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Discovering how to run a museum

20/03/2018

Talk about in at the deep-end. In the spring of 2016, Kathryn Parsons and Karen Payne started new careers running the Cambridge Museum, without ever having worked in a museum.


The pair had no shortage of transferable skills or curiosity.

Before she became museum manager, Kathryn was a senior librarian whose career spanned 27 years at the University of Waikato Library, where she was responsible for the New Zealand collection. She says: “I joined the museum for the same reason I joined the library. I thrive on being nosey about what people are working on, seeing if we can find answers to their research questions , learning about the collections, and making sense of the history of a place.”

Karen, on the other hand, had worked for years in senior administrative roles for council and government, and wanted the position because it offered a chance to be more creative.

From day one, they took charge of visitor hosting, administrative tasks, collection cataloguing, archiving and storage, marketing exhibitions, financial reporting, fulfilling research requests from the public on topics such as the history of people, buildings, regional landmarks, and much more.

Their combined skills and experience meant they could easily get on with the job, but what they really wanted was the bigger picture, a comprehensive overview on running a museum.

The solution recommended by others in the profession was the New Zealand Certificate in Museum Practice – Level 4, an on-the-job qualification training programme created by ServiceIQ for the museum sector.

The popular programme brings together in one place all the important aspects of managing a museum in Aotearoa.

It includes compulsory papers covering: knowledge of museums, legislation, museum operations in New Zealand, knowledge of and the role of Māori and the Treaty of Waitangi in a museum, policies, security practices, and what you need to know to enrich a visitor’s experience. The resource materials include a useful glossary providing definitions and museum terminology that has been specifically adapted from the British system for New Zealand museums.

Kathryn, who is juggling to complete the qualification while managing storage issues for the museum’s overflowing collection, among other challenges, says the programme is comprehensive.

“Essentially it provides an excellent foundation. I’m more confident and it has certainly given us good leads for where to get further information. The case studies are also extremely helpful. We’ve recommended it to one of our volunteers and to staff at other museums.”

For Karen, who recently gained her qualification, the training has been a good guide behind the scenes of a museum.

Kathryn Parsons and Karen Payne

“It’s a great programme. The course readings on how museums work are useful, and the study work just reinforced everything that needed to be done. It’s all completely relevant to our roles and responsibilities. From the disaster recovery plan policy, right down to important details about handling documents and artefacts.”

Part of her training involved creating, producing and presenting a programme on the museum’s photograph collection, for public evaluation and feedback – something she would not have had the confidence to do before studying.

Sometimes in her work, she feels more like a forensic detective. Last year, she says she received a call from someone who was researching early Chinese laundries in New Zealand and who wanted to know if the museum had any photographs. A few months later, while cataloguing photographs, she found a tiny ‘laundry’ sign in the background of an early street image – only visible through a magnifying glass.

Together, Karen and Kathryn have compiled a research library to help visitors find out more information about the people of Cambridge and the history of the region.

“We love it,” says Karen. “No two days are ever the same, and we are always making discoveries.”