Investing in People

Simon C. Roodhouse
Vol. 1, No. 2 October, 1993

(Editor's note: The development by Great Britain's Museum Training Institute, under the leadership of Simon Roodhouse, of vocational qualifications for museum work is a new and ground breaking idea in the museum world. The recognized need for vocational training in museums acknowledges that museum work represents a broad spectrum of abilities. Museum employees must use more than academic training in a particular discipline to be fully functional and responsive to the needs of their community. The need for vocational training (and re-training) also responds to the life-long learning commitment which museum workers share. We, who are in the business of helping our communities learn about themselves, each other, the world and beyond, need to continually be learning ourselves. Structuring the qualifications that are necessary for the kind of work museums do is a monumental task but one which the Museum Training Institute is addressing. One of the unique aspects of the Institute's work is that it is the first time curricula for museum training has originated from within the workplace as opposed to the classroom.)

Investing in people is a worthy sentiment and one no doubt we all support but how often is it practiced in the museum world? Training is of course regularly discussed at conferences, seminars as well as meetings and referred to in reports. In such circumstances training is perceived to be a means of improving performance or a mechanism for introducing new procedures and practices. Not surprisingly, it is sometimes used to treat deficiencies, somewhat akin to first aid. Training has on occasions been seen as a remedy for an organizational or individual illness: the training-is-good-for-you syndrome. Rarely do we consider training in the context of life long learning and development linked to achieving a sustained improvement in the performance of both the museum and the individual.

Another indicator of our attitude to training is inevitably associated with money. Ask museum directors how much they spend annually on the training of all their staff, including volunteers, and it sometimes leads to an embarrassed silence or a long and familiar explanation of the priorities concerned with museum work such as repairing the fabric of the building, improving storage facilities, conserving objects, research or producing new displays and exhibitions to increase visitor numbers, with an inevitable declining resource base! Of course these activities are important but we know that when the financial chips are down training and development of museum personnel at all levels tends to be one of the first casualties in the battle to reduce costs. British museums and galleries spend an average of œ91 per year per employee in formal training for their staff. This averages out at just over one percent of their total personnel budget although more is spent by national museums.

Under these circumstances training is perceived as a fair weather friend and yet it remains the essential tool to enable museums to successfully and consistently fulfill their public service mission. It is the lubricant that keeps the museum engine, its staff, working efficiently.

Museum personnel are a critically important asset and represent in most cases the biggest single item of expenditure in any museum budget. Yet sadly this asset is often undervalued. This was brought sharply into focus in Britain by Sir John Hale's report, Museum Professional Training and Career Structure, for the Museums and Galleries Commission (the advisory body to government on museum matters.) In particular the report highlighted the skill gap between existing training and education provisions and the needs of employment in museums.

This significant report coincided with the British government's review of training and vocational qualifications. The subsequent White Paper, Working Together, Education and Training, has provided new rationale for training and vocational qualifications which can be briefly summarized in the following extract:

"Qualifications and high standards are not luxuries they are necessities, central to securing a competent and adaptable workforce. Economic performance and individual job satisfaction both depend on maintaining and improving standards of performance. This applies to the board room and the shop floor. It applies as much to adult training and retraining as to young people starting off."

The following principles derived from the White Paper informed the new national training and vocational qualification framework. National vocational qualifications should

reflect the needs of employees as well as individuals;

reflect work-related standards of competence;

establish effective career routes for individuals;

concentrate on performance in the workplace;

and acknowledge common areas of competence that occur across industrial sectors and occupations.

Further, national vocational qualifications should be accessible without unnecessary barriers such as the mode of learning or duration of time.

The National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) was established to carry these recommendations forward; to produce standards of competence for all sectors and occupations in Britain; to create a new coherent national framework of vocational qualifications (National Vocational Qualifications, [NVQ's]) based on the standards of competence; and to approve those organizations that can award national vocational qualifications. These reports and consequent action set the scene for British museums and gallery personnel to reconsider training and qualifications for museum employment and develop for the first time a rational, comprehensive and relevant qualifications framework, recognized nationally. The Museum Training Institute (MTI) was established as the vehicle to achieve this. The Institute received government financial support and recognition as the organization charged with developing standards of competence and NVQ's for the heritage sector in Britain, under the 1987 Employment Act. The Institute is not only the focal point for the development of standards of competence but is also responsible for putting in place the arrangements to certify persons competent in museum practices as well as ensuring that appropriate and relevant training is available.

As the founding director of the Museum Training Institute, I was tasked with developing and introducing the new qualifications, as well as raising the awareness and importance of training. Quite apart from the challenges of changing attitudes towards training and qualifications, there were additional complexities associated with the nature of the workforce and organizational structures which had to be taken into account.

There are over two thousand museums in Britain representing a wide variety of subjects, funded privately as well as from central local government. Some museums are entirely operated by volunteers, others have substantial budgets and staff. One leading national museum director has said that there cannot possibly be a museum profession in Britain, given the diverse and diffuse nature of the museum world.

The workforce is also complex with full and part time employees totalling 36,300 in 1992, excluding volunteers. If the estimated figure for volunteers of between 25,000 to 30,000 people is added to the 36,300 the total British museum workforce is between 71,000 to 76,000 people, all of whom have a training requirement of some kind or another!

From a training point of view the museum and gallery sector is full of highly qualified people in terms of academic qualifications with over 85 percent of curators and managers having degrees and second degrees. Interestingly, two-thirds of paid employees, the largest group overall, work in security and support roles. Approximately 8 percent of these employees have university degrees and over 50 percent have general certificate of secondary education level qualifications. As a group of employees they have been traditionally excluded from museum-specific vocational qualifications and training opportunities.

The ethnic minorities are under represented with only 2.2 percent of the total museum workforce nationally, most of whom are concentrated in security and support roles. Incidentally this compares with 3.9 percent from ethnic minorities in the UK workforce as a whole. There are an equal number of men and women in the workforce and women hold 51 percent of all curatorial and managerial posts in the local authority sector and 46 percent in national museums. Interestingly, the age of the workforce is reasonably balanced overall with nearly 70 percent of curators and managers under forty five years old.

Against this backdrop a national vocational qualification and training framework based on functional analysis has been devised which meets the needs of the majority of the workforce. The functional analysis of occupations in museums was undertaken over an eighteen month period and involved more than 600 museum professionals, sixty museums and 14,000 questionnaires. It has taken nearly four years and over 275,000 to produce a nationally acceptable qualification framework. The first qualifications, for security and support staff, are likely to be available in December of this year. The qualification framework is essentially based on the competence of the individual to carry out their function, with assessment in the workplace, improved accessibility and reflects the skill and knowledge needs of both employers and employees in museums.

The qualifications framework has yet to influence education and training provision at undergraduate and post graduate levels in Britain but this will occur over the coming years as the benefits of the new approach are felt. There is still work to be done, but the last four years have witnessed some of the most significant and exciting changes in British museum training and education for decades. The foundations have been laid for a comprehensive and relevant national museum training and education framework which will have far reaching consequences for those now entering the museum world.

(Simon Roodhouse, now an independent consultant, researcher and lecturer, was until recently director of the Museum Training Institute.

The concept of vocational qualifications for museum work is not easily transferrable (or wholly desirable) to the U. S. museum community. However, the work of MTI is a logical progression from the recommendations made at the Belmont Conference on Mid-Career Museum Training, sponsored by the Office of Museum Programs in 1980.

The next issue of the OMP Bulletin will reprint the abstract of the proceedings of that conference and will include comments from museum staff and students on the report, it's recommendations and their sense of the current needs in the museum field.)

Investing in People
Reading List:

Museums and Galleries Commission. Museum Professional Training and Career Structure: Report by a Working Party. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1987.

"National Vocational Qualifications - What They Can Do For You." Museum Training Institute News. Issue Number Four, Winter, 1990.

Museum Training Institute News. Available from Museum Training Institute, Kershaw House, 55 Well Street, Bradford BD1 5PS, England.

Go back to CMS Bulletin page

Go to Center for Museum Studies

Go to Smithsonian Web page