Museum Visitor Services Assistant

The Job and What's Involved

Visitor services assistants in museums and art galleries combine customer service, which is the main focus of the job, with the care and security of museum artifacts and exhibits.

A wide range of museums exist throughout the UK, from small, local and family collections to large, interactive visitor attractions.

Duties vary with museum size, but may include:

  • Welcoming visitors to the museum at the entry desk or ticket office.
  • Issuing tickets and guides.
  • Giving tours to individuals or groups from societies and schools.
  • Showing visitors how to use touch screens and other interactive equipment.
  • Organising and helping to promote special educational events and seasonal activities.
  • Providing information and answering questions, referring queries to the curator or specialist member of staff when appropriate.
  • Supervising the behaviour of visitors and cautioning any who break the rules.
  • Selling publications and souvenirs from the museum or gallery shop.
  • General administration tasks, such as bookings, answering e-mails, letters and telephone calls.
  • Lifting and carefully transporting fragile, valuable, sometimes heavy artifacts.
  • Helping to maintain a clean and tidy visitor area.

Some visitor services assistants, under supervision, may help senior staff with the packing and unpacking of artifacts and the setting up of displays.

Working hours depend on the opening hours of museums and galleries. Many are open at weekends and on bank holidays. Most full-time visitor services assistants work on a rota basis. There may be occasional evening work. Part-time or seasonal work is widely available.

Work is usually indoors, although there are some open-air museums. The job can involve standing for long durations and walking around different areas of the museum. It may include lifting and carrying exhibits.

Uniforms, if worn, are provided. Some themed museums expect their staff to dress in period costume (provided).
Some museums are quiet and calm, while others, particularly those with interactive exhibits or sound and video displays, can be noisy.

Starting salaries often range from £15,000 to £16,500 a year.
After two or three years' experience, visitor services assistants may earn £17,000 to £20,000 a year.

Those with considerable experience, including managing a department or staff, may earn up to £29,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are around 2,500 museums and art galleries throughout the UK. On average, about half of all staff work in visitor services. Some small independent museums and galleries rely also on unpaid volunteers. The number of jobs has remained relatively stable in recent years, but the expected local authority cutbacks resulting from the recession may have an adverse effect on future opportunities.

Employers include:

  • National museums and galleries, such as the National Gallery, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, which receive a large proportion of their income from central government.
  • Regional and local museums and galleries, receiving funding from local authorities.
  • Independent organisations, including registered charities, which are self-funded. These range from small volunteer-run establishments to company-sponsored museums.
  • Universities, a number of which house special collections for public and private viewing in their museums and galleries.

Vacancies are usually advertised in local newspapers. They sometimes appear in the Museums Association's Museums Journal and on the internet.

Competition for entry- level jobs in some museums can be quite intense. Volunteering is often the route in for many.

Education and Training

There are no set academic qualifications required to work as a visitor services assistant in a museum or gallery. Employers generally want people showing enthusiasm and passion for a particular museum or gallery collection. However, some larger museums and galleries ask for at least four GCSE's (A*-E) or equivalent qualifications. Specific subjects like English or history may be useful in some jobs. It may also be helpful to have a qualification in tourism.

Previous experience of working with the public is very valuable. Some voluntary experience in a museum, gallery or historic site, such as a castle or National Trust property, can be useful too. The Museums Association (MA) provides details and tips on volunteering on their website career pages. It is also worth contacting local museums or galleries, as many of them require volunteers.

The Diploma in creative and media may be relevant to this area of work.

Visitor services assistants will often work or come into contact with children or vulnerable adults, so would need to undergo checks through the Criminal Records Bureau.

It may be possible to enter front-of-house administrative and assistant jobs via the Creative Apprenticeships framework. This new Apprenticeship scheme offers a specific pathway in cultural and heritage venue operations. See the Creative & Cultural Skills website (www.creative-choices.co.uk) for details about training and entry requirements.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Visitor services assistants are usually trained on the job by more experienced staff. During an induction they will learn about the museum or gallery collection and general working procedures. Training also covers security issues and emergency procedures.

As part of their training or Apprenticeship programme, they may undertake work- based qualifications, including:

  • NVQ Level 2 in museums, galleries and heritage (heritage care and visitor services).
  • NVQ Level 3 in cultural heritage operations.

Short courses and professional development schemes may also be available to museum staff through the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and the MA.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A museum visitor services assistant should be:

  • Outgoing, polite and friendly.
  • Honest, responsible and reliable.
  • Able to work on their own initiative.
  • Observant and assertive if necessary.
  • Firm and steady if handling artifacts.
  • Able to follow and direct emergency procedures.

Your Long Term Prospects

Progression opportunities may be fewer in small museums and galleries. In larger museums and galleries, there may be opportunities for promotion to senior visitor services assistant or educational posts. Some larger services also have a visitor services manager or a head or assistant director of customer services.

Some people use a museum visitor services assistant post as an opportunity to progress into marketing, technician or educational roles. As part of their development, they may undertake higher-level qualifications, such as a foundation degree in tourism (heritage and culture), which could lead to gaining a degree in this subject area after studying a one-year 'top-up' course.

The MA also runs a membership programme, the Associateship of the Museums Association (AMA) that acknowledges the experience, qualifications and commitment of museum workers. AMA is open to all museum staff, whether full or part time, paid or unpaid. It takes two years to achieve and participants have to commit to 70 hours of continuing professional development (CPD) over at least two years.

Get Further Information

Association of Independent Museums (AIM)
Website: www.aim-museums.co.uk

Creative & Cultural Skills, Lafone House,
The Leathermarket, Weston Street,
London SE1 3HN
Tel: 020 7015 1800
Website: www.ccskills.org.uk

Museums Association (MA),
24 Calvin Street, London E1 6NW
Tel: 020 7426 6910
Website: www.museumsassociation.org

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