are going at their site, about new sessions they are devising, resources they would like to buy, or teacher inset days they are organising. 

"Securing funding is now all about partnerships – we’ve got to see how we can work with other arts organisations."

"I might then have a planning meeting with one of the informal learning team, looking at our programmes for a forthcoming exhibition or school holiday. Or I might attend an exhibitions committee meeting or a cross-site learning meeting.

“I spend time communicating with potential partners, setting up future projects. We are always looking ahead to next month, next year – but at the same time delivering programmes for this weekend and next week.

"Events like debates or evening talks are usually the area I organise most, with my team dealing more with the family programmes.

"I have to allow time to monitor budgets, making sure we are spending but not overspending! This can take up a lot of my time."

Challenges for the heritage sector

"More generally, looking after the money is one of the biggest challenges – how can we secure the funding we need when there is less money to go round?

"As organisations, we need to be really aware of what our funders want from us.

"I feel that it's all about partnerships now – we’ve got to look to what other arts organisations in the area are doing, and see how we can work with them to the best advantage for us both.”

4 tips for getting into heritage education

1) Do your research

Interviewers will be looking for evidence of knowledge. What programmes have worked well in the past? What kind of audiences they are seeking to attract? 

"I usually need new staff to hit the ground running, because there will be a lot of immediate challenges to take on."

2) Experience is crucial 

"To anyone looking to work in the sector, I would say get as much experience as you can through internships, volunteering, or shadowing.

"It doesn't matter how qualified someone is if it's clear they don't have a lot of experience."

3) Learn from everything you do

If you want to design resources to educate others, you should be able to demonstrate a clear idea of how your own knowledge is affected by the things you see and do.

"Although I have attended lots of short courses relating to management skills during my career, I’ve not needed specific training, such as heritage or museums qualifications. 

"My learning has been through my work, day to day."

4) Be flexible

Many people who want to work in the heritage sector don’t have a specific job role in mind when they start out.

"Be prepared to move around, and be flexible with your job choices. You’ll only learn from new experiences."

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