Lindsey Breaks, international exhibitions
International museum loans are important for making money for the heritage industry. Lindsey Breaks explains the work that goes into organising international exhibitions and how she got started.
What is your home town?
My home town is Maidenhead. I have lived in central London since 2006.
And your job title?
I’m the Project Co-ordinator for International Travelling Exhibitions at The British Museum.
What qualifications did you do?
I did A levels in Classical Civilisation, English Literature, Theatre Studies and General Studies.
Classical Civilisation was my favourite A Level and I wanted to continue studying history. I went to the University of Birmingham and studied BA Ancient History.
How did you get started in heritage?
I came out of University but I wasn't sure how to get a job. As I loved history and visiting museums, I contacted my nearest museum – Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – to see if there were any jobs or volunteer opportunities.
They said they needed a volunteer on Tuesday each week to work with a curator, documenting the Social History collection. For financial support, I took a job in a bank, working in customer service. The flexible shifts meant I could work for four days and volunteer one day a week.
"I built up skills in object handling and storage, conservation, loans management and creating displays."
Tuesday became my favourite day of the week. There was a collection register database, and the records needed to be created from scratch or corrected.
As I audited the collection, I had to fill out the location of the items, attach images and write descriptions for each piece.
This was great fun. I got to work in the archive stores on my laptop, and sit next to interesting artefacts. The collection was so big – from old war letters to old television sets – and I would work with up to 50 items in a day.
What previous jobs did you do?
After volunteering for six months, I was offered a one year contract job with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery as a Collections Care Assistant. This position worked in a team that packed and unpacked objects safely into correct storage areas. I knew the right people and was there at the right time. I wouldn't have got the position if I had not volunteered first.
"The best thing is when you get to handle objects and see beautiful items up close."
I joined the Collection Care team, working under the Head Conservator, working with different collections.
The best for me was working with the Ancient Egypt collection – I got to look after a mummy's head! I also worked with ancient weapons, jewellery and renaissance metal work.
My contract ended after a year and I joined the British Museum as a Museum Assistant. For five years, I worked in the Pre-history and Europe department, which had the earliest man-made tools in their collection.
I built up skills in object handling and storage, conservation, loans management and creating displays. During this time, I was also temporary Team Leader for six months, where I managed a team of eight museum assistants on top of my existing tasks.
In 2011, I applied for Project Co-ordinator for International Travelling Exhibitions on a six month secondment – which means I still had my old job to return to afterwards – and this was extended twice.
What tasks so you do in your job?
My job co-ordinates the loans of special exhibitions that go to other venues around the world. My team packs, accompanies and installs the exhibition items at the venue. My tasks include:
- Co-ordinating the practicalities of the loans by email and meetings,
- Working with different departments such as Asia, Greek and Roman, Prints and Drawings,
- Communicating with international curators, registrars, conservators and designers,
- Working with shipping agents to make sure the loans can reach the destination,
- And getting involved in the practical installation.
Travelling exhibitions are a good way of allowing our objects to be seen and enjoyed worldwide. It is also a commercial way of raising money for the museum.
It requires flexibility. My longest journey was to the United States. After going through airport checks, loading and unloading the items took six hours. Added to a ten hour flight and an eight hour drive, we had no sleep for 32 hours!
What's the best thing about your job?
The best thing is when you get to handle objects and see beautiful items up close. It takes a lot of trust and training to get to handle the objects, so I feel very privileged.
I get to travel as part of my job. The international travel is a big perk. You get to meet other museum staff, learn new things and visit the exhibition for free.
What's the worst thing about your job?
There are times when change is hard, as the old processes take too long. But the museum staff has a number of young people, so the mix in ages is making the museum more progressive.
Also, the salaries in museums and heritage are usually quite low.
What tips can you give?
To enter into heritage, there are five things you should remember:
1. It is a vast sector so you need to be open to trying new things
The tasks vary across roles, so you need to think quite hard about what you're most interested in. Think about what skills you are good at – in my role, you have to be practical and attentive to detail – and try to figure out how to get there. Somebody has to do that job, so why not you?
You also need to be willing to sift through emails, handle fragile objects and maintain good relationships. There is no course to prepare you for all of that – it's best if you just take every opportunity.
2. Experience is needed to get an entry job or a volunteer position
If you are interested in a particular area, such as Medieval England, it may be useful to look at academic talks or seminars. These explore the subjects further and may also give you ideas on who to contact about volunteering opportunities.
3. Get online and see what opportunities exist
The Guardian Jobs site has an arts and heritage section, and the Museum Jobs website is useful. For most places, you can apply directly through the website. It's handy to have a CV ready for sending out at short notice – some places ask for it in place of an application form.
Be aware that it is rare to find permanent full-time positions. If there is a contract position, you could go for it and see where it goes.
4. Persistence is a good value to hold
Be persistent and never underestimate the importance of getting to know as many people as possible. You never know when the people you meet may be able to help you out.
5. Stick at it
Be prepared to not get success immediately. You may have to put yourself out, maybe doing extra work or working late. But if you don’t take opportunities, someone else will!
Volunteering really does work. I have had the pleasure of seeing some of my past volunteers go on to beat competition and get great museum jobs.
Why is heritage important?
Heritage gives you a sense of your background and what this means to your life.
"Travelling exhibitions are a good way of allowing our objects to be seen and enjoyed worldwide."
Britain, for example, is a beautiful country, and the ancient sites, beautiful buildings and historic artefacts reminds us of our history.
They will never be built or recreated the same way again. If we lose them know, we will never have that part of history back.
It has always been the policy of the British Museum to allow objects to be viewed for free. There really is something here for everybody. I think it's the greatest place in the world.
Lindsey is part of our heritage experts panel. Ask Lindsey a question about working in heritage.