In 2016 I met Ngaire Blankenberg, European Director and Principal Consultant at Lord Cultural Resources; Co-Founder of the Museum of AIDS in Africa; Co-author of Cities, Museums and Soft Power and an all-round inspirational human with a voice which needs to be heard.
Have you always wanted to work within the arts and with museums?
No, – it was a total accident! My first degree was in journalism and then I worked for 12 years in television as a videographer, producer, scriptwriter and director initially in Canada and then in South Africa. My first real job was as a poster child for Canada- when I was still a university student, I got a job as a videographer for a TV show called Road Movies, which sent 8 ‘kids’; around the country for almost a year to show Canada to itself for it’s 125th birthday. After that I started an NGO in Toronto called ‘exploring youth experience with video’ (e.y.e. video) giving young people a voice through video. I always thought I could change the world using video.
I moved to South Africa in the mid-1990s to study a Masters degree in Media and Cultural Studies. Although I grew up in Canada, my father is South African and I wanted to be part of the big social changes there after the end of apartheid. Being a student there was amazing, but I ended up moving back to Canada after my degree because I needed dental surgery – nothing like public health! After I decided to move back, I also found out that I was pregnant so I never did get that surgery. So there I was in Toronto, with my brand new Masters degree and a great CV, getting bigger by the day and trying to hide my pregnancy in order to find a job. I was living in my friend’s loft, and had to haul my pregnant self up a ladder every night to get to bed. It was so depressing! It took me 6 months before I finally found a job as a lecturer at a college and working for a foundation. I worked right up until the day before I had my daughter. When she was 5 days old, I got offered a one year contract for a job in television in Johannesburg. I ended up moving back there with a six week old baby and started working 2 weeks later- hiding in a back room to pump my milk so I could keep breast-feeding.
I worked in TV for years after that. I loved working in edutainment television but I was producing daily TV and had two small children (I had another one during that period) and I was going nuts! During this period the production company I worked at, won a big contract to develop the exhibitions for Constitution Hill – a heritage site and museum at the new Constitutional Courts in Johannesburg. This lead to a number of projects planning and implementing museum exhibitions which were mostly looking to tell the stories of the South African revolution. After years in South Africa working in television and museums, I joined Lord Cultural Resources and moved to their head office in Toronto.
I thought moving into a career in museums was a super sexy career move. I thought compared to the superficiality of television, museum people were so much more profound. But after attending my first museum conference I found that actually TV was much sexier and I felt that I had lost out. I initially did not have a passion for museums. I didn’t study deep art history or archaeology or anything like that – I saw museums as a means to an end – to telling hidden stories and changing the world.
What advice can you give to people who want to work in museums but don’t know what type of qualifications they may need?
My first question would be why do you want to work in museums. Not that you shouldn’t but you need to ask yourself why. Keep your eye on the prize – there are so many paths to getting to where you want to go. My advice is different depending on what you want to do. If you want to be a curator then you should go and learn about the subject you want to curate; do all the personal and shared projects you can first. Learn the skills of putting together an exhibition, negotiating with an artist, hiring a venue, figuring out contracts – just do it and figure out what is involved in it. The same thing applies to working in education. Or in collections management. You learn by feeling and doing much more than just wishing.
I don’t want to say don’t do a museum studies course because as long as you are learning in some way that is good for the world. Be a T-shaped person with a certain amount of breadth and good depth. Learn something well, speak another language properly, get some level of deep knowledge.
As an employer I would want you to tell me what you can do for me, not what I can do for you.. Show me your blogs, the videos you’ve made, the events you’ve organised, even the translations you’ve provided. Show me anything you have done off your own initiative. I like people who can solve my problems. People who can set up a meeting properly or who can recognise something is missing and correct it without being told to are brilliant. Having enough flipchart paper and pens is actually a really important thing!
I also think you should be able to recognize and sell your skills- even if you acquired them ‘non-traditionally’.. My children have been with me for my entire career in media, arts, culture and heritage. They are an integral part of not only my life but my identity and the skillset I have. It really irritates me when my experience as a mother is not considered to provide any skills or experience in the working world because it has been everything. I recognize those kinds of skills in others even if someone has been outside of the paid workforce – but I am probably one of the few.
What advice can you give to people who want to work for a consultancy like Lord Cultural Resources?
The skillsets required are very broad, ranging from storytelling, research, analysis, planning and, of course, languages. We always need people with more than one language and we also always need people with particular expertise be it in science, history or art and who can provide analysis and solve problems. I am not the HR Manager of the company so I might not be the best person to give advice however I know as a Project Leader, when I have a problem I am looking for someone to solve that problem. So if someone wants to work with me, I need them to prove what they can do to help me. If someone emails me and says “hey you are doing work in Russia, do you need a Russian speaker with knowledge of XYZ”, I will often reply with “well actually yes I do”. Or an approach such as “I notice there are interesting projects around XYZ connected to new Science Centres and I have developed knowledge about exactly that” could also wield a positive reply.
Just because you want to do something doesn’t mean you are useful or helpful in solving that problem. You need to get specific skills which are needed and keep up on what those skills might be – because they nearly always change.
What barriers exist for people who want to work in museums?
