Classing museum work

Map of Museum WorkThis is a brief summary of the first stage of my analysis. For a full update see the presentation here. 

To understand how class might matter in museum work, it is important to understand how museum work is structured and valued, in other words classed. What sort of positions might be of a different status than others and why?

In initially scoping this PhD it was clear that museum work is characterised by boundaries and hierarchies, and I explored these in greater detail with many of you in nine focus groups and 57 interviews. In total 132 people participated.

The diagram above is a representation of your insights and discussions. I am using Bourdieu’s concepts of economic capital (e.g. income and property) and symbolic capital  (status and prestige) to map both museum type and also museum role. Note: this analysis is not based on an absolute or universal measure of capital but an analysis of the principles used by participants when discussing status of institutions and types of work. Their significance is in understanding how people in museums attach meaning, potentially to their own position and to that of others.

Some positions more equal than others?

My analysis discerns four key positions based on status (symbolic) and economic capital.

1) Most capital: Those that have most capital (economic & symbolic); E.g. national museums, directors

2) High status: Those that have high symbolic but lower economic E.g. curators, conservators

3) High market value: Those that have high economic but low symbolic E.g. marketing, retail

4) Least capital: Those that have low economic and low symbolic E.g. front of house roles, security

Ideas underpinning “classing” 

These are the ideas or processes which underpin how participants made distinctions:

1.Symbolic = keeping museums special Those positions classed as higher status tend to be those that make the field distinctive e.g. specialist roles such as curators

2.Economic = silent role of money: Museums specialness is in part about resisting commercial interests. The pursuit of money (as an institution or an individual) is a pragmatic rather than a celebrated discourse. And yet money is clearly needed

Classed inequality?

1.High cost of achieving status: Symbolic capital (status) for individuals is obtained at cost e.g. sacrificing a higher income; investing in expensive courses or working for free. This matters for those with less money.

2.Positions matter; those in higher positions have higher visibility and voice over what counts, whereas those in lower positions have less voice and visibility

3.Closed boundaries? The boundaries between the positions is seen as difficult to cross

In the next stage of analysis I will be exploring what it takes to get in and on, or achieve these positions, how do people class themselves and each other, and how does all of this contribute to classed inequality?


Does social class matter?

IMG_1168When I tell people I am doing a PhD on social class, some suggest that class doesn’t matter any more. And yet, when I conducted the field work with many of you last year, it was clear that class did matter. You wanted to understand it, be heard and find ways to meet other people with shared concerns and interests. I am really grateful to your interest and involvement and I really enjoyed getting out to meet people, visit some great museums and hear some fantastic (and some surprising) stories and insights into museum work, class and classed inequality. So thank you (and see special thanks below).

The field work is now complete and over 130 people took part in either a focus group or an interview. Because of the breadth and depth of data it will take me a little while longer to analyse than anticipated. Though in November last year I did an early presentation for the MA Conference in Belfast, outlining some of my initial observations. This analysis needs refining but echoes what I heard from many of you; that museum work is not equal; that some positions are harder to achieve than others, that money is important in achieving these roles and yet not often spoken about, that some roles are simply invisible and discourses around career – what it takes to get in and get on – often demand commitment and flexibility, which is difficult in a field increasingly characterised by increasing insecurity and competition for jobs.

To provide a meaningful analysis, and to share the findings with you, I plan to break it down into specific steps and report in stages over the summer and autumn as follows:

Stage One) Classing museum work; how are certain roles and museums accorded higher status than others? What might this mean in terms of class?

b) Classing people: how do people in museums class themselves and others? How do job roles or background play a part?

c) Career: how do people understand ways to get in and on, in museums. Are there particular routes? What sort of capital, practices and ways of being, do people think they have to adopt?

d) Classed inequality: What does this mean for understanding classed inequality? Are certain positions less attainable for some and is this fair?

The first stage I hope to update in July 2019. In the meantime, I would like to thank all the people who took part, and also all those who helped me with the field work as follows: Julie Aldridge, Alex Bird, Susan Bradshaw, Miranda Chavis, Isobel Churcher, Helen Fairs, Jude Holland, Cath Hume, Lucy Moore, Charlotte Morgan, Clara Palliard, Dr. Dave O Brien, Tamsin Russell, Professor Richard Sandell, Verity Sanderson, Lynsey Slater, Dr. Sarah Thomas, Will Tregaskes, Sara Wajid, Jenny Wedgebury, Claire Whitbread, Dr. Rebecca Whiting, Helen Wilkinson, Jackie Winchester

And if you haven’t yet done so join Museum as Muck, a valuable networking group for working class museum workers set up by Michelle McGrath and others. 


The museum of them and us

A PhD research project exploring social class and museum work.


This research explores classed inequality within museum work. Since April I have been conducting focus groups and interviews asking people their thoughts on what it takes to work in museums, what is social class and how does it matter. Whilst data collection is almost complete, you can contribute your thoughts on how class matters in museums. See the taking part page, or you can contact me at

Why social class? This is one of the few characteristics not protected by law, unlike gender, race or age. Arguably, employers can legally discriminate against social class.  Whilst class identities have become obscured, many academics are arguing that classed inequality is increasing in the 21st century UK workforce. Work is more precarious (Standing, 2015), social mobility is declining, professions more exclusive and even if people are socially mobile they may find a “class ceiling” to earning top salaries or promotions ((Friedman, Laurison and Miles, 2015).

Why The Museum of them and us? To understand how social class matters within the workplace, it is important to explore it in-depth. This PhD explores how class matters within museum work. The research asks what does it takes to get in and get on, how has this changed, how is this different for particular roles, and what might this mean for people from different backgrounds.  Museums are an often overlooked aspect of workforce research, and yet our museums are important in telling stories about who we are, and in deciding what is important about our culture. Many in the sector are working hard to achieve greater equality, though recognise there are challenges.

In an initial scoping (phase one of the research), it appeared that museum work and careers were changing, becoming more flexible, yet also less secure, with the onus on the individual to develop themselves. At the same time, roles had become diversified and more professionalised. Social class, while talked about as important, was also noted as something difficult to define, see or know how to measure.

Friedman, S., Laurison, D. & Miles, A., 2015. Breaking the “class” ceiling? Social mobility into Britain’s elite occupations. Sociological Review, 63(2), pp.259–289
Standing, G., 2016. The Precariat: the New Dangerous Class 2nd ed., London: Bloomsbury Academic.