Postgraduate Skills Seminar: Dr Gareth Williams, British Museum

Blog written by PhD student Christin Simons. Christin is a 3rd year PhD student at the Institute for Scottish History studying the perception of the Scandinavian East India Companies.

School of History, St John’s House
Photo credit: Emily Betz

On Thursday 11 April, Dr Gareth Williams from the British Museum visited St Andrews to discuss alternative career paths for PhD students considering a non-academic career. He spoke specifically on pathways to becoming a museum curator. This event was hosted under the sponsorship of the University’s Centre for Academic, Professional and Organisational Development (CAPOD) under the Quality Assurance Agency Scotland (QAA) thematic initiative ‘Transitions’.

Dr Williams, who has been a curator with the British Museum since 1996, managed to both promote the career possibilities for becoming a museum curator while being candid about the challenges of the job at the same time. He painted a realistic picture of the work in a museum, which comes with limited career development and lack of funding opportunities, but his enthusiasm for working in the field still made it an attractive opportunity to pursue after finishing one’s PhD. For the attendees without a degree in Museum Studies, it was especially encouraging to hear that it is possible to enter the museum world by way of internships, volunteering or trainee curatorship. As well as responsibilities like the management of collections, public engagement and exhibition display, Dr Williams gave further insight into the ‘less obvious things’ that come with being a museum curator, like the teaching, training and mentoring of doctoral students.

The attendees commented on the practical value of the session. Matthew Ylitalo, PhD candidate in Modern History, stated that he appreciated the field previously but admittedly had not seriously considered entering it, having thought that not having a postgrad degree in museum studies excluded him.  He noted ‘Gareth quickly put all of that to rest when he introduced the state of the field and its possibilities.  To my surprise, there are a number of non-traditional pathways into curatorial work. Even if I do not pursue full-time employment with a museum, Gareth convinced me that volunteering with a museum or project could be a fulfilling and much appreciated prospect’. Another attendee, Chelsea Reutke, PhD candidate in Early Modern History, liked the speaker’s enthusiasm and helpfulness in answering questions. ‘He conveyed both the exciting opportunities as well as the pragmatic realities of working in museums. After attending his talk, I feel that I have a solid understanding of the requirements of different types of museums. Museums remain one of my career paths after my PhD, and I now feel that I know what it will take and what to look for’. Echoing that sentiment, Clémentine Anne, PhD candidate in Modern History, declared, ‘I think I am now more aware of the reality of the job and can reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of a career in museums.’

The overall consensus was that this was an extremely informed and useful session, and we thank Dr Williams for sharing his experience with us.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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