Museum Makers: Museum of the Year shortlist
We speak to some of the people behind each of the museums shortlisted for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2019 about their highlights of the past year, and what makes their museum so special.
Lisa Hannon, marketing assistant, HMS Caroline, Belfast
On her first day as HMS Caroline’s marketing assistant, the former front of house staff member describes how her background in social history helped with speaking to visitors, and how HMS Caroline is an important resource for exploring Northern Irish history and culture.
When I started working at the museum as front of house staff, I thought I would always be on the till or serving drinks. How wrong I was! I was participating directly with visitors and customers and relying quite heavily on my freshly secured history degree. Working front of house over the past 18 months has prepared me for every eventuality.
Having studied Irish and social history, my interest in HMS Caroline lay predominantly in the lives of the sailors on board. This interest quickly became a passion as I started meeting visitors to the ship, who had been commissioned reserves and Wrens [Women's Royal Naval Service] from World War Two when HMS Caroline fulfilled a function as communications hub for the North Atlantic Fleet. Many of these people, quite elderly now, had met their future partners and some had even gone on to name their daughters Caroline!
HMS Caroline was much more than a British naval asset in Ireland. Northern Ireland is a fast-changing place and society here is progressing, becoming more diverse and multicultural. There is an appetite among nationalists and unionists now to better understand our shared history and HMS Caroline provides a great platform on which to explore this.
People from all communities are participating in our outreach and education programme to mark the 100th anniversary of the partition of Ireland. This date chimes with HMS Caroline’s arrival in Belfast in 1924. This means the ship has a direct historic value and modern relevance which people are increasingly open to exploring and discovering.
The ship is hugely exciting as a museum with some of the best hands-on activities of any such venue. If you don’t believe me, ask the historian Dan Snow!
Amanda Spruyt, head of learning, Nottingham Contemporary
The gallery's head of learning gives us an insight into their many learning initiatives, as well as the experience of taking the local Nottingham community's art and stories to the Houses of Parliament.
Learning is such a key part of what we do. There is so much fantastic work happening with our local groups and schools, with families, young people and older people and communities across our city and region, that every day is a joy. I can wholeheartedly say that I love my job and feel richer for the connections and relationships we have.
One of our programmes, Loudspeaker, has been supporting women with multiple and complex needs and it’s had a transformational impact. It's been part of what we do for the last six years and we were thrilled to learn this week that it can continue for a further three years.
We have such a busy programme that every day brings a new moment of learning or a new possibility to get excited and enthused about. Whether working with community groups and local musicians for the city’s refugees' weekend, developing new work experience programmes for young people, or planning a new artist residency and outreach programme with local families.
Our First Waves exhibition at the Houses of Parliament was my highlight of the past year. The project worked with local people to explore the legacy of Race Relations legislation in the UK. The group created a series of striking portraits with artist Scarlett Crawford to explore their experience and relationship to those laws. We all went down for the opening and it was a very special day – the portraits looked fantastic in Westminster Hall. It’s brilliant that Nottingham people – their art and stories – are now part of the collection in Parliament.
My advice for someone interested in the field of education in museums would be to gain experience working with lots of different people. Join community groups, take part in community projects, and work in night shelters and day centres. The key thing for working within a learning and engagement team is the relationships with people; its all about facilitating new experiences and supporting meaningful encounters and dialogue between people and in relation to artworks. It is an incredibly rewarding and stimulating role; you can have types of conversations with people that don’t tend to happen anywhere else. The better you get at supporting and valuing people and their stories the richer the role becomes.
Marina de Alarcón, joint head of collections, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Marina explains the importance of bringing collections out of museum storage and having crucial conversations about artefacts in the era of colonial restitution.
Objects are so much more than simply old things in quirky Victorian cases. My core role is to provide access to our collections in the broadest possible sense. It sometimes feels like collections work can be dismissed or seen as unimportant. However, a lot happens behind the scenes, bringing the contents of filing cabinets to light or working away in dark, cold stores.
The part of my job that I most enjoy is working with indigenous communities. It is not necessarily easy but it is very rewarding. Without forging new and ongoing relationships we are nothing more than gatekeepers to a largely colonial collection. While we try our best to treat all objects and people with respect, I find it a privilege and deeply humbling when I get to work with a group who have a very different relationship with an object.
