Finding a Foot in the Door: Advice for Someone Thinking About a Career in Heritage

Policy Letters of Advice - Debate 2023

Dear Colleague,

So, you want to work in the heritage sector. I wish you, in all sincerity, the best of luck. The sector can feel impenetrable at times, and maybe you’ve already started sending off job applications through anonymous online job vacancy portals, feeling as though you’re sending off your hopes and dreams into the abyss, as you begin to realise you rarely, if ever, hear back from any of them. I have been you, and I never want to pretend to someone in those shoes that it’s going to be easy.

I hope that, if it’s what you really want to do, you’ll get lucky, and find a foothole in somehow – whether that be a holiday internship at a central office, volunteering at a heritage site, or an entry-level job. You’ll begin, slowly, to understand how the patchwork of heritage organisations all fits together, and which ones you admire, which ones you want to work for, and which leave you cold or baffled. You’ll realise the sheer breadth of jobs in heritage, far more than you’d ever realised, and that figuring out which one of these you really want to do will take time. And that that’s OK!

The heritage sector can be incredibly rewarding. It is full of people with passion for the work they do, people who care deeply about history, landscapes, buildings and community, about tiny niche corners of local heritage and about the breadth of the UK’s shared national and global heritage. It’s about working to recognise the joy and colour our diverse built and natural landscapes bring to everyday life – whether that be through creating a sense of place in the town, cities and homes we live in or through spaces and places we enjoy in our leisure time, with friends and family. You’ll find friends, allies and mentors in the sector, supportive colleagues who are eager to share their knowledge, and you’ll find so many opportunities to learn and grow professionally.

It has its downsides too. Heritage can be notoriously poorly-paid, often (but not always) relying on people working in the sector for love rather than money. This means it’s often the reserve of the privileged and startlingly un-diverse. You’ll meet more grey-haired men in suits than you’ll know what to do with (and you’ll get used to them regularly assuming you’re a secretary). You might need to work hard at maintaining your work-life balance, because it’s oh-so-tempting to say ‘yes’ to things beyond working hours and expectations in a sector where loving your job is the norm.  

I can’t promise the heritage sector will be right for you. But I can tell you that I have found there are rarely dull days working in heritage, that I almost always find my work stimulating, dynamic, and interesting. And that ultimately, if you want to be part of the change to make the sector more open, more diverse and more accessible, it’s easier to do that from the inside than the out.

Good luck!

Sarah Roller, Education and Policy Manager at Historic Houses