I Want Your Job: Museum director

'You have to be a good listener'
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The Independent Online

Dr Richard Benjamin, 35, is head of the International Slavery Museum, which opens in Liverpool on Slavery Remembrance Day, 23 August

What do you actually do?

I'm in charge of getting the museum up and running for the public to visit. I work closely with the curators, choosing which artefacts are going into the museum and where they'll be displayed. I also work with designers and project managers on anything from writing audio guides, to deciding how big the graphic panels explaining an exhibit should be. The other part of my job is to raise the museum's international profile by travelling abroad to see if we can collaborate with other museums.

What's a typical week like?

It's so varied. I start work every morning at around 7.30am, and work until about 5.30pm. Usually, I have daily team meetings with curators, to get feedback on how things are going. About twice a week, I meet people from marketing and the development office to talk about how to promote the museum. I also do a lot of work with community partnerships, particularly members of the black community, dealing with enquiries and responding to e-mails. For example, we have a "Black Achievers Wall", and we've asked people to tell us who they would add to it. It should be a living, breathing museum, reacting to people's ideas.

What do you love about what you do?

I just think it's really important. Slavery is a subject that's constantly changing – we focus on historical slavery, but we also look at contemporary slavery. If we can highlight the issues and change the way people think about slavery, then that's really satisfying. My family is originally from Guyana, where the legacy of slavery is still very strong, and I know that my dad is proud that someone of Guyanese descent is doing this job.

What's the hardest thing about it?

When you go home to your family and realise what you've been talking about at work all day, it can be very difficult. You're looking at horrible implements that have been used on human beings, and pictures of lynchings. You can't help but be affected. It makes you feel everything from anger to disbelief. We're always professional, but you should never desensitise yourself. It's partly that that makes me believe in what I'm doing.

What skills do you need to do your job really well?

You have to be a people person. I work with academics, designers and the public, so it's important to get on with people at all levels. I do staff briefings with gallery attendants twice a week, because they're on the frontline, meeting the public, and I want them to be able to talk to me. You have to be a good listener and a team player, because it takes a lot of people to run a museum. You also have to be decisive and confident in your own abilities. Sometimes people don't see eye to eye, so you need to be diplomatic and good at managing situations professionally.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a museum director?

Keep an open mind, and be willing to move and diversify. There are specific courses for curators, but a lot of people who work in museums don't come from a museum background. My background is in archaeology, but I was always interested in black African history, and I used to work for the University of Liverpool's widening participation effort, so I had experience working with local communities. You should have a clear understanding of the issues that the museum deals with, so do lots of reading and research. Show people you've done the groundwork and have plenty of fresh ideas about how they can develop.

What's the salary and career path like?

In Liverpool, a curator's starting salary might be around £20,000 to £25,000 a year. Assistant curators earn less, but if you were working in London, you might earn a little more. National Museums Liverpool offers management development training, which helps you move up into management.


For information on working in museums, visit the Museums Association at www.museumsassociation.org; or the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council at www.mla.gov.uk.