Cool Things You Can Do with an Arts Degree

May 2010

This is the second in a series of articles looking at interesting jobs you can get with different university degrees. This month we interviewed Mark Hornell with the City of Victoria and Dr. Robert Griffin at the Royal BC Museum.

Mark Hornell

  • Assistant Director of Community Planning, City of Victoria
  • Bachelors of Geography, Masters of Regional Planning, Certificate in Urban Design

Educational Background

For me, as a kid, I thrived on National Geographic magazines and looking at atlases, creating imaginary island societies, drawing, history, architecture, and being in the outdoors. There was a lot of family discussion of wildlife and animals, habitats, and landscapes.

Quite honestly, at the end of my high school years I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I ended up working at a pulp mill and realized that wasn’t what I wanted.
I did two years of university transfer courses at a community college before transferring to university. I don’t regret taking courses at college at all. The quality of instruction and the capacity to have relationships with your teachers there was as high as anywhere I’ve seen.

I saw geography as a way to keep my options open and allow me to do something that would cover as many of the bases of my interests as possible and wouldn’t force me into specializing too much.

For the first year, my course selection was pretty well all science courses, then the 2nd year was all arts. I was doing that deliberately because I saw it as important as a geographer to have a broad scope.

I enjoyed university a lot. For me it was a hugely formative experience. It was an opening up of the world for me then.

After my Bachelors, I got a job as a planning technician. I was able to try to apply what I had learned in university. I found it useful because it helped me to figure out what my interests were and where I wanted to go from there. Then I travelled for a year after that.

The travel capped it off for me. It gave me a chance to actually go to museums and see the art I had been reading about, walk the streets of cities I’d studied in university, negotiate transit systems in London, immersing myself in what had been book learning and theoretical up to that point for me.

Geography is a bridging discipline. It kind of bridges the arts and the sciences. Geography provides an awareness that there are a variety of points of view and ways of looking at a place, and you have to synthesize all of that together to get a fuller understanding of what you’re going to do.

Present Work

I manage a staff of 7. We develop urban policy for the city of Victoria. The big one we’re working on right now is the “Official Community Plan” which is the city master plan with a 30-year time frame.

City Planners hopefully pull something together that has benefit for people. We work with engineers and collaborate with other folks to synthesize the overall policy framework for the development of the city. The new downtown plan that will be coming out in the next month, looks at the physical, social, and economic development of the city, primarily with a spatial component to it. It’s talking about how the city develops as a physical place for people to meet their needs and aspirations. It has to be socially integrated, it has to have an economic base that allows people to thrive and meet their needs, and it needs to have the physical ‘place’ component to it that can support all of that.

I spend most of my time providing mentoring and coaching advice to the staff that is actually working on those projects. I’m a member of the management team of the city, so I’m involved in the other corporate policy stuff in one way or another.

Advice for Students

Try to pursue as omnivorous an education as possible.

Figure out what it is that really engages your imagination, that gets you excited, that you’re passionate about and try to find a way to study that more and if you are able to translate that into paid employment, so much the better.

Travel as much as you can.

Develop an ability to express yourself – graphically as well as verbally. Being nimble on your feet in response to questions is a critical skill. Be able to clearly articulate what the issue is, what the options are and what some possible solutions might be.
The more you read the better writer you’ll be.

Those are probably the two most important things that students can develop through university: the capacity to confidently stand up and talk to people and to really become a good writer.

If you find yourself interested in maps, natural environment, cities, and reading about places, geography is a good choice for you because it will allow you to pursue those interests in a structured way that will result in a degree at the end.


Dr. Robert Griffin

  • Manager, Human History, Royal BC Museum
  • BA History, MA History, PhD History

Educational Background

I’ve always been a collector and accumulator. As I child, I collected anything and everything. The classes that interested me in high school were history and geography, so I started with history at university.
I loved much of my schooling, but I disliked high school intensely. I found it far too regimented. Once I got to university, things opened up for me. I liked the freedom to pick and choose what I wanted to do. I liked to be able to work independently proposing projects to my professors and, if they agreed, doing semi-independent projects and papers.

When I finished my BA, the opportunity came up and I took a summer job in the History Section at the Royal BC Museum (then the BC Provincial Museum). I worked here for two summers and became interested in museum work.

I went directly into an MA after completing my BA. While I was in the program I managed to get a job at another museum – the BC Forest Museum.

I came to the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) as collections manager. At that time it was mostly on the job training; there weren’t any museum studies programs.

I’d always wanted to do a PhD, but I was already working full-time at the museum. It took longer to do than if I’d just gone to university for three years since I was working almost full-time while trying to do research and do my dissertation. In the end, it took me 9 years to complete it (partly because I like accumulating information but sitting down to write it out isn’t as much fun for me).

Present Work

I do a bit of history and a lot of administration. Basically what I’m responsible for is British Columbia’s human history collections at the RBCM (but not our natural history).

Our main focus is to preserve and maintain. We have a representative collection of what British Columbians used in their everyday lives, at work, at home or at play.

We get into some difficult decisions around what should be preserved. When we’re looking at preserving objects and data, we’re not simply looking at preserving and displaying for today’s audience. We need to consider how to preserve historical objects and data for future audiences as well.

So, for example, we’re involving the museum, in cold storage – freezing film and tapes to protect them against disintegration.

You can’t be a specialist in a museum – you need to know all kinds of things. I get to do a lot of different things: public programs, presentations, talks, research, putting together ideas behind exhibits, deciding what’s preserved for BC history (with consultation, of course). I collaborate with people and together we put our ideas together into physical form.

I do the typical work of an administrator: work plans, policies, procedures, but my first love is research and organizing collections.

Advice for Students

You have to try something to see if you like it. Go to university, and take courses and see how you feel about them.

The broader the person, the better. Develop a broad range of interests, then you can choose what you want to focus in on.

To do well, you need to study and have good work habits. You need to be willing to read and remember what you’ve read. Also, you need to learn to write – to present information to people.

It’s very beneficial to learn how to work in a team – to hold one’s own in a group – anyone can cultivate these skills if they want to.

If you have an interest in objects, history or research, you may enjoy a career in museums. To see if it interests you, volunteer at a small museum so you can get a variety of experience. Join organizations, like local history societies, and talk to people. There are publications on old homes in Victoria, see if that kind of thing interests you. Or, you could look into the Hallmark Society in Victoria for more about preserving historical and architectural landmarks. If you like working with paper, visit the BC Archives. And, the annual Historica fair is a project-based event for students that you might like to get involved in.

Basically, figure out what kinds of things you like to do. Then, give some things a try to see if you really do like them or not.