Curator of the Month: Mia Jackson, English Heritage

Mia Jackson shares her journey from volunteer at the British Museum to curator of collections at English Heritage.

Name and job title

Mia Jackson Curator of Collections (London and East English Heritage).

What inspired you to become a curator?

Whenever I am asked why I chose this career I always jokingly say that I could never stand to see a closed door, and this has certainly played a large part in my motivation. My awakening to the decorative arts can, I think, be at least partly dated in my undergraduate degree. I specialised in c17th and c18th French literature and became keenly aware of book illustrations, especially those that depicted c18th interiors. I also developed a penchant for strange c18th French fairy tales where characters were transformed by evil fairies into chamber-pots and sofas.

What was your first job in the museum world – and how did you get to where you are now?

Whilst reading for my MA in c18th French decorative arts at the Courtauld, under the inspired instruction of Katie Scott, I began volunteering at the British Museum. I had noticed a cache of books on ceramics in my college library at Oxford, including on the French porcelain that had begun to fascinate me. I tracked down their author, Dr Aileen Dawson, and volunteered with her one day a week throughout my MA. When a museum assistant job in the Prints and Drawings department came up, she advised me to apply. I stayed in the department for four years, getting the best art-historical education I could have dreamt of from Solander boxes and boxes of the most amazing prints and drawing. It was fantastic but I missed the decorative arts and yearned for the Wallace Collection, in conjunction with whom I had done my MA. When a museum assistant job came up there, I applied and spent three happy years under the dazzling directorship of Rosalind Savill. She encouraged me to continue my academic research and I completed a doctoral thesis on the French furniture maker André Carles Boulle and his collection of prints and drawings. After three years funded by the Lindsay Boynton Studentship for the History of Furniture, I wanted to get back into full-time work. During my time at the Wallace Collection, I had completed the Attingham Summer School, which opened my eyes to working in historic houses rather than museums. I became curator of collections at EH in January 2015, and I have curatorial responsibility for the collections at Audley End House, Essex, and Wrest Park Bedfordshire, both of which are magnificent houses.

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

I am lucky to have had many career highlights, but those that stick in my mind always involve extraordinary objects. I will never forget in my first week as acting curator of furniture at the Wallace Collection, looking at Louis XVs commode by Gaudreaus with the wonderful Daniel Alcouffe. Acquiring five paintings that had been sold or given away from Wrest Park in 1917 last year with the generous assistance of the Art Fund was a thrilling moment for me. The immersive experiences of the Attingham Summer School and Royal Collections Studies confirmed me in my curatorial creed and were defining moments that will continue to inform my work for the rest of my career. The biggest challenge was leaving the Wallace Collection. Although the time had come for me to do my thesis, it was a real wrench to leave such a perfect collection.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

Look and handle! Look at as many objects with as many people as possible. Join societies and go on study days so that you can handle objects. There is a physical knowledge of objects that can only be learnt through experience.

What’s special about working at your museum/gallery/organisation?

Audley End is one of the most atmospheric houses I know. It manages to cover about three centuries of art history. It has everything from Jacobean magnificence to neoclassical intimacy to Victorian eclecticism, sometimes all in the same room.

What are your favourite objects in your collection/exhibition and why?

I think the Little Drawing Room, which was designed by Robert Adam and painted by Biagio Rebecca, is a jewel box of a room. All its furniture was designed for the room. Another of my favourites is an extraordinary commode at Audley End, one of a pair, whose exaggerated rococo silhouette and intricate gilt-bronze mounts have managed to somehow conceal its history. We do not know who made it, but my guess is a foreign craftsman working in London in the mid-18th century. Not only do I love it as an object but I find its mystery enthralling, and hope to find out more. Thanks to the Art Fund I was able to purchase a Lely that had left Wrest Park in 1917, and returning it to its c19th home, in the frame that the Earl de Grey had it in, will be a thrill.

Away from work, how do you spend your free time?

I am lucky enough to live on site so I spend a lot of time tramping around the park with our two jack russells, Pixie and Kiki.

What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?

I really enjoyed the recent Riesener show at Waddesdon Manor. I thought the way it encouraged the audience to think about how these luxurious pieces of furniture were made was done exceptionally well.

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