Curator of the Month: Christopher James Young, Preston Park Museum & Grounds
Christopher Young on how Art Fund's Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant helped him research Colonel Gilbert Ormerod Spence's watercolours.
Name and job title:
Christopher James Young – Collections Access Assistant
What inspired you to become a curator?
From inspirational history teachers, trips to the Great North Museum, and playing the amazing British-produced game series ‘Broken Sword’, which is steeped in history and museum culture, my journey to curation is one of mixed influences. I studied History at university and wanted to express my love of the subject in a professional capacity. But, when the 2008 recession hit and life got tougher, I needed to support my family and took a job as a Job Centre adviser where I worked for five years. It was wearing me down until I dropped a day at work and took a curating postgraduate course at Sunderland University, which was a life saver. I poured my passion into the course and my fellow students and lecturers were all an inspiration for me to keep going during the difficult moments. I was very fortunate to then find work in the museum sector in a curatorial role.
What was your first job in the museum world – and how did you get to where you are now?
My first job was as a collections volunteer, following my postgraduate course. I was working at a lovely local museum called Kirkleatham Museum in North Yorkshire, next to my home village. The museum needed support in this area, as the collections officer was fairly new to the post. As a team, we all worked incredibly well together to organise inventories, care for the collection and prepare it for exhibitions. The, through the Tyne and Wear Museum and Archives' core skills course, I was able to gain more specific skills, which I use in my role today.
What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?
The highlight of my career so far was being the curatorial lead for Preston Park Museum and Grounds' summer exhibition, Spence – The Art of War. I was identified, due to my love of military history, to make an application for Art Fund's Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant. I applied to research the Colonel of the 5th Durham Light Infantry, Gilbert Ormerod Spence, and the watercolours he painted during his time on the home front. It was a privilege to do this work and honour members of the Durham Light Infantry. After the exhibition opened many members of the public and veterans of other conflicts gave really positive feedback. Although I had some lead responsibilities, the whole collections team and museum colleagues brought it all together.
If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?
Keep going in any capacity and build up from there, whether it’s dedicating some time to study, volunteer or getting involved in community art and history projects. From that you can try to make links to museum professionals who, if you prove your worth, will be more than willing to help you.
What’s special about working at your organisation?
I once read in a comment book that Preston Park Museum and Grounds was the ‘Jewel of the Region’ and it really is. It has a great setting with its Victorian Street, a great collection (from Spence’s militaria, to fine art like De La Tour's The Dice Players), and great people, many of whom are like a second family to me. In my working day, I have such a varied role that I might be called upon to set up a display or exhibition, or work with a member of the public in our archive, going through the stories of their family history. To see them light up at new finds is very rewarding. I think it must be one of the best places to work in the country and I very much appreciate my role.
What are your favourite objects in your collection and why?
The Spence weaponry, housed in a brilliant display case we call the ‘weapons explosion’, is a great mixture of edged weapons and firearms that Spence collected during his lifetime. We even have archive which shows items he collected during his service in the First World War.
An additional favourite is one of Spence’s most poignant watercolours of the Battle of Estaires in which he marshalled the defence against the rapid push of German forces during the Spring Offensive of 1918. During this battle he suffered an injury that took him out action for the remainder of the war, but many texts acknowledge the role he played in slowing the German advance.
Away from work, how do you spend your free time?
I like to travel, home and abroad, and am looking forward to the opportunity to go to Russia this year. Also, I am a massive nerd so I spend a fair few evenings playing competitive games online with friends.
What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?
I recently attended training at the Oriental Museum in Durham, for Bladed Weapons and Japanese Sword Collections Care, run in partnership with the British Museum. While there, I had the opportunity to look around the 'Dressed to Impress: Netsuke and Japanese Men's Fashion' exhibition, which was an excellent display of artistry from the Edo period. Not only was the display impressive but there was a demonstration of Japanese swordsmanship in the gallery by Colin Young and the students of his Shodai Ryu dojo. The period attire of the swordsmen was also very fitting, as were their amazing Japanese swords, similar to those on display.
Find out how to apply for an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant.