As an emerging professional within the cultural heritage sector one of the things that you hear from lecturers or other professionals within the industry is “don’t be afraid to move to a smaller town or city for work.” Many Wellington based graduates, myself included, have an attitude that a job will come up in Wellington, meaning you won’t have to move to the wop wops or heaven forbid, go outside of your comfort zone. Some graduates are lucky and easily find work in Wellington within a larger cultural institution but I thought it would be useful to talk about my experiences of working in the provinces for newly graduating students who might be considering a similar path. When I completed my postgraduate diploma in Museum and Heritage Studies in 2012 I was offered a too-good-to-refuse role at an institution in Napier and I ended up working there for 18 months. More recently I have worked at a heritage institution in Nelson. Both of these smaller cities had their pros and cons, a few of which I have listed for you below.
Some of the best bits
The weather is usually better in the provinces
Anywhere is usually better than Wellington weather, and yes I know you “can’t beat Wellington on a good day” but when you are getting weeklong stretches of beautiful sunny and wind-free days you will wonder why you didn’t do this sooner. It also helps if the smaller town/city has amazing beaches, both Napier and Nelson have these in abundance and they make for luxurious weekends of sunbathing and drinking wine slushies, that is if you are not day tripping around the wineries.
Work friends become family
I found that working in a smaller city or town actually makes people want to hang out with you - outside of work! This was pretty handy as Napier had a very small population of young professionals and although I had some awesome flatmates, talking museum speak is sometimes just easier with those in the sector. If you are super lucky you will be on a personal level with the director and be invited to their epic house for drinks and a gossip session.
You get to do so much more than your job description
Because you are only one of a few staff members, the likelihood of being called up to do extra (and usually more exciting) duties outside of your job description is pretty high. If you are lucky enough to land a job in a museum or art gallery, no doubt you will be handling and moving objects more than you know what to do with. Perhaps you might even be hanging famous artworks, or vacuuming the gallery before exhibition opening day, not to mention epic cross-country work trips couriering loaned objects to much larger institutions. It is in these circumstances that you will get to taste a little bit of each role within a heritage institution and will probably figure out what you want to eventually end up doing (if you haven’t already). You will come to know the organisation inside out and how each team member’s role contributes to the institution. Moreover, you will also have the chance to immerse yourself in local history and learn the personal stories of the people from the community, forming deeper connections than you might in a larger city or institution.
Unpicking a few of the Cons
Balancing your new life with your old life
If you do choose to work in a smaller town after living in a larger city for most of your life, and if you are anything like me, it will be an adjustment. Not only adjusting to the shops shutting in town at 1pm on a Sunday, but adjusting to an entire new life. Balancing your old life and friends you left behind and forging new friendships with new colleagues or other young professional’s in your new small town can be hard. If you have left behind your partner due to different career objectives this will probably be the hardest thing you will have to endure. I survived two years of long distance but it takes an enormous amount of comfort eating and cuddles on the couch with your flatmates moggy to get through those lonely nights. The silver lining is seeing each other after three weeks and spending quality time together visiting wineries or sunbathing.
Fear of missing out is just a constant. Regardless of where you are, if you’re spending a quiet Saturday at home you will be missing out on a night on the tiles with your friends in the big smoke. And although it probably won’t actually amount to anything more than them drinking in dive bars and ending up at Burger King at 3am talking to their burgers, your FOMO will ensure you imagine it to be much more glamorous and exciting. In other words, FOMO sucks but at the end of the day, your big city friends aren’t having that much fun without you and soon they will be having their own FOMO when you tell them about all the summer BBQ’s you have been attending with your work mates and director.
Not feeling like you are part of the cultural hub
The biggest challenge and probably one of the main things that I thought would work against me when applying for other jobs in Wellington is the fact that I was disconnected from the cultural hub. I felt that I was missing out on forging relationships with key people and missing out on opportunities within the sector. I thought that by not physically being in Wellington would somehow be held against me when applying for other jobs. At the end of the day, employers are looking for people with the right skills to fill the job, regardless of where the applicants live. And while larger cities can offer more opportunities to network and attend professional development days, smaller institutions can be extremely helpful in supporting emerging professionals to attend conferences and other events if you actively seek them out.
Overall in my experience, working in these smaller institutions within the provinces allowed me to work broadly across many different roles within the organisation. I was often called upon for many odd jobs outside of my job description and to me that was the most interesting part. I had the variety and the opportunities to develop and expand on the museum practice and theory I had learnt about in my diploma. I made many new friends and I became confident and willing to try new things. I felt connected to the collections, to the visitors and to the community. I was able to polish my skills and attributes needed in this industry and I had built up the knowledge and the stamina required to work across a range of roles. For me, the pros definitely outweighed any of the cons and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I saw the pros as being mostly professional opportunities and the cons being more about meeting my own personal wants and needs. One more point I want to make is that a move to a smaller city doesn’t have to be forever. In fact it will probably help you land a great job in a larger institution when you are ready as it shows you have flexibility, adaptability and willingness to challenge yourself. Opportunities such as mine are out there and if you are facing a similar option towards leaving your life and stepping outside of your comfort zone, I would say go for it. Embrace the provinces, for they need us just as much as we need them.