With my PhD project focusing on Remploy, a placement with the company itself was a logical choice, if, perhaps, an unusual one. Rather than working with a heritage organisation, I would be working with a now private company to highlight its own heritage. Fortunately, Remploy has proved to be highly supportive of my project and placement, and was keen for me to help them uncover and share the history of the company.
Whereas Remploy now operates as an employment service for disabled people and those with barriers to employment, for much of its existence it operated sheltered factories for disabled employees on behalf of the British government. With the last Remploy Factory having closed in 2013, sharing Remploy’s history as the chief provider of sheltered employment in Britain was the focus of the placement.
In initial meetings with Remploy senior management, it was agreed that my placement should focus on four objectives. Firstly, the creation of a small exhibition of items produced by the company for the reception area of the Remploy Head Office in Leicester. Secondly, the creation of a display board for use in Remploy branches providing a brief history of the company. Thirdly, a history and timeline of the development of the company for the Remploy website, and finally, a more detailed version of this for Remploy to preserve and distribute.
The aim was to share the company’s heritage with current employees and service users and, hopefully, generate wider interest in the history of Remploy. For the majority of the placement I was based in the Leeds Remploy Branch, where I set to work on the various elements.
Designing and creating an exhibition was something completely new to me and I had to learn as I went along, relying on knowledge gained during the training received from the Heritage Consortium. There were a number of practical limitations which had to be considered. The space in the reception area where the exhibition was to be placed would allow for only a single display case with four compartments. Choosing suitable material to ensure that the exhibition provided a meaningful experience was a challenge.
This was made more difficult by the scarcity of suitable objects, many of which I had to source myself. The aim was to display ‘token’ objects made by Remploy which would tell a larger story about the company. These were complemented by framed photographs where objects would not suffice. In addition to this were all the practical elements involved in creating an exhibition, such as sourcing the display cabinet, caption display holders and object stands.
The other objectives involved researching the history of Remploy and then communicating this through a range of mediums to a general audience. Working in the Leeds Remploy branch allowed me to gain feedback on what would work well on a display board. With brevity being a recurrent theme, the challenge in this case was to outline the general development of the company in a few short paragraphs. The history for the website and for the company allowed for more detail, but the importance of presenting the information for a non-specialist audience remained vital.
Towards the end of the placement I spent a week at the Remploy Head Office. The first job was to install the exhibition, which –thanks to some help from some of the staff – was achieved without incident. I was also able to work alongside the design team to finalise the display board and website material, which will be rolled out in the near future.
The placement was a fantastic experience, unlike anything I have done before. It allowed me the opportunity to take ownership of the delivery of a heritage project for a large organisation and highlighted the challenges and benefits of doing so for a private non-heritage company. It has been particularly rewarding to witness first-hand the interest shown in the exhibition and I have already received some positive feedback from Remploy employees. I am excited for the final delivery of the branch display boards and the website material and hope they prove equally interesting and engaging for a wider audience. As a result of the success of the placement, further collaboration with Remploy has been discussed and I hope this is something I can take forward following the completion of the PhD.