Pondering big questions about the potential return of cultural property goes hand in hand with thinking through how this might work in practice. A highlight of my work in the past year has been working on the museum’s returns policy. I realise that writing policy documents is not much fun, but the impact of this policy could be wide-ranging and has the potential to dramatically change the museum and how we work in the future.
As a student, I was told that it was highly unlikely I would ever get a job in a museum. I was sure I wanted to work in a museum or gallery but had no idea how. While studying languages at university I volunteered at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery in both the Oriental Art and Ethnography departments. My first paid job came a year later, as collections assistant at the Pitt Rivers. I’m not sure that your first job being your dream job is something I would recommend, as when you love the collections you work with it makes it difficult to leave.
Elen Phillips, principal curator of contemporary and community history, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff
St Fagans’ principal curator speaks about the emotional effect of the development project, and how her role is an adventure.
I’ve been in this role since 2013, and I’m still learning every day. I work with community partners to develop projects that explore new ways of interpreting collections through collaboration and co-production. I’ve met and worked with some incredible people over the past six years who have generously shared their lived experiences and knowledge with me. Veterans, refugees, peace activists, former miners, Windrush elders – I could go on. I also curate the museum’s textile collection. We have around 15,000 items in this collection, representing 400 years of fashion and textile consumption in Wales.
“An extreme historical adventure”: this is how a teenager who I worked with on an intergenerational oral history project described the process and also, in a way, sums up my job.
I love the buzz of community work – being out there, making things happen with people and collections. I don’t really have a ‘typical’ working day. One day I could be out and about meeting community partners and delivering projects, the next I could be back in the office writing reports, wading through emails and dealing with enquiries.
The redevelopment project at St Fagans had been part of my life and many others for almost a decade, so it was an emotional and proud moment when we opened those gallery doors. 2018 was a big year for us. We celebrated our 70th birthday and completed the final phase of a £30 million redevelopment project by opening three new galleries. But the whole redevelopment embodied much more than just bricks and mortar. Seeing the reactions of community groups and individuals who had contributed stories and objects for the new displays – sharing their own histories in their own words – was an amazing feeling.
Always respect and recognise community knowledge, and never lose sight of the fact that museum collections belong to everybody. I’m lucky enough to work with a great team of curators who place participation and access at the core of their practice. I like to think of us as enablers and facilitators, not gatekeepers.
Ailsa Purdie, membership co-ordinator, V&A Dundee
Ailsa describes how she went from a member of the museum’s youth collective to a permanent role, and gives her best advice on opening doors in the industry.
I started my full-time role in September, but my association with V&A Dundee started much earlier than that. About a year and a half before the museum opened I became a member of V&A Dundee’s Young People’s Collective (YPC), which is a group of young people from all over Dundee and further afield, who were formed to give a young people’s voice to the opening of the museum. I worked with the YPC all through the opening celebrations and then was offered my full-time role to coincide with the opening of the museum.
I absolutely adore meeting new people and talking about the work the museum does. I am responsible for running the museum’s membership scheme and a huge part of my job is communicating our work to our members. During my time as part of the YPC, we wanted V&A Dundee to be for everyone and this notion has been embedded in V&A Dundee’s ethos right from the very beginning.
Having grown up in Dundee, and seeing the positive changes the museum was making in my city, it felt incredible to have been a tiny part of something so monumental. For me a highlight was witnessing the opening celebrations for the museum. Looking around and seeing how much the museum being here had personally benefited each member of the YPC and then seeing the thousands of people coming through the doors just made me realise how much of an impact museums can make on the lives of those in the community.
Meet as many people as possible and volunteer your time if you can. I first became involved with V&A Dundee as part of the YPC, and through that I was able to have so many experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to have otherwise. I gained experience working in different areas within the museum and always took these opportunities to ask the people I was working with how they got their job and what skills and experience they needed.
People are always much more willing to help you than you might think. Find somebody working in your dream job and ask them how they got to that position and what advice they would offer somebody looking to do the same. The wonderful people I asked for advice are now my colleagues!
The winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2019 was announced on 3 July at a ceremony at the Science Museum, London.
Museum Makers highlights the contributions, careers and expertise of museum professionals nationwide. From marketing to retail, front of house to management, our museum makers reveal what goes on behind the scenes of the UK's cultural institutions.