Five inspiring careers in cultural heritage and museum studies

Five Master of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies alumni share their insights into varied and exciting industry careers – what they do, the driving forces behind their work, and their advice for people looking to do the same.

1. Michelle Mountain: ‘There is always an opportunity waiting.’

Michelle Mountain says her role as Exhibitions Manager at Tarrawarra Museum of Art strikes a good balance between preparation and practical work.

‘The exhibitions manager is the person in the team connecting everyone and coordinating the tangible outcome of a proposed idea,’ Michelle explains.

‘[It’s] a wonderfully satisfying job, there is lots of variety and new challenges every day. No two exhibitions are the same and you get an amazing sense of accomplishment when you help an artist or curator realise an ambitious project.’

Despite COVID-19 forcing the museum to close temporarily, Michelle and her team engaged with artists through digital online projects, talks and webinars that were shared with the community.

‘During 2020 it was wonderful to see all the online content museums and galleries were able to produce, as well as the connection the industry provided audiences while we were all in lockdown.’

For people new to the industry, Michelle advocates for getting involved in the community, building relationships through volunteering, saying yes to practical opportunities offered through your studies, and networking with your lecturers and classmates.

‘My studies at Deakin helped to connect me with mentors within the industry and provided me with invaluable experiences. All of these experiences shaped my understanding of how to develop a successful career.’

‘As long as you’re passionate about what you’re doing and willing to work hard it doesn’t go unnoticed and there is always an opportunity waiting to take you on to the next thing.’

2. Susan Fayad: ‘Heritage as a discipline has been, and always is, evolving.’

Susan Fayad works as Coordinator Heritage and Cultural Landscapes for the City of Ballarat. Since her appointment in 2009, she has been working to ensure conservation and management of Ballarat’s heritage, city management policies and strategies, and support for the regeneration of heritage.

‘My current role is challenging – which is what I thrive on. It’s not easy, it’s huge and complex and I enjoy helping all the stakeholders move through the process to get the outcomes they’re after. It’s more than a job as I feel like I’m on a mission!’ Susan says.

Not long after starting her role with the City of Ballarat, Susan chose to enrol in the Master of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies to quell feelings of self-doubt, becoming a recipient of Deakin’s Roslyn Lawry Award for excellence in cultural heritage and museum studies in the process.

‘I was new to the field and I had even bigger ideas for where things needed to go next! The course provided me with the foundation I was after, building my confidence to create the change needed to help local people get better outcomes for their heritage and their city.’

Susan encourages others interested in working in the heritage sector to engage with both the industry and community.

‘Heritage as a discipline has been, and always is, evolving. It’s critical that you take time to talk with and listen to people both in and beyond your chosen discipline including local citizens.

‘Introduce yourself to people in the industry and find mentors. Taking the initiative shows your passion and drive.’

3. Carmel O’Keeffe: ‘Work with passion is more than just a job.’

In 2017, Carmel O’Keeffe took on the newly appointed role as General Manager Digital Life at Museums Victoria, backed by a 25-year-career as a journalist and editorial manager at the ABC – and a Master of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies from Deakin.

The practical experiences and opportunities gained during her studies, Carmel notes, was an important part of her journey to where she is now.

‘Deciding to study a Master of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies certainly helped shape my destiny,’ Carmel says. ‘Once I started, I was hooked.’

A year after graduation, Carmel received the Roslyn Lawry Award for excellence.

Now, in her current role, Carmel leads Museum Victoria’s Digital Life Strategy, a people-first approach focusing on how to deliver content that’s aligned with people’s digital lives and behaviours. Carmel says that so far, it has been an incredible opportunity.

‘No two days are the same. I love the variety of my role and the fact that I am building teams and capability within this unique organisation.’

A year since the first lockdown Carmel and her team launched a new digital display project, One Year On, capturing how individuals and neighbourhoods in Melbourne have adapted to life with the COVID-19 pandemic.

For those looking to embark on a similar career path, Carmel offers this advice:

‘Grab all that your course has to offer. Say yes to opportunities that Deakin can facilitate or that you can create yourself. Any work that involves passion and purpose is definitely more than just a job.’

4. Gavan O’Connor: ‘The cultural and heritage sector is a wonderful industry to be involved in.’

When ex-newspaper journalist Gavan O’Connor enrolled in Deakin’s Graduate Diploma of Museum Studies, he loved it so much that he continued on to complete the master’s course, receiving the Roslyn Lawry Award the following year.

While studying, Gavan was introduced to the director of the Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC), where he now works as Assistant Curator.

His current project includes testimony, items, and photographs from Holocaust survivors from museums all around the world.

‘My job is meaningful, creative and stimulating. We face challenges that entail meeting design deadlines as well as producing vast amounts of content in terms of museum information panels and artefact and photograph labels. It is my job to ensure these are accurate, well-written and appropriate to our audience.’

COVID-19 has also changed the way Holocaust survivors and the wider community interact with the museum and its collections.

‘The JHC is at the forefront of presenting its museum and collections online so they are accessible to everyone. It was crucial during lockdown for the JHC to maintain contact with its coterie of elderly Holocaust survivors and community volunteers.’

Gavan’s advice to people entering the industry emphasises that theoretical knowledge should not be overlooked.

‘Become academically qualified and get practical experience,’ Gavan advises.

‘Every experience is valuable and a source of knowledge, even those that are somewhat tedious. I also find it crucial to talk to people in the industry.’

5. Amy Barclay: ‘Nothing is ever too late to pursue.’

Amy Barclay works as Public Art Project Lead for City of Melbourne, working with artists to transform public spaces – a role she says she cares about deeply.

‘Working with artists, often for months or years is immensely rewarding. I get a huge kick out of supporting the critical development and production of public art, and curating it with a whole precinct or city in mind.

‘Making public art – temporary or permanent – reveals what matters to our society; the evolution of our culture and values. I love being a part of that.’

While completing Deakin’s Master of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies, Amy’s dedication to the industry was recognised with the Roslyn Lawry Award.

‘Deakin was a joy. I loved the campus, loved the flexibility of online learning, loved the way the lecturers were all so approachable and shared their diverse professional experiences in the classroom.’

With minimal impact to her role during the COVID-19 lockdown, Amy is looking forward to creating public art that can contribute to Melbourne’s recovery and sense of community identity.

And with a steadfast dedication to the cultural art industry, she hopes newcomers into the industry will embrace opportunities to follow their passion.

‘Follow your heart, be open to new subjects and opportunities, know that “progress” is sometimes moving sideways or doing something completely different that you can pair with your other skills at a later date. Nothing is ever too late to pursue.’

Gain the skills and experience needed to make a difference to the way society engages with the past. Study postgraduate cultural heritage and museum studies at Deakin