In five words, describe your role in the sector.
Researcher, reader, story teller, (metaphorical) necromancer.
What first drew you to the sector? Do you have a particular memory of a moment that got you hooked?
I’ve always loved objects and their mystery. My childhood was filled with museum and gallery visits thanks to my Mum who fostered an early interest. The Early Settlers museum in Dunedin was a particular favourite family haunt. No matter how many times I visited, I would usually leave with more questions than answers. I loved the portrait gallery for this reason – the old, black and white faces staring out from the wall would kind of terrify me (because ghosts) but I would be filled with questions about who they were. What we their lives like? Why weren’t they smiling? Why did they look different to us? This spread to my home life as well. Occasionally, while digging in our garden, I would find things. I remember one of these things was a toy horse. I felt a mixture of fear (because in my mind this toy meant that a child had lived in my house a long time ago and perhaps they had died and perhaps their ghost now haunted my house. Just normal child thoughts), and complete fascination at this found object. This tiny horse was like a portal through time. Through this object I felt a connection to…everything. It was like holding on to a thread that went in a direct line from me to the past. Through working in museums/galleries I now know that that line connects us with the present and future as well. With each other.
I’ve written about this in a work blog post from years ago, but this passage from Edmund de Waal's Hare with the Amber Eyes just so succinctly conveys my feelings:
I want to know what the relationship has been between this…object…and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the wall, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and thought about it—if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.
What challenges have you faced in your career so far?
Uncertainty has been the big challenge. I don’t think this is anything unique to me or this sector, but I think it was exacerbated because it was so difficult to find permanent work. After graduating I worked for 4 years on contracts of no more than 8 months. One was 3 weeks. Another was 4 months. We’re told this is to be expected. That there a benefits to becoming familiar with breadth of the sector and to being generalists. And there’s an element of truth to that. But it’s incredibly unsettling. It’s unsettling for the sector and the individual. As an employee I never felt able to fully engage with an organisation. My tasks felt menial and piecemeal. It also means that organisations don’t have much incentive to invest in you. Which means limited if no professional development opportunities beyond the business-as-usual of day-to-day work. The organisations lose out too. They put time and resources into staff only to lose them. And the sector loses out because the foundation isn’t solid.
Has anything or anyone in particular provided you with support?
If there’s one thing that working on Tusk has taught me, it’s the importance of people. I have forged some of the most important personal relationships of my life through this sector. Matariki being first and foremost on that list. She’s a soundboard, a collaborator, a motivator, a crutch, a sympathetic ear, a cheerleader.
As Matariki mentioned in her On the Level, the relationships we have made through Tusk have been phenomenal. I, like her, am completely blown away by the outpouring of support we have received, particularly from women in the industry. I’ve been blown away by the honesty people have shown in their writing and responses. I have been blown away by how willing people are to give support. I have realised that people want to help. They’re waiting. You just have to reach out to them. This industry relies on collaboration. They already know that. Being supported by people makes you want to give support. When I once gushed to a Tuakana about how supportive they were, she just said something like – ‘I wouldn’t have arrived where I am today without help and support, so I want to do the same for others.’ It’s pretty much like Pay it Forward with Kevin Spacey, guys.
So, find people who you can forge those relationships with. Find the established people who can provide advice and mentorship. Who want to help you. Find the peers at your level who you can have honest, hilarious, complain-y, rant-y conversations with. After all, you’re all going to be the people running things one day.
What do you think people at your own level can bring the sector?
So many things. People have already talked about enthusiasm, energy and creativity which is all very true.
In my own experience though, being new to the sector has meant being flexible. Many of us at this early stage don’t have a lot of big life responsibilities which means we can move towns and jobs with relative ease. One of the few positive offshoots of contract culture (ie I worked at five different institutions in 4 years) is that you become highly adaptable. There is something very comforting in the knowledge that, in general, you can fit in anywhere. You learn to bring different skills to different places. I think you learn to think on your feet and to be diplomatic.
Tied in with this is the fact that emerging people are not institutionalised. I guess that’s what people mean when they say ‘fresh eyes’ (ew gross), but I think a lot of the time it comes down to the fact that you’re able to look at things objectively (ie you have minimal career baggage). We look at things with a wide-angle lens. Having just entered my first permanent museum job, it’s been so encouraging to see my workplace recognise and encourage that. I think this is so important. We don't want to work in silos.
What is a positive change you would like to see in the sector?
I worry about maintaining relevance. We know what we do in the sector is important, but do the public? I think as a nation we tend to take our cultural heritage and institutions for granted. It is our job to make what we do accessible and relatable. But equally we need to be challenging. We have the opportunity to address big questions in our exhibition content, collecting practices, and strategic plans. This is why the response we have had to Tusk is so encouraging. During day-to-day work, we can often loose sight of the bigger picture, of why we decided to dedicate your career to art and culture. But Tusk has revealed to me the depth of thinking that is going on our there even at the bottom of the ladder, beyond our day jobs. This needs to be recognised and harnessed.
One of my pretty constant bugbears is the value we place on art and culture. I don’t want museums and galleries to be seen as a ‘luxury.’ Something that clings to the purse strings of local and central government, always in fear of being cut loose. Whether we work in a gallery, museum, archive, university or library, we deal in representations of human history, creativity, desire, progress, conflict, and ingenuity...all of it. How on earth can be this viewed as a luxury? I get worked up about things like rugby being seen as somehow essential to our sense of nationhood and things like art aren’t. This is frustrating but as I develop my thinking, I realise we don’t need to exist in competition. And one doesn’t have to lose out due to the other.
So I suppose the positive change I would like to see is a wider cultural shift. But it’s our job to ensure that happens.
What is your karaoke song?
As Matariki mentioned we do a mean duet. In fact this weekend just passed we ‘wowed’ a very drunken crowd with a phenomenal version of Backstreet Boys I Want it That Way. And by phenomenal I mean horror show. But if we’re talking solo performance, I think the greatest moment of my karaoke career was a 3am rendition of Alannah Myles’ Black Velvet. The term ‘rock star’ was tossed around so, yeah, it was kind of a big deal.
So do yourself a favour and wrap your eardrums around Ms Myles' husky serenade: