Museum stories
What's it like being a woman working in the arts?

Sushma Jansari, the Tabor Foundation Curator: South Asia

Tell us about your job – what’s a typical day like for you? 

No two days are alike, which is how I like it! I could be doing anything from cataloguing a collection to working on an exhibition, writing an article, taking part in a workshop or interviewing colleagues for the British Museum Podcast with my co-presenter Hugo Chapman (Keeper of Prints and Drawings) and producer Sian Toogood.

Sushma with fellow curator and podcast presenter Hugo.
How did you get here? 

It has been a challenge. To cut a long story short, I volunteered at different museums while studying for my degree and PhD. Eventually, having gained a lot of invaluable experience working with collections and publishing my research, I spent six years on a series of temporary contracts working on a variety of exciting projects, and finally, in 2019, got a permanent curatorial job.

What’s your favourite part of the job? 

I love working with people across the museum and beyond it. The focus of our work and discussions are objects and the manifold, interconnected stories that swirl around them. It is unravelling these stories and sharing them with the wider public that excites me.

What’s your favourite object in the collection? 

A small bronze sculpture of the female Bodhisattva Tara sitting in lalitasana, the position of royal ease. The figure is from Sri Lanka, dates to the seventh or eighth century and still bears traces of the gilding that originally covered the whole sculpture. Over the years, I have spent many quiet moments meditating on this figure.

Bronze sculpture of the goddess Tara. Sri Lanka, 7th or 8th century AD.
Do you think women and men face different challenges in your area of work?

You know, I haven’t really thought about the challenges that men face at work, but it is probably something I should think about more carefully. Women still earn less than men for doing the same work, including in the museum sector, and this needs to be addressed, challenged and rectified.

What changes would you like to see for women’s careers in the arts?

Gradually, I’m seeing a lot more women employed in a much wider range of roles across the arts sector and also reaching the most senior positions in arts organisations. This is a very welcome change and a trend that I hope continues.

In terms of changes I would like to see, a practical one would be much more flexibility in how we work. It has been clear for a long time that, thanks to technological advances, we do not need to be tied solely to desks in offices, for example. Working practices have had to change radically because of the covid-related regulations and, while there are unquestionably some downsides to this, there are also benefits. I hope we maintain the positive aspects of these changes, including more working from home, in the longer term. This is because, for me, this single change has had a profound impact on my life and work, in terms of sheer productivity as well as mental and physical wellbeing, and on my family life.

What would be your advice to someone aiming for a career in museums and galleries?

Be realistic. Yes, it is an exciting sector to work in, but the wages are very low and, increasingly, the jobs – where they are available at all – tend to be temporary contracts. It is a question I am asked a lot, so I wrote a blogpost for people who are considering curatorial jobs.

What question do you wish people would stop asking about your job?

So many people ask me what objects we have secretly hidden in the stores. We don’t ‘hide’ objects! They are all catalogued and freely available either on Collection online or to view in galleries, exhibitions and in person in our study rooms.

Sophie Rowe, Conservator: Organics

Sophie working in the organic materials conservation studio.
Tell us about your job – what’s a typical day like for you?

I work as a conservator in the Museum’s organic materials conservation studio. My work focuses on the collections we have from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The great thing about my job is that there isn’t really a ‘typical’ day. I could be working in the lab to clean and repair a giant Alaskan sail made out of walrus intestine in the morning, meeting with visitors from Tahiti in our stores to examine and talk about objects in the afternoon and then in the evening I could be 12 metres up in the air in a cherry picker, wearing a hard-hat and cleaning the Haida totem pole in the Great Court.

How did you get here?

I’ve always been a museum and history nerd. When I was younger, I was obsessed with the film The Mummy (1999) and wanted to be an Egyptologist just like Rachel Weisz. When I was 16 went on a day-tour around the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (UCL). That included a visit to the student conservation labs (they teach conservation there as a Master’s degree.) I remember a student working on a mummified ibis (a bird) from ancient Egypt and I just couldn’t believe she got to touch it and fix it, and that doing that could be a job. I wanted to do that!

