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Dr Geoffrey Belknap

Details of PhD

History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, 2011. 

Current position

Head Curator, National Science and Media Musuem. 

Job highlight

Getting to translate the importance of history to a wide audience. 

Case study conducted

April 2020. 

What’s your background? 

I started my research career being a bit of an outsider – and found a discipline which welcomed that. I had studied history at BA and MA level in Canada, focusing primarily on gender and sexuality histories in the 17th and 18th centuries. It wasn’t until late in my Master’s degree that I found the subject areas that would shape the rest of my career – the history of science and history of photography. 

I was very lucky to have mentors who encouraged me to continue into grad school, and follow a research subject – the use of photography in 19th century scientific communication – in which I had no foundational disciplinary training. 

Completing my PhD in the history and philosophy of science gave me the flexibility to follow my research interests, while at the same time develop the experience working in museums that would be key to moving beyond academia later in my career. While studying for my PhD I had the chance to do two internships in museums – the first at the Science Museum and the second at the National Maritime Museum. 

Later, when I was a postdoc on a large and collaborative Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Project, I was able to gain more experience working at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London studying the use of images in the 19th century natural history periodicals. 

All of my research and experience ultimately lead me towards working as a museum professional – where I have the opportunity to combine research and public engagement. 

Why did you move beyond academia? 

By 2017 I had been working as a postdoctoral researcher for five years. I had been able to work in the US and the UK on two large and collaborative research projects – the first at Harvard coordinating a branch of the Darwin Correspondence Project, and the second at the NHM and University of Leicester on the AHRC large cluster project ‘Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries.’ 

During this time, I was able to research and write a book and articles, teach some courses and establish myself within my disciplinary research communities. 

At the same time, however, I was able to gain experience in a number of different museums, and better understand how to effectively communicate research to public audiences. When I came to the job market at the end of my postdoc, I was already starting to think about moving into the museum sector. 

Why did you choose the sector you’ve moved into? 

In many ways, it was a combination of luck and timing that allowed me to move into a permanent role within a museum at the end of my research postdoc. In 2017, I was offered the position as Curator of Photography and Photographic Technology at the National Science and Media Museum – a museum and role which is part of the larger Science Museum Group. 

I decided to take this position because it offered the perfect opportunity to combine my research specialism – the history of photography – with my interests in material/object history. 

More fundamentally, the job also gave me the opportunity to change who I was doing research for – rather than producing articles and monographs for a community of subject specialists, being a curator required me to ask new questions of myself and my research: why does this matter and who cares? 

How did you get this job? 

Like the rest of my career, my success was predicated on the support and mentorship of the people around me. I first heard of the position from colleagues in the history of photography who regularly worked with the museum and its collections. I was encouraged to apply for the position by these colleagues, as well as a friend and colleague who worked in a University close to the museum. 

As part of the application process, I really focused on reshaping my cover letter to demonstrate how my previous experience working in museums had given me the practical experience to transition to a museum role. 

I think the key to my success was being able to demonstrate that my experience as a research academic who had been trained in museum practice would bring a unique perspective and skill set to the role. At the same time, it was very important to acknowledge in my application and interview the areas that I still needed to learn – the museum profession has a very well-established career pathway. 

“I think the key to my success was being able to demonstrate that my experience as a research academic who had been trained in museum practice would bring a unique perspective and skill set to the role.” 

Did you receive any support from anyone at your University while applying for jobs? 

I was given support by my postdoctoral supervisor at the University of Leicester while I was applying for the job. He encouraged me to apply, wrote me reference letters, and read drafts of my CV and cover letter. I also had the opportunity to talk to colleagues at the NHM to ask them what they would be looking for in a candidate, and how I might shape my CV more effectively. 

How did your postdoc prepare you for your current job? 

All of the experience I gained during my two postdocs are essential skills that I use in my current role. Research, writing and presenting at workshops and conferences remain a core part of my work – and the networks I built during my PhD and postdocs remain essential to my current role. 

One of the other major skills I gained when I was working at the University of Leicester and NHM was the ability to plan and develop successful public engagement events. For example, when I was a postdoc I regularly gave magic lantern shows to university and museum audiences, where I spoke about the importance of visual culture to the communication of science in the 19th century. 

I use this experience regularly in my work in the museum, whether it is during a collections tour or in developing an event for one of our exhibitions. 

The other key skill I learned in both my postdoc at Harvard and the University of Leicester was people management. In 2018, I was promoted to Head Curator at the museum, where I manage and oversee the work of a team of archivists and curators. As a postdoc I was able to gain my first experience as a line manager and supervisor. 

What were the first few weeks of being in your new role like?

Like any new job – especially one in a new discipline – the first six months were dedicated to finding my feet. I found that there were lots of things that I needed to learn which made me really slow at my job – whether that was the cataloguing system or how decisions were made within the institution. For the first couple of months I felt like a fish out of water. 

The thing that made it all possible was that I had a very supportive manager, who gave me the time to learn the ropes – and a great set of colleagues who never made me feel foolish for not knowing something and were always patient in helping me find an answer. 

“When I was inside the academy, when I thought of a career trajectory which didn’t culminate in a professorship – I often framed it as what I would have to give up. Now that I am in my current role, all I can think of is the things I gained.” 

Can you describe a typical week in your job? 

My current role is really varied. I split my week mostly in three general tasks, however. The first is supporting and developing the work of the curatorial team – whether through one-to-one meetings, setting new tasks, or helping them achieve their goals. 

The second task is focused on strategy and governance for the museum – whether that is taking part in meetings where we decide on which exhibitions to take in the museum, or working with colleagues across the Science Museum Group to develop a new strategy for collecting in the digital age, or chairing meetings where we decide which collections to bring into the museum. 

The third part of my job is focused on research and engagement – which allows me to continue to research, publish and present on different parts of our collections to academic, museum and public audiences. This last task might include giving a talk to a camera club or working with colleagues to develop new object-focused galleries for the museum. 

Have you found the workplace culture to differ from that in academia?

My current workplace is very different from academia. The primary difference is that I work in a much larger team setting, where we work collaboratively to produce most of our work. One of the other main differences is that the background and knowledge of my co-workers are all quite varied, with roles and responsibilities that are very different from those in academia. 

However, what they all have, and which I have the pleasure to learn from every day, is a drive to make heritage accessible to as many people as possible. This pushes me to think every day about who I am doing my work for, and how I can better communicate it. 

Do former postdocs get hired in your company often? 

We hire people with a broad educational background in both the museum and the curatorial team. About half of the team has a PhD in their subject specialism, and other teams – such as the exhibition and educational teams – regularly hire people who have completed a PhD and postdoc. 

Is there anything you miss about academia? 

I’m privileged in my position that I get to remain connected to academia. I am still able to develop and supervise PhD students, develop grant proposals, and obtain fellowships with local universities. I don’t, however, get to interact with students as much as I did when I was a postdoc – which I do miss. 

Any advice to postdocs considering a career beyond academia?  

Try not to think of a job outside of academia as shifting or changing career trajectories. When I was inside the academy, when I thought of a career trajectory which didn’t culminate in a professorship – I often framed it as what I would have to give up. 

Now that I am in my current role, all I can think of is the things I gained. I gained a collaborative work culture with people who are driven by a desire to make history meaningful to everyone. That gives me a sense of purpose which I never had in academia, and I am grateful for the opportunity to discover that. 

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