My daughter calls me the dream-crusher as I always challenge this idea of blindly following your dreams. It’s important that your dreams actually have a plan behind them which can change and develop. It’s somewhat futile dreaming to be a record producer in the age of digital… Also, there are some real structural problems in the world which people, especially women need to be aware of. Some careers are better for families and for women than others. Unfortunately we currently have extremely intelligent people working in the arts and cultural fields with PHDs and years of experience but can be earning as little as £20,000 a year. The museum world is similar to academia – high qualification and insecure, low paid jobs with only some exceptions in the bigger, state run, museums. Most of these low paid jobs are occupied by women. My fear is we are moving into a situation where it is only young people with no expenses, people who are independently wealthy or people married to a high earning spouse who can work in the cultural field because the salaries aren’t enough to support a family. We will lose out tremendously if this happens- because we need diverse staff from all walks of life in our museums.
I want people to think they can and should work in museums but I want people to be aware that sometimes the conditions of that career and the protection of their interests are not always particularly good and are in need of huge improvement. To work in this field you need to figure out a way to make money. You cannot assume that just because you are passionate about something, or really good at something, that you are going to earn a good living from it.
We have to figure out a way of working in the arts, heritage and cultural sector with or without the structures that have existed previously. There is a problem with the existing structures. Museums are generally still extremely conservative, risk averse places. They are not particularly innovative or entrepreneurial and they are hugely hierarchical. They can be frustrating places if you are full of revolutionary energy and ideas. At the moment, museums are still not by and large ‘cool’ places. They do not represent the transformation of our future which is somewhat ironic as this is usually in their mission statement of what they want to achieve. We need to think about the structure and redefine it by supporting projects initiated by museum staff or volunteers or members of the community that may look at doing things differently. We need to make museums better institutionally for the people who work within them. We are attracted to what museums do in the world but it doesn’t always mean they are a place to build a whole career around.
Although I feel very lucky with my job and my life I am aware that sometimes people attack the ‘cushiness’ of consultants because we can be expensive. But at the same time, we don’t always get the benefits of working in one institution. For example, I travel a lot for my job and am often required to be somewhere with only a few days notice. I am a solo parent with two children so when I am called away from my home- I have to organize for my kids to be taken care of. I have to pay someone else to look after my children or I pay for my kids to come with me- although that rarely happens as they have school and their own lives. When I go away my other job as a mother can suffer but people don’t recognise that opportunity cost as something they should pay for. It’s similar to when artists join a residency programme, they also have to look after their family, pay for their fees, pay for their healthcare, property, retirement etc. So the fees paid to the artist-in-residence should take all of this into account.
So, do you think there should be more mobility for people to work in and with museums but perhaps not for their entire career?
The context is different throughout the world so it’s hard to say categorically. Myself and a friend founded a museum called the Museum of AIDS in Africa which has been a brutal yet extremely positive experience and very beneficial to me as it has taught me how to start something and try and get funding for it. It’s been so hard and I have much more respect for my clients because of this experience.
In general we need to unlock more capital for the cultural sector- for projects, for new ways of doing things. People should be able to be employees but also cultural entrepreneurs and still live a decent life. There are options for museum careers: you can work in museums but also with museums, about museums, next to museums. Make your own museum. Or make something else that collects, preserves, educates, transforms, celebrates…
How can museums transform to support their workers?
Where museums need to transform is precisely on the level of their institutional structure and their opportunities for good employment. And it would be so great for the unions to start thinking about that. I have worked in four countries over my career and I have never been unionised. I think the notion of collective bargaining and collective rights is critical for cultural workers. The reality is there is no entity which protects every echelon of cultural workers as a whole. Cultural workers have gone through their careers thinking they don’t need representation as most of us have Masters and PhDs and are often seen as or think we are part of management rather than workers. Cultural workers are engaging in flexible working more and more which is great but there is no forum or union which protects that even though the creative economy is extremely important for our entire economy. We need a collective organisation to protect the labour of cultural workers. Call it a union, call it something else- but we deserve for our work to be valued a lot more than it is now.
Museums are becoming more and more a part of civil society. NGO workers and museum workers have more in common than previously. Museum workers are now either civil servants or NGO workers and it’s important that we are working in solidarity with NGO workers and lend our voices to the workplace issues this sector is vocal around such as equal opportunities, pay and pensions etc. People in the arts should be able to have children without relying on a wealthy partner who is not in the arts. I am a consultant because I can make more money doing this than directly working in a museum.
How transferable are the skills between the private sector and the public museums sector?
I don’t think the sectors are really that separate anymore. It’s more a question of what you really want to do because museums have lots of jobs: you can be in interpretation; conservation; business; visitor services; law; there are tonnes of different jobs. All of those jobs have specific skillsets which of course are transferable from and to other jobs. I got into museums because I was good at storytelling from my time working in television. My skills were completely transferable for interpretation, education and entertainment. For example I knew how to transform a curriculum into a compelling experience which is very good for a learning programme in a museum.
I am a museum consultant, so I don’t work within the museums I work with them and for that it’s a skillset of analysing and trying to solve problems and those skills are absolutely transferable to the rest of the working world. One of my biggest challenges when I work with interns is to get them to look around, think and do a proper analysis. What you find with museum jobs which traditionally require a fair amount of academic studies and with the continued professionalisation of the sector is that museum professionals are often worried about thinking on their own because of the concern of working in the correct way and paying too much attention to what has been done before. Museums exist in the present day and need to react to dynamic audiences. You need to keep on your toes and think about what you are doing and ask yourself whether it makes sense to you and will it make sense to other people.
Click here to watch Ngaire’s TEDx talk in Hamburg about how to activate soft power in museums.