After studying Egyptology at Liverpool University, along with History and Archaeology, I saved up to do the Master’s in Conservation at UCL, got in, and found myself in the very same lab I’d visited as a 16-year-old. After I graduated, I worked at National Museums Scotland for a bit, and then a contract came up at the British Museum. I’ve been here ever since. And last year I worked on a mummified crocodile, so dreams can come true.

Rachel Weisz in The Mummy (1999).
What’s your favourite part of the job?

I get a lot of satisfaction from being close to cultural heritage and the history of people. I am really privileged to get to see objects from the collection up-close in a way that many people don’t. The work that I do often means that objects can go on display, travel on loan, or be touched and handled by visiting community groups, when they might not have been able to before. Knowing that the work I do can facilitate people experiencing the collection, and that that contact with objects and their histories can have a huge impact on people is really special.

What’s your favourite object in the collection?

Can I have two? The first is the gut parka normally on display in Room 24, made by Mrs Flora Nanuk, a Yup’ik seamstress. We a have a few parkas like this in the collection. These amazing wind and waterproof parkas are from the Arctic regions and are made from intestines (normally of seals) which have been cleaned, inflated and allowed to dry. This creates a thin but really strong material which can be sewn together to make clothing, sails and windows among many other things. It is wonderful that people can make something so useful and beautiful out of a part of the animal that many people wouldn’t think twice about throwing away. In the Arctic, respect of the animal you kill and ensuring you don’t waste resources is really important.

Flora Nanuk (1925–2004, Yupiit), women’s gut parka. Bearded seal gut and colon, beach grass. Hooper Bay, Alaska, USA, 1980s.

The second object is a piece of bread from ancient Egypt – once an ancient Egypt nerd, always an ancient Egypt nerd. It doesn’t look very tasty, but what makes this object really special to me is the fact that you can see the handprint of the baker who made it. This just seems so real, and so human. Seeing the handprint of someone who was living and making bread 3,000 years ago blows my mind. Not to mention that it is amazing that the bread itself has survived for so long.

Two loaves of unleavened bread. Egypt, New Kingdom.
Do you think women and men face different challenges in your area of work?

Interestingly, conservation was seen in the past as a technician role and was full of men in brown lab coats fixing things. These days it’s a female-dominated profession, though that might not be entirely for positive reasons. Some people put it down to the fact that it is not that well paid for the amount of time spent training, and as a rule there aren’t that many conservators who go on to take up top leadership positions, which men might gravitate more towards – although our Head of Collection Care, Sandra Smith, was a conservator by training and has gone on to take up a top role, which is fab.

What changes would you like to see for women’s careers in the arts?

Across museums and the arts, low-pay, poor job security, contract work, fear of skills loss during time-off (for example maternity leave) and a lack of female role-models at director or deputy director level all have an impact on how women see themselves in the workplace and what opportunities seem more open. Something I see as particularly challenging for women are the issues around combining career with family life. Currently the only way upwards in a role is via management (which often demands full-time working patterns). I think more flexible working opportunities and pathways to the top are really needed, and it would be great if there was more recognition of skills other than management, such as expertise built up over a number of years. 

What would be your advice to someone aiming for a career in museums and galleries?

Do your research, see what kind of job you would like to do and then get in touch with someone who does it to talk to them about it, maybe even visit their work. It’s good to make friends and contacts so you have a network of people who can support and advise you. If you are a young person, there are some great schemes which connect young people with tutors in the arts and heritage sector, for example check out Arts Emergency.

Often you need to have a university degree and to have done (normally unpaid) volunteer work to get the experience employers are looking for. This needs to change, as it really limits who can enter the profession. But talking to people and being passionate is a great place to start.

Tell us about the women who inspire you.

Aside from Rachel Weisz you mean? Well, at the Museum  I’ve met so many strong, smart and open women who have come to the museum to visit the collection and are actively involved in projects which advocate to preserve the knowledge and crafts of their ancestors, and which promote the sharing of that with others. I’m always in awe of the passion of many of these women.

What question do you wish people would stop asking about your job?

‘Have you ever broken anything?’ This is a really uncomfortable question to ask someone who works as a conservator and whose main aim is to look after objects. But yes, I have. When you handle delicate objects every day, even with all the skills and training we have, it’s likely, though very unfortunate, that something will eventually happen. Obviously, it is heart-breaking, but accidents do happen, and at least as a conservator I am in the best position to be able to fix it.

