Alex Whelan, museum project officer

 19 April 2015

Alex Whelan works as a project officer for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. He talked to us about what this heritage career involves, and why doing a paid internship was such a crucial step in helping him into the cultural sector.

"If you want to work in a museum or gallery, get out there and visit one, talk to the staff, maybe even go home and start a blog."

What job do you do?

I work at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums as a project officer, where I run a project called Culture Track.  

Culture Track helps people aged 16-25 who are out of education, employment and training to find a supported volunteering placement with us across our museums and galleries. 

What does an average day look like?

Every day is different. Some days I can be out across our nine venues, visiting volunteers who have already secured a placement with us.

Or I can be in the office, trying to recruit new volunteers and speaking to staff across departments to find that rewarding placement that can benefit the volunteer.

What did you do before this?

I was previously doing a Creative Employment Programme paid internship at The Customs House, a mixed arts centre in South Shields. I wouldn't be in this job without having done the internship first. 

The internship role was to help create and support the development of a film project for young people living in the local area. One month into it, Custom Reels was born.

My internship taught me thing things university couldn't, like how to write a funding bid.

The project Custom Reels gives 13-19 year olds in South Tyneside the opportunity to explore and create cinema through free screenings and a film-making group, who meet once a week.

Through the internship I was able to work with a group of creative young people who had a passion to make things happen, and work with funders who backed the belief of the young people involved. We raised over £12,000 for the project within the first six months.  

The best thing about it was being trusted by The Customs House to work on the project. It taught me things university couldn't, like how to write a funding bid, or how to organise a trip to The National Media Museum for 45 young people.

What did you get out of your internship?

If it wasn't for the internship and the freedom that The Customs House gave me, I really don't think I would have been successful in securing my job at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. 

And most certainly, I wouldn't have the confidence in myself to run arts and heritage projects with young people.

I'd recommend any unemployed young person to jump at the chance of a Creative Employment Programme role. I'd also encourage any employer to invest in a paid internship.

What's the best thing about your job?

A chance conversation could open doors to opportunities you might not have even known existed.

The best thing about my job is meeting and working with young people who often face barriers when it comes to employment.

From the initial conversation about what a volunteering placement could offer, to them receiving a name badge that welcomes them to our team, it's a very nice thing to see and a rewarding feeling.

It's great when young people who really have an interest in the arts, heritage and culture can get out there and get stuck in.

What's the worst thing about your job?

I spend hours trying to secure volunteering placements for other people. Whether that's helping restore old locomotives at Stephenson Railway Museum, or helping at a dig site at Arbeia Roman Fort. But I never really get the chance to get out there and get my hands dirty as much as I'd like.

It is great though when you catch up with a volunteer and you hear from them how much practical, hands-on work experience they've gained and how they can apply it to their own search for work. 

What do you want to do next?

The Culture Track programme is a three-year project. Who knows where I'll be after the project ends?

However, I would eventually like to head back to university and complete a masters in Museums or Cultural Management.

How do I get into heritage?

1. I would say to volunteer

I got my first paid work when I was 16 through a volunteer placement and ended up there for five years. So many people underestimate the impact a volunteering opportunity can have on your social life and employability skills.

You might be under the illusion that there are few jobs in arts, culture and museums, but if you look in the right places you'll find one.

2. Realise that the jobs are there

You might be under the illusion there's not many jobs going in arts, culture and museums, but if you look in the right places you'll find one.

3. Speak to people

If you get the chance to network, go for it. I know it can be daunting – we all hate stepping out of our comfort zones – but you never know who you might be talking to.

A chance conversation could open doors to opportunities you might not have even known existed. If you want to work in a museum or gallery, get out there and visit one, talk to the staff, maybe even go home and start a blog – it's all about creating your own opportunities.


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