Jamie Bell

From our contributor Iain Shaw

I am incredibly fortunate to have met Jamie right at the start of my career in the sector (I told him I’d clean toilets and wash windows at the Cricket Museum if he’d take me on as a volunteer – thankfully my janitorial skills remain untested!). Jamie has provided me with guidance and insight on the vast range of challenges that the Director of a small museum has to deal with on a daily basis, from collection management to facilities management, and everything in between!

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Jamie is the importance of building relationships with your communities. During a Black Caps test match at the Basin Reserve, I expected Jamie to go out into the ground during his lunch break, enjoy watching some cricket and relax for half an hour. Wrong! He jumped in his car and drove up to Karori Park on the outskirts of the city to catch up with one of the local teams who were playing at the same time – a really important reminder to me that you need to reach out and engage with everybody in the community, even if that isn’t always the easiest or most convenient option.

In five words, describe your role in the sector. 

Loud, quiet, idealistic, pessimistic, bunker-dweller.

What is it about the sector that you love?

Creating connections through story telling. The opportunity to use whatever tools we have working, or volunteering, in this sector to connect people with 'stuff' and stories is so freakin' cool. I'm not even entirely sure I can articulate it more than that because there are so many layers to it. But it means I'm always looking to learn and develop skills that mean I can create those connections with different people, and there's no better place to learn from those within the sector who are so well-equipped to interpret for different cultures, languages, levels of access, and learning styles.

What have been some challenges in your career?

I've had the distinct displeasure of working under some truly awful leaders (if you're reading this, hi!)*. Right now, I can see the value in learning whatever leadership skills I have through the mistakes of others. But it's also made it hard to stay in the sector. We all come into this with such passion, a real desire to do good, but it's exhausting if you have to keep nurturing that yourself. I've managed to mitigate that by finding opportunities outside my workplace: joining boards or industry groups, seeking freelance opportunities, volunteering my skills through schemes like National Services Te Paerangi and their Expert Knowledge Exchange. Each of those opportunities have allowed me to work with people who lead in a range of ways, many of which have been more influential to me than the people above me in vertical organisational structures.

*They haven't all been that bad.

What challenges can you see moving forward?

Right now I'm the director of a very small, fairly niche, museum and there are always going to be a lot of challenges for small museums. Among them is having to constantly be aware of your institution's viability and sustainability at every point, which can make your shoulders droop (Challenge #1: learn how to engineer a better weight distribution system). That often means you don't ever feel like you can say no to an opportunity because it might be the opportunity (Challenge #2: learn when to say no). But, the best thing about working in a small museum is the ability to utilise all your skills and keep developing new ones. I am the marketing, design, curatorial, finance, social media, interpretation, front of house, and cleaning teams. Although that can be tiring (Challenge #3: get some rest), I love that. Love it.

I think bigger institutions are getting better at identifying that their staff have skills beyond the specific role they work in too. But, for me, that's Challenge #4 going forward - how do we keep people with such a diverse set of skills invested in the sector? The best thing about that though, is that it's a challenge that's been created by the people who are coming in. When I did my Masters, everyone (except me - who had no idea what I wanted to do - which might be what's created the first challenge now...) was focused on being a curator in a museum or gallery. Now that career-goal is so broad, and goes way beyond being institutionalised, that managers need to be aware of the value of investing in professional development and skill-sharing opportunities.

What do you think people in the early stages of their careers can offer the sector?

Time. They bring a lot to the sector immediately - enthusiasm, passion, diversity - but I hope they give themselves and the sector time. It's not particularly easy starting out here: there can be a lot of contract work, late night shifts in other industries, and moving around the regions. I think each generation of people who move into culture and heritage are bringing increasingly diverse skills that enable them to cope with this uncertainty, but the sector as a whole also needs to address how we mitigate these issues and help people develop careers here. That's when we'll see the real value of people who have felt engaged, respected, and secure through the early part of their careers. 

What is your spirit animal?

The South Island kōkako - southern, elusive, equally quiet and loud.

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