Mention Crystal Mah-Wing
Interview by Lyla Johnston

Museum of London’s project assistant Crystal Mah-Wing on feeling the fear and doing it anyway

As a project assistant at the Museum of London, Crystal Mah-Wing’s job is to document items that are usually accompanied by a “do not touch” sign. After completing Culture& and Create Jobs’ year-long traineeship with the museum – and briefly working for Create Jobs itself – Crystal returned to work at the museum, handling its various collections as the team prepare their move to West Smithfield. As well as working as a custodian, she is also self-taught in artistic anatomy and figure drawing, with aspirations to further her career in art crime. Here, Crystal discusses networking, facing your fears and how daunting it feels to be the youngest person in the room.

Crystal Mah-Wing

Crystal Mah-Wing


Job Title

Project Assistant, Museum of London

Based

London

Previous Employment

Programme Assistant, Create Jobs (2019-2020)
Collection Management Trainee, Museum of London (2018-2019)

Social Media

Instagram
Twitter

What I do

How would you describe your job? And specifically what you do at the Museum of London?
My job is to document the collection in preparation for the museum’s move to West Smithfield. My work includes handling different types of collections – such as metals and printed ephemera – and then measuring, photographing and writing about them. I would describe my job as being similar to a custodian of the collection, making sure the collection is cared for appropriately.

What’s the weirdest thing on your desk right now?
Luckily, I have many different desks that I work from in the museum. The most interesting thing there today is a pack of playing cards from 1679, decorated with scenes relating to the fictitious Popish Plot to assassinate King Charles II in 1678 (below).

Crystal’s workspace
Crystal’s workspace

What recent project are you most proud of?
Outside of the museum I work on my own artistic projects and self-learning; I constantly work on my career progression and getting to the next step. I don’t have a specific piece of work that I am proud of, but managing my projects with my career progression and being a fully-fledged adult is definitely an achievement.

“It’s good to remind yourself that this is somebody’s history out there. That’s why it’s so important to document it!”

What kind of skills are needed to do your role? And would you say you need any specific training to do what you do?
I think anyone doing my role would need to have an appreciation for collections of any sort. Sometimes I wonder why we have certain objects in the collection, as they can be very random, but it’s good to remind yourself that this is somebody’s history out there. That’s why it’s so important to do what I do and to document it!

I would say that the key skills for my role are patience, motivation and having a keen eye; some knowledge of using databases is helpful but you can learn most technical skills on the job!

If you could pick one meme to describe what it’s like to work at the museum, what would it be and why?
(Below) My job involves being hands-on with the collection, so the “do not touch” signs don’t apply – unless, of course, we really shouldn’t touch it for safety reasons!

How I got here

How did you land the job?
I trained in collection management at the Museum of London as part of an external programme called New Museum School, run by Culture& and Create Jobs. On this programme, I learnt about collection management on the job and joined several projects during the course of my training. I joined the team that I work with now for one day a week and gained the skills I needed to do my current role.

What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
As I had already been at the museum previously, I found it easy to settle into my team and the work. I had already practiced the majority of my daily tasks and had an understanding of what I needed to do. That being said, I continue to learn new things every day – even a year into the role!

Crystal Mah Wing projectassistant creativelivesinprogress 05

Anatomical drawings by Crystal

Crystal Mah Wing projectassistant creativelivesinprogress 06

Anatomical drawings by Crystal

“I continue to learn new things every day, even a year into the role!”

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Firstly, there is an initiative that the V&A set up called Culture in Crisis; I find the workshops insightful and very useful to attend because they help with my career progression and networking. I aim to work within art crime, security and investigation, so it’s inspiring to see initiatives like the V&A’s taking place.

Secondly, the museum world is also quite big on Twitter, so you can always find something useful there!

Finally, my close-knit peer group both inspire and motivate me; I don’t think I could manage certain situations if my peer group didn’t support me the way that they do!

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge has probably been adjusting to being the youngest person in the room, which can be daunting sometimes. Learning how to be professional in an environment that you might not be accustomed to, and knowing how to communicate with people who are older or in more senior positions to you can be hard.

“Learning how to communicate with people who are in senior positions to you can be hard.”

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
Know your worth, know your priorities and learn how to money manage. I’m open to having conversations with my peers about managing finances – I think this openness is really important because academia doesn’t teach you this part of life. It’s helped me to manage my expectations of earning money in the creative industry, as an artist and a museum worker.

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
Someone very close to me once told me that sometimes, “good enough, is good enough” and I can’t express how much I have to remind myself of this. I always try to do my absolute best and give 100%, but sometimes, our expectations of ourselves can exceed reality and what we have the capacity to do – especially if we felt we could’ve done better.

I also live by the phrase “be afraid and do it anyway”, I think psychologist and author Susan Jeffers first came up with a version of this. It’s like that phrase, “when was the last time you did something for the first time?” So I always think “be afraid and try something new”.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Network and build your own knowledge and understanding. Start by knowing what organisation or collection you might want to work with and who works there. See if the organisation run any workshops or events that you can go to, then go and network!

Next, look for programmes aimed at young people to help build your skill set if you don’t have relevant skills for the jobs advertised. The most important thing, however, is learning from interesting people in the industry, and having some knowledge and interest to spark good conversation.

Mention Crystal Mah-Wing
Interview by Lyla Johnston