Akiko Yano, Mitsubishi Corporation Curator, Japanese Section, Department of Asia

Tell us about your job – what’s a typical day like for you?

I’m a curator of the Japanese collections. Each day can be quite different except that there are always a lot of email reading and writing. On a quiet day, I try to stay in the store and examine collection objects for my research and collection management. On a busy day, I often meet and take care of visitors – researchers, students and other groups, diplomatic delegations, benefactors, etc. 

How did you get here?

I studied Japanese art history, with emphasis on late medieval to early-modern paintings, up to my doctorate in Japan. My first real encounter with Britain was the year in London when I got a scholarship from the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC) as a PhD student. I found London fascinating. I was a post-doctoral research fellow at SOAS University of London before joining the British Museum.

It may sound as if it were smooth sailing. But it was more like I somehow drifted along various currents in my post-doc period and finally landed ashore at the British Museum. Moving from my native country to a foreign one must have been a huge decision for me to make but I don’t remember a particular point when I made the choice – rather it was a gradual process in pursuit of my life and career

What’s your favourite part of the job?

Handling collection objects. I like to be in direct contact with the physicality and materiality of objects. I enjoy detailed visual observation. Finding unrecorded features and including them in the cross-museum database for future reference (it might be useful in decades’ time) is quite fulfilling.

Yamamoto Akane (1977–present), Leaf Boat. Coloured glass and gold leaf, 2019.
Courtesy of Adrian Sassoon, London.
What’s your favourite object in the collection?

There are so many in different ways. But I would select for the ‘women’s history’ theme the recently acquired Leaf Boat, an incredibly beautiful glass sculpture made in 2019 by a contemporary Japanese female artist Yamamoto Akane. Her combination of medium and techniques is unusual and delicate as she sandwiches intricate gold leaf patterns between pieces of glass, which is extremely difficult to achieve in perfection. She draws inspiration from reading The Tale of Genji, the voluminous novel of courtly romance written by a female author of c. 1000 AD Japan, Murasaki Shikibu. Yamamoto’s work can be termed a deep female sensitivity translated into contemporary form and aesthetics.

What’s your hidden gem in the Museum?

It is by no means hidden (on permanent display), but I always admire the tiny porcelain ‘chicken cup’ from 15th century Ming China, in the Percival David Gallery. It depicts on the outside a delightful scene of a family of cock, hen and chicks by the rock and flowers in a colourful and gentle palette. Despite its earthy adorable subject, it appears extremely delicate and sophisticated as a whole.

Porcelain wine cup. Jiangxi, China, 1465–1487.
Do you think women and men face different challenges in your area of work?

I understand that the male-female ratio in the curatorial area is weighing more towards females. In the nature of our work, I do not see much difference for men or women. However, people tend to assume that my boss is a man. Is it because the British Museum has a masculine image, perhaps? 

Stephanie Vasiliou, Assistant Collection Manager: Heavy Objects

Tell us about your job – what’s a typical day like for you?

I work as a heavy object handler affectionately referred to as a ‘Heavy’ among colleagues and friends – and my team is responsible for the safe handling, movement, display and packing of large, heavy and awkward objects across the Museum’s collection. I also work on loans, so I get to travel across the county and the world, transporting and installing British Museum objects at other heritage institutions. I may spend one day packing Assyrian reliefs for international loans and the next day installing the Crouching Venus (on long-term loan for the Royal Collection Trust) following a gallery refurbishment. Or I could be sat in a truck for five days travelling across Europe couriering objects to The State Hermitage Museum in Russia, or sitting in the cockpit of a cargo plane during take-off, having just overseen the palletising and loading of crates into the hold.

How did you get here?

Growing up, history was always my favourite subject – shocking for someone who works in a museum I know! –  so I chose to study archaeology at university.  Being a Rachel Weisz fan I was disappointed to find running from reanimated mummies took up considerably less of the course than I had been led to believe, and unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark there weren’t any lecturers that inspired me to write on my eyelids. But I did discover that I loved interacting with tangible history through the study and examination of objects.

