As my research is so strongly grounded in contemporary museum practise, I thought it would be useful to gain as much practical experience in different museum settings as I could. I therefore opted to do two placements; one at the International Slavery Museum (ISM) in Liverpool, and one with Hull’s Heritage Learning Team. Whilst both very different, I was given fantastic opportunities to see how different aspects of the museum team engage with the topic of antislavery- the main focus of my PhD research. At the ISM I worked with the curatorial team, and at Heritage Learning I worked with a team of heritage educators who work across the museum sites in Hull. I spent three weeks at both placements working on a range of projects.
When I arrived at both of my placements, the first thing that struck me was the team spirit inherent to the organisations. Although both quite small the teams of staff were all very welcoming and clearly committed to delivering the best heritage experiences. The other thing that struck me was the range of projects these small teams are involved in- at the ISM staff are working on contemporary collecting, new exhibitions, and outreach volunteer programmes, whilst at Heritage Learning the team has been designing a new history curriculum for Hull primary schools. Needless to say all the staff are very busy, but such is life, it seems, if you’re a museum professional!
All these exciting projects meant that I got some great hands on experience during both my placements. At the ISM I was asked to review exhibition text for an upcoming exhibition featuring revolutionary posters, as well as transcribe letters from British plantation owners in the 1780s. The transcription was a test of patience though, as the handwriting was quite illegible. Another thing I was asked to do was examine a new package of acquisitions, new objects bought for the museum’s collection. These were a set of thirty Black Panther newspapers, dating from around 1960-1980. I had never seen anything like these before, and it was fascinating being the first person at the museum to be able to read them, check their condition and create a report about their contents. Although fascinating objects, they were also quite challenging- their language and imagery made for some difficult, but also enlightening, reading at times.
While working with Hull’s Heritage Learning team, I was able to be part of creating Hull’s new history curriculum, which will be rolled out to subscribing primary schools across the city in 2017. As part of this I have been researching a wide range of topics, including Hull Fair, the Titanic, and famous rugby player Clive Sullivan, to put together information, teaching ideas and examples of primary material for students learning about the history of the city. I was also asked to review the education programmes at Wilberforce House, based on my personal experiences of other museums and my academic expertise. This was really interesting with my PhD research in mind, to see how far (or not!) interpretations of slavery have come since the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade almost a decade ago.
My placements have reinforced in me that heritage work is exciting and rewarding, if extremely busy at times. It is clear that in both organisations, museums are constantly adapting to this new twenty-first century, with work that is making the past relevant to their audiences, in interesting and engaging ways. No longer purely academic or educational places, museums are striving for inclusive programmes and displays showcasing a wide range of objects, inviting and encouraging visitor discussions across all sorts of topics. Local history and exhibitions relating to contemporary issues are becoming increasingly important to the modern museum, connecting the past firmly to the present in our understanding of the modern world.