Mike Benson, museum director

 11 March 2013

Starting his career in the steel works, Mike Benson shares his journey into heritage management and gives his top 5 tips for becoming a director.

Mike Benson's job as Director includes making sure everyone is working to their full capacity. Image: Mike Benson, Bede's World.
Mike Benson's job as Director includes making sure everyone is working to their full capacity. Image: Mike Benson, Bede's World.

What is your profession?

I’m director of Bede’s World, a museum in Jarrow. We tell the life of Bede and the story of the ‘Golden Age’ of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

Home town?

I live in Middlesbrough. And yes, I do support Middlesbrough Football Club.

How did you get started in heritage?

I spent 28 years working in Teesside steel works and, during that time, I was frustrated by the lack of any meaningful heritage in the area. So a group of us set up our own group called 'Iron Awe' and we began working in a local museums, schools, old folks homes and so on.

We knew we were doing a good job when we started to win awards for our work. From there, I was invited to apply to the Ryedale Folk museum for the role of director. 

I started in the steel works at the age of 16, and left there to go straight into the museum at the age of 47. I came to Bede’s World in 2011 and the rest is history.

What do you do at work?

Folks ask me what I do for a living and I tell them “I get out of bed and I never know what's going to happen”.

Working in heritage is like flying a space ship - you don’t know what’s going to happen or who you’re going to pass. You always have the meetings in the diary, but really every day is different.

"If we ignore heritage, then we lose what makes us human."

For example, in a single morning, I will meet with staff. We are becoming a hub for adult learning, so I’ll also meet with the council. I always go round and say hello to everyone. I meet new volunteers and the builders that are working on our site. And that is just one morning!

My job is generally about taking away barriers, making everything work and making sure everyone is able to be brilliant at what they do.

What is the best thing about your job?

For me, the best thing is being able to enable people to come and celebrate who they are. Allowing other people to come and celebrate with them, and using the collections as the powerhouse for that. It makes the job special. Everyone has a sense of pride, from the cleaner to the curator, and we all understand that what we do is really important.

From a career point of view, we’re undergoing a huge change to our museum work. We learn so much in this fantastic environment.

It’s a privilege to come to work, to work alongside the people here and be involved in that kind of place. I feel really happy and it's a great environment for people to enter into.

What is the worst thing about your job?

There aren’t enough hours in the day. You always feel you can do more.

"Be prepared to work hard and think hard."

Meeting expectations of so many people — staff, partners, people coming to see you — my job as boss is to give people every opportunity they can have, to do what they do well. There is always frustration, as there is always more you can do.

What does heritage mean to you?

It means to be rooted. If you moved into a new area, you should have an understanding of it. It’s an important part of what I think makes us human and what brings out the best of us.

The past goes on and on, but it is part of our DNA and humanity. If we ignore heritage, then we lose that special part of what makes us human.

What is going on at Bede’s World?

There are loads of things going on. We’re doing better with schools, getting new exhibitions, talking to museums about borrowing collections, but it boils down to mainly about how we think and work.

"Working here in heritage is like flying a space ship - you don’t know what’s going to happen."

There are museums following the trends, emphasising the venues for hire and trying to do too much. Sometimes they forget about how to be a museum. We might need to forget the latest fad. It’s like how people keep going to a good pub, or a good fish and chip shop — we need to be a good museum.

How do I get into heritage?

There are five key things that you should know if you want to enter heritage:

1. Get to know the museum

I always say to interested people: ‘come and get to know the museum’. Everyone says you have to volunteer to get into this industry, I would say try to get involved. For example, the community radio station is run by volunteers. There are always ways to help, in whatever your interest. It’s important to enjoy what you’re good at.

2. Be open to learning and different ways of working

Quite a few people think that when they enter into a museum, they have to act a certain way. Be yourself. If you’re a bit cheeky or a bit loud, that’s fine. Don’t try and conform to what you think a museum employee should be. As boss, I like to know what a person is like. That’s what makes you powerful.

3. Be prepared to work hard

It’s not an easy option. Be prepared to work hard and think hard. Be open to ideas and always keep learning

4. Take advantage of the opportunity

The museums are yours to grow your career within. You have a right to be there. You see young people doing photocopying, and that’s part of pitching in and being part of a team. But you will as a young person have new ideas and ways of thinking. Make sure you also get to make your mark. In a good museum, the emphasis is on making you a valuable part of the team.

5. Do what you enjoy

Have a love of heritage and history. More importantly have the heart, humbleness and imagination to strive to understand and see heritage and history through the eyes of the folk you are there to serve.


Mike is part of our heritage experts panel. Ask Mike a question about working in heritage.

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