On the Level: Elspeth Hocking

In five words, describe your place in the sector.

Advocate, optimist, observer, collections fiend. 

What first drew you to the sector i.e. Do you have a particular memory of a moment that got you hooked?

When I was doing my BA, I had that typical arts student moment of going “what on earth am I going to do with my life?!” and started thinking about where I wanted a degree in history to take me. I didn’t feel like a purely academic or research career was going to work for me, and started thinking about either publishing (being a total bookworm) and museums. I got part time work as a visitor host at Auckland Museum, and that was that – I loved being in the museum, I loved being surrounded by such incredible objects, and I absolutely adored what I can only describe as practical history – using objects and the stories from people who know those objects (whether as owners, descendants, historians, archaeologists, iwi…etc) to form fascinating narratives. And then it was down the rabbit hole from there! Doing the Museum Studies programme at Victoria helped too – learning what collection management actually was, rather than my vague idea of it, made me even more certain that museum work was something I wanted to do. 

What challenges have you faced in your career so far? 

I’ve been incredibly lucky, I must say – I’ve worked in some amazing places with some amazing people, and am super excited to shortly be heading back to Auckland Museum (where this whole career thing began!) to work in collection management again. However, the extremely competitive job market for graduates has meant that, like a lot of young museum professionals, I’ve had to weigh up career benefits with the impact on my personal life. Starting out in this sector often means moving away from friends and family, forging new relationships in unfamiliar places, and taking on insecure contract positions to gain experience. It can be tough! There’s been times when I’ve thought my parents were probably right, and I should have done a law degree, but overall I think the positives far outweigh the challenges (plus I’d make a terrible lawyer). 

Has anything or anyone in particular provided you with support?

Oh there’s so many! One of the best things about this sector is how cheerfully people share their knowledge – it’s a real benefit. A shout out first to John Early, Entomology Curator at Auckland Museum, who first introduced me to the wonders of the museum world when I was a bemused undergrad. Dr Conal McCarthy and Dr Lee Davidson at Victoria University are both incredibly inspiring and supportive. The wonderful friends I made at Victoria who are now doing fascinating and inspiring jobs all over the country. Sara Perrett and Kat Sullivan at MTG Hawkes Bay taught me some fabulous practical skills, and managed not to laugh at me too much for the spirals I carved into foam! Andrew Moffat at Puke Ariki taught me how to be a curator – his experience and his obvious love for collections and Taranaki’s heritage was incredibly helpful. I still haven’t quite forgiven him for introducing me to the rest of the Puke Ariki staff as “Elspeth, who likes things other people don't like”, referencing the wildly varying nature of the social history curator role! Milly Mitchell-Anyon, Aimee Burbery and Chanelle Carrick and my other colleagues in New Plymouth, who are some of the most passionate advocates for museums I know (and really love cheese and dogs, just like me). 

What do you think people at your own level (emerging etc) bring to the sector?

A real passion for the work that we do. It’s not an industry we go into to make a fortune – we do it for the love of the arts and for the incredible objects museums care for. That passion reflects in the way younger professionals are setting up new initiatives such as this fabulous website, the EMP network around the country, and creating new places to share their thoughts and experiences through conference sessions, pecha kucha events and online journals. I also think young professionals in this sector are incredibly well educated and bring a sense of excitement to work in the ‘real world’ – bringing fresh eyes to the well-established traditions of museum work, and a willingness to learn from more established professionals and their incredible knowledge, and building on this into the future.  

What is a positive change you would like to see in the sector? 

Less meetings! As the saying goes, “less hui, more do-ey” (not sure how to spell that last word, but say it out loud and it should make sense!). More seriously, I’d like councils and funding bodies to better recognize the important roles museums and the arts can play in community building. Museums, arts and cultural venues are always the first in line for funding cuts, despite robust statistics worldwide which show that the arts and culture improve wellbeing, strengthen community bonds and provide measureable economic impact. However, it’s incredibly hard to do exceptional exhibitions, collection management or public events, and keep amazing staff, when funding is constantly in question and contracts aren’t renewed. Museums and heritage are worth more than that, as are their staff. 

What is your karaoke song?

My partner is a karaoke fiend (complete with headbanging and sliding along the floor while belting out Motorhead) so my karaoke career is mainly observational (I can’t live up to those high standards!)…but when forced I’ve been known to have a crack at Build Me Up Buttercup. Because I am really that dorky.