This led me to a Masters in Conservation at UCL, during which I secured an internship in the Stone, Wall Paintings and Mosaics conservation studio at the British Museum. From that point on I wanted to be a stone conservator, having fallen in love with the artform and material. After two and half years working in stone conservation my contract came to an end and a position in the Heavies was advertised – it seemed like a great opportunity to learn new skills relating to the material and objects that I so loved working with.

What’s the hardest part of your role?

Handling the objects. A lot of what we do involves equipment and machinery, but often we have to move objects into place by hand, and when you’re working with a few tonnes, that isn’t easy. It’s quite an interesting combination, the need to be careful and delicate when handling objects of the scale and size that I do. Avoiding scuffing freshly painted plinths (platforms on which objects are displayed) is the bane of my professional life! In a broader sense, the ACM role is quite a low paid job that offers little in the way of job progression, and many people come to this role from similar backgrounds to myself. Many of us are here because we enjoy the work and care about the collection, and it can be very difficult to reconcile that with the low pay and limited opportunities for upward progression.

What’s your favourite object in the collection?

It’s hard to pick a favourite! I’ve been able to work with so many amazing objects over the years and you become quite attached. But, if I absolutely must, then I would say that the Nereid Monument in Gallery 17 is particularly special (is choosing a whole monument cheating?)

One thing I find truly remarkable about stone sculpture, and marble in particular, is how it can be made to look soft. The fluidity captured in the Chitons (tunics) worn by the sea goddesses is beautiful, demonstrating graceful movement and suppleness in a way that’s dynamic and real. The contrast between this and the rigid grandeur of the temple structure so perfectly encapsulates the versatility of this material and the artistry and craftsmanship involved in its manipulation. 

The Nereid Monument, Xanthos, Turkey, 390–380 BC.
Do you think women and men face different challenges in your area of work?

Unfortunately, I do. My role, and roles like mine, have traditionally been very male-dominated – highlighted by the fact that I was, until recently, the only woman in my team, and only the fourth to hold this position in the role’s history. I have found myself having to battle to be heard above my male counterparts. There have definitely been occasions when people have deferred authority to my male colleagues, seeking advice, guidance or permission from them, despite me being the leading object handler on the project. My colleagues are hugely experienced and great at what they do but it can be very disheartening to have to constantly assert your authority, just so the advice and expertise you have spent years developing can be respected and taken seriously. Thankfully, I work with a lovely team, who often try to steer these conversations back to me, which is a small, but valuable step, in dismantling the preconceived ideas of what someone who does my job looks like.

What changes would you like to see for women’s careers in the arts?

Ultimately, I would like to see better representation of women in the more senior positions, for example on the Board of Trustees, in the Directorate and senior management. While a number of management positions within the Museum are held by women – Head of Collection Care, Head of Exhibitions, Head of Collection Management to name a few – there still seems to be a lack of female leaders in the top most positions, not just within the Museum, but across the sector as a whole.

What’s something you’ve always wanted to tell people about your job, but nobody thinks to ask about?

I guess I would want to tell people that lifting large, heavy objects isn’t a ‘boys’ game’, as there can be a lot of stereotyping surrounding my job, which not only does a disservice to me as a woman, but also to my male colleagues, who can be reduced to archetypal ‘strongmen’. There’s a great deal of planning that goes into lifting and moving the types of objects that we handle, often involving specialist equipment, requiring training and expertise that we all work hard to complete and develop.

Tell us about the women who inspire you.

I am inspired by women daily, from activists to authors and politicians – the list is endless. However, as I’ve got older, I find myself  most inspired by the women around me. My colleagues who balance their professional careers with parenting and do both with total commitment and dedication. My friends who have worked multiple jobs, simultaneously, all in the pursuit of greater things. My mentors who inspire me to be just like them, constantly seeking the best for the collection, their colleagues and those who engage with the cultural heritage we safeguard.

I remember the first time I visited Oxford as child, thinking that it wasn’t hard to understand how Lewis Carrol found inspiration when writing his Alice books, and I have the same thought now, when I look around me. Whether it’s the power, resilience, determination and sacrifice of women who are represented in the collection or through the wonderful women I interact with day-to-day, it’s hard not to be inspired when working here.

Find out about women’s daily lives through history in Women in the Ancient World, available from the British Museum shop.