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What it’s like being a museum manager

Stephanie Thorndyke is manager, at The Novium Museum, Chichester.

I have been at the Novium Museum since January 2018, so four-and-a-half years, which is when I relocated back to Chichester from London with my husband and daughter.

I manage the museum service for Chichester District Council, which has a district-wide remit and encompasses The Novium Museum in the centre of Chichester, The Guildhall in Priory Park, our archaeology collection stored at the Collections Centre at Fishbourne Roman Palace, Chichester Tourist Information Centre and Chichester Box Office.

Our vision is to build a stronger community by connecting people with the past, present and future of Chichester District.

I manage a small team which delivers an ambitious programme of changing, temporary exhibitions, a learning programme that includes workshops, outreach, sleepovers, loan boxes and virtual field trips, and a programme of events throughout the year, including our annual Chichester Roman Week festival. The team deliver weddings in The Guildhall where we also host touring theatre productions from time to time. We’ve recently opened a really exciting exhibition called ‘The Art of Chichester: 60 Years of Creativity’ which has been curated by David Elliott, a local Senior Arts Producer at The British Council, and we’re currently celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Novium Museum.

Where have you worked before and what did you do?

Before my current role, I worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for 14 years, starting as a Research Assistant before moving into the Exhibitions department and ultimately working as Deputy Head of South Kensington Exhibitions, with two spells covering the Head of South Kensington Exhibitions post. I was lucky enough to work on exhibitions like David Bowie and Alexander McQueen, and I’ll always have extremely fond memories of the Golden Age of Couture, the first exhibition I’d project managed. I also supported the touring exhibitions programme, travelling to venues in the UK and all over the world with V&A exhibitions.

Before that, I worked for Cass Sculpture Foundation, managing their gallery on Percy Street in London having moved to London after a year in Venice at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, first as an intern for three months and then as Head Intern for nine months after I graduated from my BA in Art History at the University of Leicester.

Why did you decide to work in museums?

I have always loved visiting museums and always particularly enjoyed visiting exhibitions at Tate, V&A and other London museums and museums overseas, especially in Italy.

During my degree I was lucky enough to do a Erasmus year studying in Pisa which cemented my love of Italy and museums. I did a work placement at Tate Britain during one of my Uni summers and my internship at the Peggy Guggenheim in Italy was really the first step through the door.

I didn’t really know what path my career would take, but I have seized upon opportunities that have allowed me to progress in the sector.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I am extremely luck to lead a really talented, committed team. They make the job really joyful, and enable us to achieve great things working collectively as a team.

I love creating experiences for visitors, using museum collections and loans to unlock stories that help people engage with the past and present. I also love the museum sector as a whole. It’s extremely supportive and is brimming with talent.

What advice would you give to someone who what’s to do what you do?

 I’d say try to make connections within the museum world. It can be a catch 22 that you require experience just to secure the experience opportunities for an entry level position, but persevere and seek out opportunities locally.

Look at job descriptions that describe the role(s) that you might be aiming for in future and think about how you could start to meet some of the essential criteria.

I often look for transferrable skills and initiative, which can be developed through a whole host of activities.

Get on LinkedIn. It’s being used more and more by the sector to share job opportunities and developments within the sector. And work hard! I also look for self-starters who are passionate about the museum world and are able to convey that enthusiasm.

What advice would you give your younger self?

 That London is amazing, but the local museum sector is also brimming with ideas, talent and opportunity!!

Charlotte Harding
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.
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