I’m starting this blog as I get ready to start a new job as Director of Museums at the University of St Andrews. In between working out the logistics of shipping my belongings across the Atlantic, and thinking about where to live, the move is prompting me to think a little about how I got to the point of taking up this extraordinary opportunity, and to reflect a little on museum careers.
I hadn’t always planned to work in museums – or even to study a humanities subject – but a change of subject (from mathematics to history and philosophy of science) at university prompted a rethink. I was lucky enough to do a two-year traineeship at the Science Museum, London, before going back to university to do a PhD in the history of science. After that, I worked with numismatic collections as a curator in the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, and set up and ran a collaborative project on money in Africa. From there, I became Head of Asian and African Collections at the British Library, and then Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs (Chief Curator) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which is the job I’ll shortly be leaving to move to St Andrews.
Looking at this career path one way, it’s been a kind of zig-zag. After I’d participated in a Clore Leadership Intensive (formerly Short Course) in 2011, I decided that I would aim for leadership roles, and moving between institutions has meant that I have been able to rapidly progress in my career. Being flexible about what the next move might look like has opened up opportunities that might not have been open to me had I been more narrowly focussed.
It hasn’t been random, though, and the more I reflect on my career path so far, the more clearly I can see the pattern. In each new job I’ve taken, I looked for two things: an interesting challenge that I was well-fitted for, and an opportunity I could learn from. Now, when looking at potential jobs I might apply for, I identify what the challenge is and think about my skills in relation to it. I’m not talking here about ticking off everything on the list of essential and desirable requirements, but something more akin to asking myself whether I could make a difference, whether I would enjoy working to tackle the challenge, and how what I’ve done in the past equips me for this as a possible next move. The learning part is just as important, as I’ve realised that I’m happiest and most motivated when I’m developing my skills and knowledge, learning from the people I work with and from the things I’m doing.
Being part of the Getty Leadership Institute’s 2018 cohort helped clarify that I did want my next job to be a directorship, and a year on, I’m about to start making that plan a reality. Any new museum director has much to learn – the first few months are sometimes characterised as drinking from a fire hose. But I won’t be doing that in a quiet period, since there is already an exciting project under way to extend the Museum of the University of St Andrews and reimagine its exhibitions and programmes. To reflect on what I’m sure will be a busy time, I’ll be writing something each month about my experience getting started as Director of Museums, and thinking about museums and leadership along the way, too.