28 Sep 2020

A Trainee in Lockdown

I’m Alexis, and I am currently completing a Museum Futures traineeship at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, with the goal of kickstarting a career within the cultural heritage sector. I am working within the Collections Care team which is responsible for the management of the museum’s collection such as conservation, documentation and loans as well as being responsible for the Museum Collections Centre (Birmingham Museum Trust’s offsite storage facility).

I first came across the advertisement of this position in October of 2019, I had recently got back from Italy where I was working over the summer, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to visit the Veneto region often due to my family background and believe this is where my love of art history was established. I have always been inspired at the thought of working in museums or galleries, but without a university degree I believed the idea was a bit of a pipe dream. The opportunity to work for a year as a trainee was a stroke of luck, and hard graft - 1 taster day, job application, and 2 interviews later – I got my chance.

What is the traineeship all about?

The Museum Futures programme is a year-long paid placement, investing in a new generation of diverse museum professionals, in partnership with the British Museum and National Lottery Heritage Fund. 

Museum Futures trainees will: 

  • work towards a Level 3 Cultural Heritage diploma
  • attend monthly training sessions at partner museums across the UK
  • contribute to innovative digital projects to build their skills and make an impact at their museum and within the community

A great thing about doing a traineeship is that you can gain the relevant skills, networking opportunities, and experience with a much more hands-on approach. Something that has pleasantly surprised me is just how transferable the skills I am learning on the job are.

What is my role at Birmingham Museums Trust?

Being a trainee enables me to dip a toe in a variety of projects – I have worked predominantly on the Rapid Digitisation project of Birmingham Museums Trust’s Works on Paper collection, working alongside volunteers, as well as helping to develop the Digital Image Resource website. 

Other projects I was involved in (pre-pandemic) was the organisation of the annual open day at the Museum Collections Centre – this was scheduled to happen in September and would see the public welcomed in to get a glimpse ‘behind the scenes’ of the museum world. Unfortunately, this event has been cancelled due to the ongoing situation.

As I am completing a diploma alongside the placement, I was able to choose assessment units that particularly interested me. This was great, and gave me the opportunity to get involved with conservation too.

Although the digitisation of the collection has been put on a back burner, I have been working on the Artist Research Project. This project works with Birmingham Museum Trust’s brilliant volunteer team whilst we are all working from home to research artist biographies, and to support development of our knowledge of the Birmingham collection. I have the privilege to supervise this project and work directly with the volunteers by reviewing their biography submissions. Helen, our Artist Research volunteer has just written about her research in the blog post: Digital Encounters During Lockdown.

Whilst this allows me to improve my volunteer management skills, it also gives me the chance to learn more about the artists behind Birmingham Museum's vast collection. Photographing artwork to upload on the museum database has granted me access to many artist’s work, but not always the artist themselves. I do feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such beautiful art, and the digitisation of Birmingham Museums artwork on paper has revealed extraordinary pieces – stand out assets for me being Medieval etches (one which even had tiny ink paw prints on the back from centuries past), and private sketchbooks of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The Mill by Edward Burne-Jones

The future?

In a constantly evolving digital world, the most prestigious galleries and museums are making their collections readily available through a screen. Again, this has been a learning curve as I tend to be fairly old school. I would always choose visiting a museum in person instead of a virtual tour, and couldn’t really conceptualise ‘a digital collection’ at the beginning of my traineeship. I remember going to the British Museum for the programme induction in January and being left confused (stressed) after a conference on metadata and digital storage. It feels like a lifetime ago. The global pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of not only preserving our cultural heritage online, but also making it widely accessible across all boundaries. 

It has been fascinating to see the next step of the digitisation process. After the collection is checked, photographed and uploaded to the museum database, the images and story of each asset is made available to the public on the Digital Image Resource website.

I’m not sure about which path is the right one for me, but the Museum Futures programme has been invaluable in developing my professional trajectory. And whilst the traineeship has taken an unexpected turn, (working from home throughout a global pandemic was unforeseen to say the least!) I am still gaining relevant skills. I hope to be back physically in the museum in the near future.

Museum Futures Trainee Alexis, photographing works on paper