Curator of the Month: Poppy Learman & Liz Stewart, National Museums Liverpool
Poppy and Liz share their career highlights and talk about curating the Museum of Liverpool’s Pembroke Place exhibition, which reveals the history of a fascinating corner of the city.
How did you start out as curators?
Poppy Learman: I have always been interested in working with underrepresented groups in creative ways. I regularly volunteered from the age of 16 and took part in a creative apprenticeship at Tate Liverpool when I was 18. This was designed as an alternative route into the arts, allowing me to work and study while being based in their education department.
Following this I worked in various Liverpool arts establishments, before studying at Central Saint Martins college of art and design in London.
From here I worked for an Arts Council England initiative called Creative People and Places, designed to increase arts engagement in the most disengaged parts of England. My focus has always been on telling the stories of people, communities and organisations that have been long neglected by the wider heritage sector.
Liz Stewart: I’ve worked in many museum roles and was always interested in working both with collections and with visitors. Currently, as well as being project manager for the Galkoff’s and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place project, I am the curator of archaeology and historic environment at the Museum of Liverpool.
I was first inspired to work in a museum when I was a member of the ‘Museum Club’ at Kendal Museum when I was a child. This club used natural history, archaeology and social history collections to engage an enthusiastic bunch of kids in the world around them. We even created a museum nature garden in the back yard – my first taste of digging, which perhaps inspired my love of field archaeology! I studied archaeology at Durham University (BA), York (MA) and Leicester (PhD).
What was your first job in the museum world, and what did you learn from your role that helped you secure your next one?
Liz: I did a lot of voluntary work at museums and on archaeological excavations as a teenager. I got my first museum job while I was studying for my PhD, and I worked as a gallery attendant at the Merseyside Maritime Museum.
This was a great job, working with a lovely team of people. I learned a lot, talking to visitors and understanding how they viewed exhibitions and used interactives. This, and my time working with visitors in the education team, was invaluable when I moved into a role developing content for the Museum of Liverpool.
In researching content and devising exhibitions for the Museum of Liverpool I could draw on experience of knowing how visitors interacted with exhibitions and how we could present stories in a variety of ways to engage people in their past.
Poppy: My first official museum job was as a creative apprentice at Tate Liverpool. This was a pilot scheme to allow young people to gain hands-on experience in creative institutions. I had a wonderful year, from running workshops, tours and outreach to presenting at conferences and writing funding applications. I very quickly realised how many people and departments were involved in getting everything done. However, I would say the main thing I learned, something simple that has stuck with me, is the importance of a friendly face!
You worked together on the Galkoff's and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool. Can you tell us a little about that experience and what visitors can expect from the exhibition?
Liz and Poppy: Galkoff's and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place is a partnership project between the Museum of Liverpool (National Museums Liverpool) and Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
This social history project focuses on two main heritage sites located just a few buildings apart; Galkoff’s Kosher butcher shop and its green art deco tiled frontage and Watkinson’s Terrace, Liverpool’s last example of Victorian ‘slum’ court housing.
Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project has many strands. From working with just under 70 research volunteers to running community consultations, archaeological excavations, presenting at international conferences and collecting oral histories, the beauty of this unusual project is that every day is completely different.
Having worked on the project together for the last two years, recently our curatorial research and collections work has culminated in the Galkoff’s and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place exhibition opening at the Museum of Liverpool. This showcases all 855 of Galkoff’s green tiles, along with the weird and wonderful hidden stories of the street.
We were lucky enough to receive a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant to travel to New York in January 2018 as part of this project. The trip was filled with amazing opportunities such as meeting with senior staff at the Tenement Museum and experiencing different approaches to telling immigration stories, such as visiting the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.
What do you think are the most important skills a curator needs to have?
Liz and Poppy: Coming from very different pathways it has been interesting to work together and to see how many of our approaches to curatorial work overlap, especially on this story-led local history project. We both think it’s important to approach our work with creativity, whether through selections we make within our collections, storytelling or engagement.
We have developed a strong awareness of the strengths or weaknesses within our collections, especially in relation to the stories we wish to tell. Organisation and planning have been key, knowing what we are working with and being open to different ways of interpreting the past.
Presenting a range of subjects within the Pembroke Place exhibition, from Kosher butchery to Victorian roller skating, raised questions around tone and context for the visitor. An aspect which we both agree on is the fine balance and challenge of how much knowledge to expect from a visitor, especially when exploring community history.
Have there been any particularly challenging moments as a curator, and what would you say are the challenges that a museum curator faces more generally?
Liz and Poppy: There are many approaches and stereotypes of different curators, and there’s certainly no rule book! We would say the most common challenges relate to funding, both gaining this and its influence on the projects we’re able to deliver.
For a project such as Galkoff’s and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place, funding has enabled us to explore an area of the city with very little existing research on it. This project has been a wonderful experience, enabling us to develop our collections of both objects and oral histories, building meaningful relationships with and telling the stories of communities in the city.
Unfortunately the nature of such projects is that they can only last so long, meaning lack of job security, unemployment and the inevitability of dwindling community relationships. From our experience, although all projects have to come to an end, reduced resources and ‘helicopter projects’ create huge challenges for museums in maintaining sincere representation.
What are your favourite objects in the collection and why?
Liz: I find the Huxley Hoard fascinating. This is a group of Viking silver arm bands. This decorative jewellery is of a type found in Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland and northern England. Whether these objects were made locally or travelled some distance they are associated with Vikings who moved to this area in the early 10th century AD, and their story of migration and settlement. I’m intrigued by the mystery associated with this hoard of valuable objects, and I often wonder what happened to their owner, and why they were buried and never retrieved.
Poppy: One of my favourite objects in our collections is a Chinese porcelain musical ornament with flashing lights. This is currently on display as part of the ‘Home and neighbourhoods’ exhibit in the People’s Republic gallery at the Museum of Liverpool. It plays a traditional Mandarin Chinese tune called Huang mei diao, which translates as Yellow Blossom.
It was donated by Mrs Chan in 2006, who moved to Liverpool from mainland China in 1987. The musical ornament is the only object she brought with her to remind her of home. She carried the ornament in her arms for the full journey from China to Hong Kong by train, before flying to the UK.
Poppy Learman is project curator and Liz Stewart is project manager of Galkoff’s and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place, supported by a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant from Art Fund.