Michelle Sim

Today's Tuakana is a little different. We initially asked Michelle to be a part of On the Level, but actually we think this rad wahine is somewhere between On the Level and Tuakana and we want to acknowledge that.

Michelle’s dedication to the sector manifests itself in many ways, but perhaps most publically through the Emerging Museum Professionals group she founded several years ago. Here at Tusk we feel a strong affinity with the ‘stand up and be heard’ ethos that is at the heart of EMP. Michelle’s insistence that young people in the sector should have a platform to voice their ideas, aspirations and concerns is inspiring to us and a good reminder for everyone that if you see a gap sometimes you need to take the initiative to fill it yourself.

The sector is a stronger place due to Michelle’s initiative, dedication and hard work and we are so stoked to welcome her to the Tusk whanau.   

In five words, describe your place in the sector.

‘Emerging’, but verging on ‘emerged’!

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

As is probably true for many museum professionals, I can trace my fascination with museums back to childhood visits. My Dad was a real history buff, so a visit to the local museum was always on the agenda whenever we travelled anywhere as a family.

Our own local, however, was the Southland Museum and Art Gallery (I can still remember when it got its famous ‘pyramid’ and the consternation that caused in conservative old Invercargill!). I loved the tuatara of course (what kid doesn’t?), but what really fascinated me was the Victoriana exhibit, with its mock-up of the inside of a well-to-do family home, complete with suitably-dressed manikins and all the assorted curiosities of the period.

As a child, I didn’t notice the stiffness of the manikins or the lack of interpretation; rather, I felt as though I was peering through a window into the past. I used to stand looking through the glass for ages, trying to imagine what it would have been like to live in a house like that and wear clothes such as those. Coupled with this was the curiosity I felt when I saw all the doors round the Museum marked “Staff Only”. I felt a burning desire to know what other wonderful things lay hidden behind those thresholds. I vowed to myself that one day I would find out.

What challenges have you faced in your career so far?

I think the biggest challenge for me has been trying to advance in a profession where traditionally there isn’t a lot of movement. Unlike other more vocational professions, such as doctors, lawyers and accountants, there is no clear career path in the museum sector, which means it can be difficult to feel like you’re progressing in accordance with your skills and experience.

In November 2008 I took on the role of Archives Technician at the Air Force Museum in Christchurch. I was super stoked to get my first collections position. I loved working in the archives and embraced the privilege of cataloguing and caring for paper-based artefacts, particularly the letters and diaries which gave that sense of a window into someone’s past, much like the Victoriana exhibit all those years before.

After about 4 years, however, I started getting restless. I had well and truly got to grips with this entry-level position and was ready for a new challenge, but what could I do? The natural next step would be to take on the Research Officer role, but as my line manager wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, nor was the other curator on staff, that line of promotion was effectively blocked. In other circumstances, I could have considered moving elsewhere, but as my husband had a very good job as a structural engineer in post-quake Christchurch (I won’t lie, he earned far more than I did), that wasn’t really an option either. Fortunately, we have the sort of work environment at the Air Force Museum where it’s OK to step outside the confines of your job description on occasion, so along with the cataloguing, enclosure-making and research enquiries, I kept myself occupied by dabbling in social media and online content, and put my hand up for various project teams. Oh, and I set up the EMPNZ network, which certainly gave me an outlet for much of my excess energy!

My break finally came, funnily enough, after a break – my 12 months’ maternity leave. Roughly 4 months out from my due date back at work, our Director called me in for a chat and revealed that she had secured some funding for a whole new position – Communications Officer – and would I be interested? It did mean moving away from hands-on collections work, but it was the step up and new challenge I had been craving. I had always had a love of communication and story-telling, so it really was the perfect fit. Plus it meant we got to keep the lovely Nina Finigan, who had been covering me in the archives during my leave, so it was an all-round win.

So in short, it took 7 and a half years, but thanks to an unforeseen opportunity, I got to take the first major step forward in my museum career. It made me realise that sometimes it does pay to hang in there - you just never know what might be around the corner.

Has anything or anyone in particular provided you with support?

I am fortunate to have had a fabulous mentor in our Director, Thérèse Angelo, who has been a huge source of support for me over the years. She is the sort of leader who when she says she has an open-door policy, she genuinely means it. You can sit in the staffroom with her and have a chat about the best gingerbread recipe or what you did in the garden over the weekend, but equally, she can take a hard line when she needs to.

One thing I have always admired about Thérèse is that she is very good at recognising people’s individual strengths and encouraging them to extend themselves. For myself, one of the most formative moments came when I plucked up the courage to discuss with her my concept for a ‘young professionals’ group. This was an idea I had formulated a year previously, but had sat on for the intervening months, thanks to the old nagging voice of self-doubt – what if people think it’s a crap idea and nobody joins? How do I even go about starting such a thing? Thérèse was awesome. After listening to my rather long-winded proposal, she basically said, “I think it’s a fantastic idea, and I think you should present this at the MA AGM at conference (MA13 in Hamilton).” Of course that threw me into a panic – the thought of standing up in front of a bunch of senior museum sector leaders presenting this potentially-still-crap idea filled me with horror. But Thérèse had the confidence in me that I felt I lacked in myself at that particular point in time. By giving me the push I needed, she effectively kick-started the process that resulted in the Emerging Museum Professionals New Zealand (EMPNZ) network. Of course, nobody thought it was a crap idea, and I was blown away by the flood of support I got from throughout the sector, with people at all levels offering assistance.

Thérèse continued to be a sounding board and offer guidance and advice, but increasingly, I found that some of the greatest support came from my peers. I could not have got the group off the ground single-handedly and the fact that the EMPNZ network now has nearly 300 members, a formal committee structure and even a draft constitution, is a testament to the energy and enthusiasm of a large number of my fellow EMPs. It is impossible to name everyone who has helped along the way, but a special shout-out must go to Talei Langley, who has given her unwavering support right from the beginning. Her organisational skills are legendary and her dedication to the EMP cause, while also managing her role at Museums Aotearoa, is truly awesome.

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

An energy and enthusiasm unburdened by the politics that invariably come with high level responsibility, reinforced by the drive to make a real difference and see positive new initiatives implemented – the sector mentoring scheme and Tauhere EMP journal project, as well as this website, are three good cases in point. In short, we have the freedom to imagine new possibilities and the determination to realise them.

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

An acceptance of alternative museum career paths, including greater recognition of non-collections roles and promotion of these as valid career options. I would like to see the sector generally place less emphasis on postgraduate qualifications, and have more acknowledgement of on-the-job training and experience.

I have worked with some incredibly experienced and knowledgeable colleagues who, because they lack the formal qualifications, are limited in their options to progress or move elsewhere. On the other end of the scale, you have students, newly-graduated from undergrad degrees, enrolling straight into Museum Studies programmes, without any prior experience of museum work, in the expectation that it will secure them a job.

As a Museum Studies graduate myself, I am not for a moment suggesting that these programmes no longer have a place – far from it, I believe that they have an important role to play within the sector, in that nowhere else can you get to grips with the ‘big picture’ aspects of the museum world to quite the same extent. Academia offers us the best means of understanding and appreciating both where we have come from and, with a finger on the pulse of current trends, potentially influencing where we might head in the future. These courses should not be the be all and end all, however, and new graduates must not feel as though they need to embark on a whole new course of study just to get a foot in the door. Often there is such a disconnect between these largely theory-based courses and the day-to-day reality of working in a museum, that I can’t help but feel that some (not all) prospective museum professionals might be better served by a more practical-based apprenticeship programme, even (shock-horror), direct from high school. But that is a korero for another day!

What is your karaoke song?

Right now it would have to be “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends” – it’s my little boy’s favourite show, and the end credits include all the lyrics with karaoke-style prompts, so of course I totally know it off by heart now. Nothing like belting out a few lines of “Thomas” lyrics with a small human to keep you grounded.