23 Mar 2015

Five things I’ve learned during my internship at the Museum Collections Centre

This week is my last week as the Cultural Intern here at the Museum Collections Centre! It’s a really emotional time and I can hardly believe how quickly these six months have flown by! 

My internship is part of a scheme run by the University of Birmingham, and I’ve already written about my experiences for the Culture UoB blog, both in my first week and again more recently, but now this amazing experience is coming to an end and Museums Week seems like the perfect time to share some of the secrets I’ve learned about working in a museum store, especially as today’s theme is #SecretsMW!

I feel I’ve had a really unique insight into all of the different people and tasks which are needed to care and manage our collections, conserve them for the future and put them on display. I’ve had a sneak peek of the diverse range of objects which make up all of our fabulous collection. I have worked alongside curators, conservators, collections support officers and volunteers. I better understand the vital role of our facilities and technical teams. I have met so many wonderful people, and I’ll really miss my MCC family. Don’t worry though– you can’t escape me that easily – I’ll be back to visit!

Before working here at the MCC I had some idea of what to expect, but I’ve still learned many things along the way. Here are my top five!

1. Hollywood has got it all wrong!

Ok, this one may seem obvious, but bare with me for a moment…

In the movies and on TV there are two stereotypes associated with museums and those who explore the past – either we are action heros; Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, Night at the Museum, Da Vinci Code, The Mummy, Warehouse 13… the list is endless… or we are fusty recluses hiding from the world and surrounded by the past.

Both are dead wrong, but not necessarily for the reasons you’d think!

The action heroes are all about living dangerously and taking risks. On the surface that appears ridiculous because museums are so safe! That’s not strictly true – there are dangerous aspects to museum work. We deal with heavy objects, sharp objects and fragile objects. We deal with hazardous materials like arsenic, mercury and lead. We have to be aware that objects in our collection contain asbestos. The difference is everything we do is about AVOIDING risk! Using the right equipment and minimising exposure to protect ourselves and the public. This means that museum work isn’t always glamorous! Wearing steel toe cap boots and thick gloves to save our hands from splintery pallets. Masks and lab coats for moving taxidermy. High-vis jackets and walkie-talkies when doing tours. Not quite what Hollywood had in mind! However it means both the objects and the staff have a longer life expectancy than film plots allow for…

Glamorous Josie! Large
I’m sure I look ready to appear in a Hollywood blockbuster!

The image of us being shut away from the world couldn’t be further from the truth either. We do care about the past, but that’s not the raison d'être for museums. Even in a museum store, there’s still a big emphasis on public access and education. Our collections exist to bring the past to life and protect artefacts for the future. Everyone I’ve met is passionate about sharing these collections with as many people as possible. Things which are in store now will be on display in the future, objects which are currently on display may need to be stored at some point in order to allow for conservation or change of exhibition. It’s a dynamic process and an exciting one!

2. Everyone needs to be a jack of all trades…

There are so many different job roles which involve working with museum objects, so of course everyone has their own specialism, but equally it’s important to be willing to get stuck in! The team of museum staff will always be small in comparison to the number of artefacts and so there’s always something to do and physical labour can be just as important as lofty thought.

3. BUT no one can ever learn it all!

There are over 800,000 objects in the Museum Collections Centre and so it would take several lifetimes to learn about them all! Not that I wouldn’t like to try, everything is so fascinating and every item has a story to tell. This is why good documentation is so important – if information collected about each object is entered into the database it’s always there when someone else needs it! The accumulation of knowledge from each generation of staff would be easily lost without this process.

4.  It is almost impossible to predict how long any task will take…

It seems to be a rule with museums work that any task which appears to be simple will have five hidden complications! However some tasks which seem enormous turn out to be surprisingly straightforward, especially with teamwork!

My project to check the documentation of the Bagnall herbarium is a great example. When I began, we had no idea so many of the sheets would require remounting as the straps holding them had become loose with age. This meant many of the specimens taking much longer than planned. Also there were several surprises waiting in the boxes, including uncatalogued sheets (sometimes whole boxes full) and specimens from other collections! At the start of the internship we estimated that I should be able to able to document at least half of the Bagnall herbarium. In reality I’ve fully documented and repaired only 19% of the specimens. Still, over 1,200 herbarium sheets isn’t bad going! Also because I’ve audited every box (123 of them…) we have an idea of where all the problematic things are and the full extent of the collection.

Bagnall Herbarium   All Boxes Large
Here’s what the whole Bagnall herbarium looks like... Please note my lovely labelling!

Bagnall Herbarium   19 Percent Large
…and here are the boxes I’ve fully completed so far, all 16 of them - a whopping 19% of the collection!

5.  It is family!

When I said I would miss my MCC family it’s completely true. Not only are all the staff wonderful; friendly, welcoming and supportive but the museum ‘residents’ start to feel like personal friends too! Everyone has favourite objects and collections – it’s impossible to work so closely with these things every day and not get a bit attached to them. There is a sense of care and belonging which comes from a real passion for working with these objects. I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of the family!

Thank you to everyone I have met and worked with over the last six months, for your advice, encouragement and incredible wealth of knowledge. It’s been an honour and I really do promise to be back again soon!

As well as being a Museum Enabler at Sarehole Mill for the 2015 season, I’m also joining the ranks of Birmingham Museums volunteers to continue working with collections at the MCC! I’m really excited to carry on working on the Bagnall Herbarium project, and I’m even putting on a small exhibition based on my PhD research into Victorian funerary practice, so watch this space! If you are at Sarehole Mill over the summer please do come and say hello too!

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